What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is a child's overall sense of worth or personal value. It describes the way they feel about themselves. A child is not born with a high or low self-esteem — they have to learn how to feel good about themselves.
It's important to help children develop healthy self-esteem. If children feel good about themselves most of the time, they will be more likely to try new things, make friends and deal with problems they come across in their lives.
To have healthy self-esteem, children need to feel that they:
- are safe and secure
- are loved and accepted
- can do things successfully and be useful
- are independent, unique and special
- are happy
A child's self-esteem is formed by the way they see themselves and also by the way others behave towards them. Thinking about and treating your child in a warm and positive way is very important in helping them to feel good about themselves.
It takes patience and persistence for adults to help their children develop healthy self-esteem, but the outcomes can be very rewarding. Children with high self-esteem will have the confidence to try new things and will believe that they are worthwhile people who can succeed at reaching their goals.
Building children's self-esteem
As soon as babies are born, they begin to learn about the world. It is from these early experiences — from what they see, hear and feel within the family — that they start to develop ideas about themselves. They learn whether they are loved, valued and belong, and whether or not they are 'good enough'.
Young children often value themselves in relation to what they can do, for example, how well they can run, build things or play. The more confident they are in doing things, the more their self-esteem grows. They will also be able to fit in better at playgroup, preschool, and later at school and clubs.
As children grow, they challenge themselves to learn new skills. They use their own internal motivation to do this. Children need to experience both success and failure, as these naturally occur throughout life.
Children who succeed (by themselves or with help) will try again, gaining more successes, satisfaction and high self-esteem. Repeated failure may mean that children lose confidence, give up trying and may develop a low opinion of themselves. Learning to cope well with failures and disappointments can also positively influence children's self-esteem.
It's important to maintain your patience — don't take over, or do things for your child to save time. Your child will soon expect you to continue doing it for them and won't experience the sense of achievement in succeeding at new tasks or activities, all by themselves.
Praise and encourage your child
It's important to help your child to develop self-esteem by encouraging them. Childhood is about learning new things, so it is very important not only to praise your child for completing things they are doing well, but also for achieving small steps along the way. Encourage your child to try again if they do not get it quite right the first time.
Teachers, family and friends should also praise children's achievements and successes — recognise the small successes, and praise the effort your child makes to reach their goals.
Putting children down and criticising them continuously can seriously damage their self-esteem.
Ways to increase your child's self-esteem
Improving your child's confidence will boost their self-esteem. Parents are especially important in building young children's self-esteem.
Here are some practical suggestions:
- Give them your time and show that you are interested in what they are doing.
- Set realistic goals for your child, and encourage them to have a go — praise their efforts and attempts.
- Accept if they make mistakes and celebrate when they improve.
- Encourage their interests and friendships.
- Make sure they feel like they are being heard and that they know you trust them to make age-appropriate decisions for themselves.
- Give them lots of hugs, smile and encourage them, and let them express their feelings back to you.
- Encourage your child to believe they can succeed by breaking down large tasks into smaller steps that they can achieve, and letting them know that they can ask for help if they need it.
Coping with disappointment
Learning positive ways to cope with disappointment when they do not get something right or cannot get their way, is also important for the development of children's self-esteem.
Guiding toddlers and pre-schoolers through difficult emotions can be a challenge, but by learning to cope with their own emotions, they increase their self-esteem.
Confidence at school
When they are at school, show your child that you value them for their individual talents rather than only for their marks. Focus on their strengths.
Find out about what's going on at the school and attend information sessions — this will help you support your child by helping ensure they have what they need at the right time.
Make time to listen to your child about what they are doing at school. If they are being bullied, speak to their teachers or get professional help.
Resources and support
Adults Supporting Kids (ASK) has further information on supporting your child, as well as an online chat service available from 9am to 5pm weekdays.
Kids Helpline has information and services to support children and young people through any problems — big or small. Call them on 1800 55 1800 any time of the day or night, 7 days a week.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: April 2023