Self-esteem refers to a person’s beliefs about their own value and worth. In early childhood, having positive self-esteem is critical as children begin to explore the world. They need confidence in themselves in order to explore new things. Self-esteem shapes what decisions we make, the types of activities we try, and how we respond to set-backs. Negative self-esteem is not considered a mental health diagnosis on its own, but is often a factor in anxiety and depression as well as relationship difficulties. On the other hand, when people feel positive about their worth and value, they can navigate challenges in their environments, feel happier and more fulfilled in their lives and relationships.
The deep beliefs we hold about ourselves and our worth, often begin in early childhood. Anyone who has been to therapy as an adult understands that our negative beliefs are much harder to change once we grow up. This is why helping our children develop positive beliefs about themselves is so important from day one.
So how do we support our children to have positive self-esteem? The good news is that there are many ways. We can tell our children we love them and think they are great, but it’s even better when we show them. When we provide a consistent environment that supports and values them, they will feel worthy and loved, and then will internalize this feeling as they grow. Here are four ways to show your child how valuable and worthy they are: Build Security, Encourage Self-Expression, Support Emotional Regulation, Encourage Imaginative Play.
- Build Security
Understand it: In attachment literature, encouraging safety and security early in a child’s life is called helping an infant build a ‘secure base.’ This ‘secure base’ then becomes the landing pad for all future growth, development and exploration of the child. When a child explores the world (through crawling, engaging with objects, etc) they build confidence and self-esteem. You can help your child build self-esteem through providing emotional and physical safety and security to your child so they feel confident to explore the world. When a child feels well cared-for they feel loved and valued.
Put it into practice:
With your infant: Provide a consistent routine for your infant. For infants, this often means a daily “rhythm” or order to the day, so your child can predict what comes next. This predictability creates a sense of safety.
With your little one: Set healthy limits with your child, so they understand you are there to keep them safe and contained.
With your older child: Continue to set consistent limits and boundaries with your child in a calm and confident manner. Show your child you are the strong and confident leader.
2. Encourage Self-expression
Understand It: One of the best things we can do to help children have positive self-esteem is to send the message to them that their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives are valid and important. This makes sense, right? If we show them they are important, they will internalize these feelings of inherent value. We can do this by allowing space for them to express their feelings, and reflecting back that we understand and value their perspective.
Put it into practice:
With your infant: Have a conversation with your infant. When your infant makes sounds and noises, allow space for their voice, pause, and then respond with words to their verbalizations. Studies show this is a great way to help develop language, but it also shows your infant that you are listening and their voice matters.
With your little one: Set limits around negative behaviors without setting limits around a child’s emotions or perspectives. You might say, “I see you are really mad at me for taking away your toy, I cannot allow you to throw it like that.”
With your older child: Let your child know there are many ways to express-ones-self: verbally, writing, drawing, painting, dancing, playing, acting… practice different ways of self-expression together.
Understand it: Children brains are still developing so they lack some of the skills necessary to make sense of emotions and regulate them. As they get older, children learn that emotions don’t last forever. They also learn skills to help themselves feel better when they are upset, they begin to gain more confidence in their abilities leading to positive feelings about themselves and the world around them.
Put it into practice:
With your infant: Label your infant’s emotions and reflect them back so they begin to put feeling words to the emotions they are experiencing. You might say, “You are so mad right now, you didn’t like it when I put you down in your bed.”
With your little one: Allow opportunities for your little one to practice patience. It is hard for young ones to wait. Parents can empathize while offering their child chances to wait patiently. You might say, “I know, it’s so hard to wait while I finish up the dishes. What can you do while I’m finishing up?”
With your older child: When your child is calm, help them practice skills like taking deep-breaths to calm down. Provide encouragement and support when you see them use these skills when they are upset.
4.Encourage Imaginative Play
Understand it: We saved the best one for last! Nothing is better for children’s development than play. Play is a child’s language, and the way they learn and explore the world around them, and what a fun way to learn it is. All of the factors we explored above including building security, encouraging emotional regulation, encouraging self-expression are enhanced and practiced through play, and there are even more things that children get from play. Allowing your child to play on their own and with you supports attachment and positive self-esteem.
Put it into practice:
With your infant: Engage with your infant’s perspective on the world. Lay down with your infant and look at the world from her perspective. Comment on what you notice and ask your infant (even if she cannot speak yet) about what she notices too.
With your little one: Set a timer for yourself, and engage in play for 10 minutes a day. Allow your child to pick the game or activity and do your best to stay present and focus on your child. You’ll be amazed what you can learn from your child if you do this on a consistent basis.
With your older child: Put on a play or a puppet show together. Allow your child to choose characters, costumes and the story.
Some of these may be things you are already doing! If some of these things are new, that’s okay too. There are likely lots of things you are doing to support positive self-esteem in your child. The most important thing is for children to feel loved and cherished. If you send consistent messages of love and affection to your child, they will feel it.
At Slumberkins, we are on a mission to raise resilient, caring, and confident children. We created our Self-Esteem Collection as a tool to build confidence and teach little ones how to say positive things about themselves through interactive affirmations.