At one time or another most parents ask themselves: “What can I do to help my child feel better about himself…to feel more confident…to view life positively?”
The answer, of course, is not a simple one. Positive self-esteem is a key to happiness and well-being in life. Let’s look at some of the important techniques that can build a feeling of self worth or high self-esteem in our children.
First, check your own feelings of self worth.
Parents must feel secure and good about themselves before they can help their children reach this same goal. Parents with high self-esteem are most successful in creating homes where communication and family routines help children feel loved and important for their own special talents and qualities.
Give each child some undivided attention.
Taking time to focus full attention on your child is a way to say: “I care,” “I have time for you.” It means being with your child both physically and mentally. It means taking some time to be completely absorbed with your child.
Constant, intense involvement is not necessary or realistic. The important thing is to let your child know that he can count on this kind of attention at regular intervals. It may be necessary during especially busy periods to set up a definite time for these get-togethers. Special times of stress (during family moves, when a new baby arrives or upon entering school) often require extra periods of quality time with a child.
Respond to and value each child on the basis of her own personal characteristics…not in comparison to brothers, sisters or classmates. When a child feels that she is accepted and valued for the unique qualities she possesses, her sense of well being grows.
Be realistic in your expectations.
When expectations for a child are based on her age, her particular personality and the current circumstances in which she is operating, she can more easily experience success and enjoy a feeling of accomplishment. Repeated successes make a child feel more valuable and help build her self-esteem.
Be positive and honest with your child.
Whenever possible, comment honestly and positively about what your child has done. Remember to tell him when he has done a good job.
If you feel that you can’t comment honestly, perhaps you can encourage with a general statement such as: “You’ve worked hard today. I appreciate it!”
Keep in mind that positive responses are conveyed not only by words, but by actions as well. Warm smiles, happy hugs, and pats on the back help a child feel valued.
Walk in your child’s shoes.
How we respond to our child and her behavior and how we express our feelings about her are critical factors in building up or tearing down her self image. Parents who learn to react to a situation without being judgmental encourage positive self-esteem. Stop for a moment and consider how you normally respond to your child’s behavior. If your statements frequently begin with “you” it is likely that they include both a reaction to her behavior plus a judgment of her.
If they begin with “I,” you most likely are directing your response to her behavior only. Put yourself in your child’s shoes! How would you feel after hearing each of these statements?
Situation “You” Judgement “I” Reaction Your child’s report card indicates achievement below your expectations. “You’re lazy” “I’m worried about your grades.” A car almost hits your child in the street. “You dope! Don’t you know any better than to play in the street?” “I’m so frustrated. I have repeatedly told you not to play in the street. I’m scared you’ll get hurt.” Your child wins an art contest. “You’re such a good boy.” “I’m so proud of you and yourdrawings because theyshow how carefully youhave been observingnature.”Encourage independence.
Children build self-confidence when they are permitted to participate in or make choices and decisions.
- Show respect for your children by allowing them to make decisions—and then respecting their decisions. Start with simple choices (which color of shirt to wear today). Gradually move to more difficult choices (choosing when to go to bed and when to wake up).
- Let children do for themselves what they are capable of doing safely (helping prepare a snack or meal, putting away laundry—even when you can do those things faster).
- Balance your need to protect with your child’s need to take risks and test her abilities to meet new challenges.
- Try not to rescue your child from difficult situations. Be available, in case you are needed — but resist the urge to step in unless the situation becomes unsafe. When children work through their own problems, their confidence grows.
- Help children learn the skills that will help them be successful in life
- Work hard — knowing that failing is a part of learning.
- Manage anger and conflict
- Manage stress in healthy ways
Pat Tanner Nelson, Ed.D.Extension Family & Human DevelopmentSpecialistptnelson@udel.edu
This issue includes information adapted from University of Missouri Cooperative Extension.
Suggested citation: Nelson, P. T. (Ed) (2012). Family Communication. in Families Matter! A Series for Parents of School-Age Youth. Newark, DE: Cooperative Extension, University of Delaware.REV0712
Should You Pursue Self-Esteem or Self-Compassion?
Source: Photo and artwork courtesy of Denise Roberston
If you want to feel better about yourself, should you try improving your self-esteem or self-compassion? A journal article published on August 3, 2023, “A Narrative Review and Meta-Analysis on Their Links to Psychological Problems and Well-Being,” can help answer that question.
Both self-concepts are assumed to play roles in well-being, which research supports. And both can be seen as relationships with the self.
Self-esteemHistory shows that the concept is complex. The authors, Muris and Otgaar, highlight existing perspectives regarding the function of self-esteem. For example:
- Self-value already exists within and that prompts motivation to meet full potential.
- Self-esteem builds from achieving rewards and avoiding punishments (basically earning it as you go).
- Self-esteem is driven by building our place within our worldview that calms fears about not existing. (Think about “leaving a legacy”).
- Self-esteem evolves as social value is reflected (e.g., signs of social rejection and acceptance from others).
Yet “whether conceiving self-esteem as a vehicle of motivation, a buffer against the fear of death, or a social thermometer, all these functional accounts align with the notion that the construct has a positive nature and hence may promote psychological well-being and protect against mental health problems.” The effects of higher (positive) and low (negative) self-esteem have been well-researched throughout the years.
On a day-to-day basis, many of us likely feel our self-esteem wavers. Yet according to the authors, we can probably relax about variations in self-esteem. There’s a steadiness when viewed over time.
Self-compassionSelf-compassion can be conceptualized as how a person relates to themselves while experiencing personal challenges. Per Neff, the leader of self-compassion science, it’s comprised of three elements (2011). Quotes from selfcompassion.org follow:
- Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.
- Common humanity vs. Isolation. Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.
- Mindfulness vs. Overidentification. Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.
According to Muris and Otgaar’s research, the function is likely complicated. For example, self-compassion may stem from something evolutionary. Compassion for others elicits bonding and survival of the species. Self-reflection allows for self-compassion in times of strife. Also, self-compassion enables people “to effectively cope with such emotional dysregulation, ensuring their full participation in social life.”
Similarities DifferencesSelf-esteem interventions can involve thinking positively about oneself, which can be especially difficult for some people. Self-compassion targets kindness, humanity, and mindfulness. Though also tricky for many, these can be more easily achievable than what can feel like self-praise. A study by Barbau and colleagues (2022) supports that phenomenon.
To me, self-esteem focuses on an intrinsic sense or the results of self-assessment, meaning “my evaluation of my worth as a human being.” And self-compassion seems inherently action-oriented, meaning “I could utilize whatever compassion I have to get through this.”
Finally, one of the two is commonly perceived to hold risk. Concern about attaining “too much” self-esteem and becoming narcissistic exists. However, Muris and Otgaar address this and assure readers that this is not typically a realistic risk.
Self-Esteem Essential Reads
Which is better?In their research, the authors theoretically explored both concepts and analyzed 76 articles. They concluded that “no evidence was obtained to support the claim that self-compassion has more potential as a positive-protective variable than self-esteem.” So it seems that which is better for you might be personal.
- Which appeals to you most
- Which you are more deficient in
- Which is easiest for you
- Which you want more of
Maybe ask yourself how you value or rate yourself. Then ask yourself how much compassion you give to yourself for your weaknesses. This exercise might point to which can serve your well-being the most.
What can I do to increase either?It’s important to know what science says. It’s equally (or perhaps more) important to understand how to bring research and academics into practical reality. That said, Muris and Otgaar’s article provides an informative list of approaches that offer promise, have research behind them, or are considered evidence-based.
For targeting self-esteem:
For targeting self-compassion:
- Compassion-focused therapy
- Mindful self-compassion
- Cognitively based compassion training
Bottom lineInstead of “Which is better, self-esteem or self-compassion?” it might be strongest to ask, “Which is better for me?” If you feel low in either self-compassion or self-esteem, there’s always hope and ways to grow. Try either and see how you feel. Since they seem to build and bounce off each other, start with which appears the most realistically achievable to and for you.
Finally, and on a selfish note, I must introduce self-acceptance here. It’s another self-concept that could someday, I believe, compete with these others in helping people to live the contented, fulfilling lives they want. But at this time, there’s not a lot of scientific research on it. To read more about self-acceptance and how it might boost well-being, please visit my blogs: “For Higher Well-Being, Try Self-Acceptance” and “Poor Self-Esteem? Try Self-Acceptance.”