“Parents foster self-esteem in many ways including leading by example, being emotionally available, engaging with their children, and providing a loving and supportive environment that allows children to succeed and fail.” — Cheryl Giacomelli, Northern Virginia Community College
One of the greatest gifts that a parent can give a child is a healthy self-esteem. Positive feelings about oneself can lead to success in a gamut of situations ranging from school to social circles, say child development experts.
“Self-esteem plays an important role at all stages of our lives,” said psychologist Stacie B. Isenberg, Psy.D. “As adults, it can affect how one approaches situations and interacts with other people. When self-esteem is low, it may, for example, affect work performance or one's ability to recognize and enjoy accomplishments.”
Parents play an essential part in the development of their child’s self-esteem, advises Cheryl Giacomelli, who teaches psychology at Northern Virginia Community College. “Parents foster self-esteem in many ways including leading by example, being emotionally available, engaging with their children, and providing a loving and supportive environment that allows children to succeed and fail,” she said.
Parents can model this behavior in everyday tasks. “For example, while helping a child with a math assignment and not understanding the math problem, the parent who says ‘I can't believe I don't understand this, I was always terrible at math" is sending a different message than the parent who says, ‘I'm not sure about this one. Let's ask your teacher to explain it to us in a different way,’” said Isenberg. “Parents can benefit themselves and their children by learning to describe situations according to the specific circumstances and resisting putting a generalized label on the situation or their behavior.”
Since children learn by observation, modeling healthy relationships and habits is a vital component of developing a healthy self-esteem, suggests Giacomelli. “Choose an activity once a day in which you are fully engaged with your child,” she said. “This may sound like common sense, however in today’s busy world, it’s sometimes difficult to devote all of your attention to one task. This means playing a game or reading a book and ensuring your cell phone is nowhere in sight.”
“Experiences that may negatively impact the development of a strong sense of self occur when we do not fully engage with our children, when we do not allow our children to fail, and when we do not acknowledge our own faults,” continued Giacomelli
Avoid harsh criticisms and display expressions of love, warmth and affection, advises Joanne Bagshaw, PhD, LCPC, professor of psychology at Montgomery College-Germantown. “Children's self-esteem develops based on how well their parents love them,” she said. “The best thing parents can do is to openly and unconditionally love and accept their child. Parents … can do so verbally, by telling their children often that they love them and by being openly affectionate, with hugs, for example. Parents can also communicate warmth through their tone of voice, and eye contact.”
PRAISING CHILDREN is important, but it must be sincere. Even setbacks can offer opportunities for developing a healthy self-esteem, suggests Isenberg. “Children feel good about themselves when they have received genuine, positive reinforcement from people and situations,” she said. “Praising a child's efforts is one of the best things parents can reinforce, because a child can control his effort, whereas outcome isn't always within one's control.”
One example that Isenberg offers is saying something like, “I'm so proud of how hard you studied for that science test. You spent a lot of time reviewing the material and were really dedicated to being prepared.”
Allowing children to learn to do things on their own and even experience a setback within a supportive environment may increase feelings of confidence and competence, says Jerome Short, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at George Mason University.
“Parents may do too much for children or protect them from failure so that children do not learn to cope with difficult situations and soothe themselves,” he said. “Children should believe that they have worth for being a unique person.”
Fostering opportunities for positive social interaction with their peers can lead to a healthy self-esteem, says Short. “Children who have close friendships and reciprocal sharing with friends tend to have higher self-esteem,” he said. “Children's successful accomplishment of goals also boosts self-esteem.”
Establishing boundaries and setting limits with children can instill a sense of safety and security, advises Short. “Authoritative parenting that is high in support and high in structure and expectations contributes to children's positive sense of self,” he said.
“Even though children may seem resistant to rules, they really do crave consistency and structure, so age-appropriate rules is another way of showing love,” added Bagshaws. “An important aspect of effective discipline is to communicate respect, warmth, and love to your child while setting limits.”