Self-esteem in children

Self-esteem is liking yourself, feeling worthwhile, believing in yourself and knowing what you do well.

Self-esteem gives children confidence to:

  • try new things and try again when things don’t go as planned
  • do things that they might not enjoy or normally be good at
  • face challenges rather than avoid them.

When children try new things, face challenges and bounce back, they learn and grow. This is why self-esteem can be an important part of child development.

Warm and loving relationships are the foundation of children’s self-esteem because they make children feel valued and worthwhile. Relationships are built on plenty of responsive, caring interactions with your child. Family rituals are important too, because they build your family relationships and give your child a sense of belonging.

Babies and self-esteem

Newborns and very young babies don’t really have self-esteem. That’s because they don’t yet see themselves as being their own person. But you can still lay the foundations for healthy self-esteem by:

  • caring for your baby gently
  • responding when your baby cries
  • giving plenty of cuddles and smiles.

These warm and responsive interactions tell your baby that they’re loved and lovable.

Toddlers and self-esteem

Toddlers are starting to develop an understanding of themselves, what they can do, and what makes them who they are. Here are ways you can build your toddler’s self-esteem:

  • Let your child decide between safe, toddler-friendly options, like which toy to play with, or whether to have jam or vegemite on their toast. This gives toddlers an exciting sense of control, which helps to develop confidence and a sense of self.
  • Give your child the chance to say ‘no’. Toddlers need to assert themselves and learn that decisions have consequences. For example, if your child says no when you ask them to put a jacket on, that’s OK. Getting cold won’t hurt them.
  • Let your child explore their environment, but be ready to respond if they need you. For example, your child might be fascinated by an ant but frightened when the ant crawls on their foot. Your child needs you to let them know it’s OK.
  • Coach your child through tricky social situations. Toddlers might find it hard to share and take turns because they’re learning who they are and what’s theirs. So you can say, ‘It’s my turn to have the red block now. Great sharing – well done!’

Preschoolers and self-esteem

At this age, preschoolers often like to compare themselves with others, and will ask whether they’re the biggest, fastest or best at whatever they’re doing. You can have a big role in nurturing your child’s self-esteem and helping your child value themselves.

Here are some ideas:

  • Give your child balanced feedback. This is praising your child for giving things a go, doing their best or trying something new – not for being the ‘best’. It encourages them to appreciate other people’s successes too. For example, ‘Well done for racing and giving it your best try – I’m proud of you. Let’s congratulate Sven on winning’.
  • Explain that losing is a part of life. Try asking questions like ‘Did you give it a good try?’ or ‘Did you have fun?’ before you ask ‘Did you win?’ This shows your child that you value them regardless of whether they won or lost – and encourages your child to do the same.
  • Play simple board games or card games together. Turn-taking games like these help your child learn how to play cooperatively and get along with others. This can give your child skills and confidence in social situations.
  • Encourage your child to help you with household chores – for example, setting the table or putting away laundry. This shows your child that you trust them with responsibility, which helps your child feel good about themselves.
  • Show interest in the things that interest your child. For example, you could visit the library to borrow books on your child’s favourite subject. Or spend time together building blocks, doing puzzles, kicking balls – or whatever your child enjoys.

Family meals can be a simple but important way to strengthen a sense of value and belonging for children of all ages. That’s because children can all contribute to a family meal – for example, by setting the table, washing vegetables, tossing a salad and so on. Family meals can also give everyone a chance to talk about things that are important to them.

Primary school-age children and self-esteem

At school, children might compare themselves with their friends and classmates. At this age, self-esteem tends to relate to many things – including how well children learn, how they look, how they do at sport and how easily they make friends.

Challenges at school might seem to dent your child’s self-esteem because your child might feel less capable than others for the first time. But this will help them learn that they don’t need to be perfect at everything to be loved, valued and capable.

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Give extra love and cuddles at the end of the school day.
  • Focus on the effort your child puts in and the courage it takes to try new or difficult things. For example, ‘I know you were worried about dancing in the concert, but you were so brave to give it go’.
  • Encourage your child to try again when things don’t go to plan the first time. You could say, ‘Go on, give it another try – I believe you can do it’. This also builds your child’s resilience.
  • Coach your child through tricky social situations – for example, ‘Try giving a big smile when you want to join in. People will want to play with you if you look happy’. You could try role-playing these situations with your child first.
  • Foster a good relationship between school and home by talking with the teacher to find out how your child is going. It’s also good to get involved in school life if you can, and show interest in your child’s schoolwork and homework.
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