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How to raise a child with good self-esteem

Researchers say parental warmth is important

Photo (c) David Sacks - Getty Images
Parents play a critical role in helping children construct a positive view of themselves, but studies indicate showering kids with praise may not be the best way to help them build self-esteem.

In a series of articles set to be published in the journal Child Development, researchers explain that self-esteem is cultivated by parental warmth, not inflated praise.

New research on the origins of the self-concept in children shows children who receive warmth from their parents develop high self-esteem, while children whose parents lavish them with inflated praise tend to develop lower self-esteem.

Warmth trumps praise

While it’s natural to want to tell children how smart and talented they are, bestowing large amounts of inflated praise can cause them to become praise-dependent. Too much praise can make kids worry that they may fall short of the standards set for them and resort to cheating.

So how can parents help children like themselves? In short: show an interest in children’s activities and share joy with them. Doing so, researchers say, can make children feel noticed and valued.

How to build self-esteem

Researcher Eddie Brummelman from the University of Amsterdam says parents should avoid giving lots of extremely positive inflated praise, such as “Wow, you did incredibly well!” This kind of praise can lay the foundation for low self-esteem and sometimes even narcissism, he says.

Expressing fondness and affection, on the other hand, can raise self-esteem by teaching children to see themselves as worthy individuals -- not better or worse than anyone else.

To foster healthy self-esteem in children, Dr. Jamie M. Howard, a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute and the director of the Center’s Trauma and Resilience Service, recommends taking the following steps:

  • Model it. Model a healthy attitude about yourself by refraining from making negative statements about your own physical appearance or abilities.

  • Praise kids in a healthy way. Specific praise is more effective than general praise when it comes to cultivating high self-esteem or acknowledging a job well done. Encourage success achieved through effort and hard work.

  • Be okay with failure. Support your child when they experience a setback after taking a risk. Helping children learn how to move forward after a setback can boost both confidence and self-esteem.

  • Encourage critical thinking. Teach children to think critically about any messages they receive that hurt their self-esteem. Are they exaggerations? Impossible standards? Or valid criticism that can help them improve?

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