How to Assess Your Child’s Self-esteem by Julie Hanks

Published on Topic: Parenting

How can you assess your child's self-esteem? What's normal and when should you worry?This blog post is shared by Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW, our SheByShe  marriage and parenting expert. You can find more from Julie here.

Self-esteem is a popular construct used to describe our inner experiences, specifically how we define ourselves and how we evaluate ourselves.  Cultivating self definition and accurate self-evaluation is an important aspect of child development.  Parents sometimes worry about their child’s self esteem and wonder how they can help.  Here are some signs of healthy self-esteem, some examples of when you should be concerned about your child's self-esteem, and how you can help him/her develop self-esteem.

Hallmarks of healthy self-esteem in children and teens:

Competence is possessing skills to face life challenges appropriate to a child’s developmental stage.  Key competencies for children to develop are basic social skills, such as getting along with peers and working out disagreements, and new activities like to learning how to read or throw a football. For adolescents, competence includes having the social abilities necessary to navigate the complexities of dating relationships. and the development of study habits to succeed in school.

Confidence is belief in one's self, one's abilities, and in one's experience. A confident person feels assured that he/she is valuable and capable. Confidence also means being open to new experiences and being willing to risk looking silly.  For example, my 8-year-old son went skiing for the first time last month. While he was a bit nervous, after only an hour he was skiing without the constant help of my husband. After a few hours, he was skiing on his own and enjoying himself.  Although he had never been skiing before, his confidence allowed him to try something new without fear of failure. 

Connection is the ability to feel close to family and friends, to give and receive affection, to share thoughts and emotions, and to seek comfort and help when distressed.  Connection means you are able to feel and express empathy for other people.  In my therapy practice, I have seen hundreds of children and adolescents who  appear exceptional on the outside - straight A's, leaders at school, beautiful, athletic, but who are feeling worthless inside. Parents are often baffled by their child's internal pain because they "seem fine" and "have so much going for them". What many of these parents fail to realize is their child's need for a genuine emotional connection and for their need to openly to communicate by saying things like, "I don't want to play this sport", or "Dad, it hurts me when you yell at me", not just praise for their outstanding performance.

Coping skills are the ability to handle a variety of situations and emotions and to accept and learn from mistakes without self-doubt, self-loathing, and excessive guilt. It's also the ability to experience a full range of emotions, find healthy expression of emotions, and to and bounce back from disappointments, and to take responsibility for choices without blaming others.

When should you worry about your child's self-esteem?

1) Excessive focus on performance

In an effort to build self-esteem, it's common for parents to push a child to excel, whether in academics, sports, music, or other activities, or to notice and praise a particular personality trait.  If your son's self-definition is based on being a star baseball player, what happens if he doesn't make the high school team? If your daughter labels herself as "the smart one" and gets a C in chemistry, it may shake her self-esteem. If your child self identifies himself as "the nice kid", and then feels intense anger, he may deny the anger instead of learning from it and finding a healthy ways to express it. 

In my therapy clinic, I've worked with several high school athletes who’ve sufered physical injuries and/ or mental health challenges. One client, a competitive high school runner, felt completely lost and worthless after she was laid up from a physical injury.  This young woman didn’t know what to do with her time, as she had lost their main social circle and her sense of purpose.  She developed severe depression  as a result of her feelings of loss and disappointment.

How to help - Encourage your child to broaden their self-definition

Avoid being overly critical or demanding perfect performance from your child. Notice intangible qualities and character traits, such as patience or expressiveness, and encourage the development of many varied interests and activities. Give your child opportunities to serve others and connect to larger social groups like family, neighbors, and community members in need.

A few years ago, my brother, mother, and sister-in-law took their large family to Peru to volunteer to work in orphanages. Witnessing the extreme poverty, and seeing so many children who were desperate for physical love and attention broadened the children’'s view of the world and of their capacity to serve.  My nieces and nephews realized what a difference very small acts of kindness, like giving a hug or playing a game, can make. They felt good about themselves and gained a greater sense of appreciative for their family, their opportunities, and their resources.

2) Negativity toward self or others

While an occasional self-disparaging comment every now and then can be normal and is probably harmless, a child or teen exhibiting a recurring pattern of negative comments about him or herself is cause for concern. Examples of negative self-statements are "I'm so stupid" or "No one likes me", "I'm such a loser".

Your child may not always share negative self-thoughts with you, so watch for behavioral evidence of them.  This may include neglecting hygiene, underperforming in school, being unwilling to try things that might make him/her look foolish, or withdrawing from social activities.  Excessive blaming of others, put downs, physical aggression, and treating others poorly can also be signs of low self-esteem.

How to help - Listen and empathize before offering guidance or advice.

Parents’ gut response to hearing their child's negative self-talk is often to counter it with evidence to the contrary - to convince their child that they should think more positively about themselves. "You are not dumb! Why would you say that?" or "What do you mean you don't have any friends? You were invited to so many birthday parties over the past year I can't even count them."  Don't underestimate the power of hearing your child out.  Instead of dismissing his/ her words, you might say something like, "Ouch, that's got to feel pretty bad to have no friends" or simply, "Tell me more." One of the best gifts you can give to your child is the skills to identify and express his/her thoughts and feelings in a productive and connecting way.  

I recently counseled a couple with concerns about their 13-year-old daughter's self-esteem. She was having difficulty finding her identity and fitting in with her peers, and they were at a loss as how to help.  We discussed how their own emotional health and management could affect their daughter. The parents are working on identifying their own feelings and needs in therapy to provide a healthy model for their child. They have consciously practiced listening to and validating their daughter's feelings of fear, sadness, and loneliness.  Additionally, they’ve set up a structure for her to earn things that were important to her -- like getting a cell phone-which gave her a sense of control and competence. They also worked on praising her academic and social efforts.  Because her parents have made these changes, the girl has begun to feel heard and is making significant progress in improving her self-esteem. 

3) Fear of trying new things

Children with low self-esteem have difficulty taking risks and tend to give up easily when a task gets difficult. They also tend to avoid activities in which they may not be naturally gifted or competent.

How to help - Praise your child's effort with specific, sincere feedback. Avoid combining praise with expressions of love.

Many parents believe that constantly praising their child builds self-esteem. Not so. Lavishing general praise such as "you're smart" can actually backfire and lower a child's motivation, esteem, and willingness to try new things.  In their book, Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman draw on research from Psychologist Carol Dweck who explained that emphasizing a child’s effort focuses on the factor that your child can control.

It's also important to separate praise and expressions of love. The message "You're so pretty and I love you" can actually create anxiety because the implicit message is "If you aren't pretty, I won't love you anymore."

4) Too clingy or overly independent

A child exhibiting behavior that he/she is too old for indicates self-esteem problems.  For example, a two year old clinging to his mother at preschool is normal, but a sixth grader having difficulty leaving her mother's side is cause for concern. Conversely, self-esteem problems may cause young children to act in ways that wouldn’t usually be expected until they are older.  While it's developmentally normal for an adolescent not to share some of her emotions her a parent, if an elementary school child is distant and never able to ask for help or comfort, there may be a problem. 

Many parents assume that independence is always sign of high self-worth, but that is not always the case..  A client of mine grew up with an alcoholic, physically abusive father and a submissive, depressed mom.  She learned at an early age not to express any anger, sadness, or emotional needs so as to keep her dad from getting upset.  She also took on household chores and other responsibilities so her mother wouldn't feel overwhelmed. This is an example of unhealthy independence. It's not age appropriate for an elementary school child to protect her mother, parent her siblings, and shut down her own feelings. What my client needed from her parents was for them to protect her; she needed her mom to stand up to her husband and require him to get treatment or leave, and she needed her father to take responsibility for his alcohol addiction and physical abuse of the family by getting help. 

How to help - Help your child develop healthy dependency - a combination of closeness and independence. 

This is a balance between being able to venture out and explore new people and new activities while still being able to be close to their parents, share vulnerable feelings, and to send clear signals when they need help. When children feel secure in family relationships they feel more confident to embrace new experiences. Send your child the message, "I believe in you! You can do this, and I am here for you if you really need me."

Nothing is more powerful than what you model to your child. Ask yourself what you are modeling to your child in terms of self-esteem. How you feel about yourself, and how well you balance your own need for independence and for connection in your relationships is the most powerful way to improve your child.