Build Your Children’s Self-Esteem: 12 Healthy Tricks to Have Up Your Sleeve

Your children won't be able to do everything, but you can teach them to try anything.

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Compliment the effort, not the outcome

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Verbal encouragement can keep your children motivated and help them recognize their accomplishments. But when you’re dishing out praise, focus on the effort your kids put into their successes, rather than the end result. That way, your kids can keep their self-esteem strong, even when they don't hit the mark, says Debra Kissen, PhD, MHSA, clinical director of Light on Anxiety Treatment Center. “We have a lot more control over working hard and continuing to try and persevere than if we win or not,” she says. “If we only get compliments when we win, which is often out of our control, it’s easy to lose momentum.” Instead of just congratulating your kids on an A+, compliment the hard work they put into preparing, and encourage them to use those same study skills in the future. Don't miss these homework-help secrets your child's teacher wishes you knew.

Remember they’re learning

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Children are born knowing nothing, and they need to collect clues to figure out how the world works. There’s a lot of trial and error in that process, so be patient with your kids while they learn tasks and safety rules that seem like common sense, like tying their shoes or avoiding hot ovens, says Maureen Healy, author of Growing Happy Kids and owner of a mentoring program for highly sensitive children. “People don’t get the message that you’re loved regardless, and the answer’s no. They just say no,” she says. “You’re not necessarily getting the distinction between ‘you’re a beautiful human being’ and hearing a lot of what you’re not doing correctly.” Remind your children you adore them so they don’t lose self-esteem while you gently explain why their actions are wrong or unsafe. Start with these ways to say "I love you" without words.

Help them embrace failure

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Teach your kids that failure is often a necessary step to finding success, and letdowns shouldn’t hold them back from trying again. If they fall short, find an opportunity to learn and grow. “It’s all about choices,” says Healy. “How do we make that next best choice to recover from failure?” Instead of yelling at your children for bad grades, for instance, have a conversation about how they can improve next time. Perhaps they should get a tutor, or you should adjust your expectations for them. Plus, teach your kids these ways to stop the damage of negative self talk.

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Teach your children new skills

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“Every time you do something new, you realize, ‘Wow, I can handle that, and it’s in my power to succeed at it,’” says Kissen. “Every day is a moment to show what you’re capable of.” Look for little opportunities to guide your children through the next steps on the learning curve. Let them hand the cashier money at the ice cream shop, or teach them how to do a load of laundry to boost their self-esteem as they hit new milestones.

Encourage your kids to take risks

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Telling your children they’re wonderful won’t mean anything if they haven’t felt the pride of persevering. “You could try to convince yourself you’re smart and likeable, but if it doesn’t feel authentic to yourself, it will fall short,” says Kissen. By encouraging your children to take chances and learn through those experiences, they’ll see the progress they make—and their brains will catch on to the fact that they deserve high self-esteem. Share these quotes that inspire success with your kids.

Introduce them to mentors

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Encourage your children to find a trusted adult, like a teacher or coach, who can boost their self-esteem in ways you can’t. Your kids might be afraid to bring up problems that they are ashamed of or think will disappoint you. In those cases, a mentor can step in to provide an adult’s perspective. “Parents are so involved in the day-to-day stuff that it’s hard to give 100 percent of their resources to emotional support of their children,” says Healy. “That’s good and needs to happen, but if they need a soft place to land, it’s good to have someone on their team who’s not judging them.” Always be there for your child, but recognize that sometimes your kids need someone who’s more distanced from their home life. Here's how to stop being so judgmental.

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Set realistic expectations

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You know nobody’s perfect, but it’s still easy to be disappointed when your kids don’t get the grade you were expecting. Help your children learn from their mistakes to boost their future scores, but make it clear that you love them, whether they get straight A’s or not. If your kids feel too much pressure from you, they could end up overwhelmed. “It’s creating that air of perfection or bust,” says Kissen. “Especially for some kids that are naturally more hard on themselves, that can be very toxic.” Are you too much of a perfectionist?

Be careful with your word choice

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When they make a mistake, kids can be extra sensitive to little jabs like being called wimpy. “There are words people say over and over again and are just cringe-worthy,” says Healy. “Children take everything we say so deeply, and the things people say offhand, they use those to create their world. All of a sudden they’re not good enough.” Carefully consider how your words could affect your children's self-esteem, especially when they’re trying to recover from a mistake. Hold back your disappointment, and help your kids understand that failure doesn’t reflect on their worthiness or affect your love for them. Here's how successful people criticize without offending.

Help your kids find their niches

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Your children might not be soccer stars, but encourage them to try different activities until they find one they thrive in, whether it’s gymnastics, art class, or a chorale group. Some kids will be excited to try new activities, but if your children are hesitant, don’t just take no for an answer. Even if they think they’ll fail, they won’t know until they try. “Give gentle, supportive pushes, little nudges forward,” says Kissen. “It’s a balancing act with respecting your child but knowing they don’t often know what they truly won’t enjoy.” They could surprise themselves by succeeding, boosting their self-esteem even more than an easy task would.

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Keep your kids fit

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“Being active is good for the brain and getting feel-good sensations throughout the body,” says Kissen. Make sure your kids participate in some sort of physical fitness so they can get mental health benefits. Are your unathletic kids miserable during team sports? Encourage them to sign up for a walking club, dance class, or yoga group. Check out these other benefits of a 15-minute walk.

Be a good role model

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Children are watching you more closely than you might think. “They imprint what we do, whether it’s what we say in words or how we take care of ourselves,” says Healy. “Helping children build self-esteem really helps with your self-esteem.” If you take good care of yourself physically and radiate confidence, your kids will naturally pick up on those same self-loving habits.

Try role-playing

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If classmates are bringing down your kids’ self-esteem with harsh words, engage your children in role-playing activities to practice how to respond when getting picked on. Bullies typically won’t target kids who they think will stand up for themselves, says Healy. “Being a strong and sensitive being takes effort and building some skills,” she says. Watch out for these silent signs your child is being bullied.


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