Self-Esteem in Children

Many children struggle with performance anxiety and inadequacies (often unfounded), which are factors associated with poor self-esteem, or a poor self-concept.  A child’s self-esteem can be influenced by factors such as temperament, parenting and parental attitudes to failures and successes, parental self-esteem, teachers, feedback regarding performances and peer relationships.  A parent’s acceptance of self can teach children how to accept changes and imperfections in their own lives.


Becoming aware of identity and the role of the media

Children develop a self-concept from very early on. By three years old children are able to describe and categorise themselves based on concrete constructs. For example, a child will say that they have brown hair, are a boy/girl, or whether they are good or bad.  These children may also be able to describe themselves emotionally – as being happy, sad or cross for example.  Angela Oswalt, a social worker explains in one of her papers that as a child’s long-term memory ability develops they are able to remember situations and experiences, and can define themselves according to their previous experiences – in essence, creating their life story.  As adults we are who we are because of our relationships, experiences and attitudes, and this is the same for children.  While children still think concretely their self-esteem is generally healthy as they define themselves according to observable constructs – “I’m tall” or “my hair is blonde.”  Children are also encouraged to try their best, or keep trying, and while still thinking concretely therefore often believe that they can accomplish various tasks, and be good at something.  As children begin to think more abstractly, they begin to define themselves along more unobservable constructs and in comparison to others (as they start to realise what others are capable of in comparison to their abilities).  They will begin to question whether they can actually accomplish something if they continue to try.

According to Oswalt, temperament also plays a role in a child’s self-esteem.  Children who are more easy-going will be willing to try tasks, and become less frustrated with failures.  However, children with more difficult temperaments will become easily frustrated and will not persevere with tasks, therefore quitting and seeing themselves as failures.  A child’s level of resilience is also noteworthy.  Some children are naturally more resilient and less affected by experiences or traumas than others.  Some children will not take offence if another calls them fat, whereas others will be affected and will dwell on the criticism from their peer.

The media, in particular magazines, newspapers, social media and reality shows (which are in fact generally far from reality) often create an unrealistic view of how people should look, behave and live.  The media places so much emphasis on being thin (for women) or muscular (for men) and doesn’t hesitate to report every pimple, fat roll or bad hair day that Britney Spears has developed.  Then, when these celebrities receive reconstructive surgery, or Botox, the media looks at how beautiful and natural they were before in comparison to how fake they are now. There is no winning, and no pleasing. The assumption is that many of our supposedly perfect celebrities or figureheads portrayed in the media are struggling with poor self-esteem and depression which is often kept hidden.  In the recent years social media has become a source of bullying where hate groups are made and posts are written about other people.  Social media and the associated comments by ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ can cause self-esteem difficulties in children and adolescents.

As children are becoming more aware of themselves and their identity and personality, they will also become aware of others through socialising and through what they see on television or in newspapers.  It is possible, therefore, that children who may be more susceptible to influence from outside will develop uncertainty about themselves and their appearance or achievements because they will be comparing to others, and to standards that are almost impossible to meet.  Children with easier temperaments or parents who effectively role model what is expected will be less likely to be affected by the media and the expectations the media places on the public – even inadvertently.  Children whose parents praise their strengths and achievements will be less likely to have difficulties with self-esteem, even when they fail.


Same-sex modelling or just modelling?

There are varied views about parental role modelling. Some people are of the opinion that a child’s best or most effective role model is the parent of the same sex, while others argue that parents can be effective role models for their children regardless of gender.

A Clinical Psychologist from Johannesburg, Terry Stern (name changed for anonymity) explains that same-sex role models are often important in families.  She explains that boys may present with difficulties if they have absent (emotionally or physically) or dysfunctional fathers in their lives.  These fathers inadvertently model for children the way in which people should be treated, or how to handle conflict.  While single parenting may be the reality for many South African households, Stern explains that there are also cases where single mothers have multiple relationships with different men who are abusive towards the children in the household.  Children, in particular boys, are often then confused or mislead by the example (or lack thereof) that these men are setting for them.  In these cases girl children are also given various messages about worth and how one can expect to be treated.

However, there are also numerous cases where single parents are successful in raising children with healthy self-esteem and an acceptance of themselves and others, without necessarily having a same-sex role model.  According to Australian research there are no differences in emotional and social functioning, and gender role behaviours between children of same sex parents and children of heterosexual parents.  The fact that a child has two moms or two dads (and therefore possibly no same-sex role model within the family unit) does not affect a child’s identity development or self-esteem.

Whether a child has a single parent, same sex parents or heterosexual parents it is important that parents act as role models. They need to treat their spouses, their children, their own parents and others in such a way that children learn effective ways to deal with conflict, criticism, anger and other situations that they may encounter. It is important that parents also model attitudes and behaviours about themselves.  For parents, having a negative self-image, or poor self-esteem can transfer to children feelings of discontent, or raise questions about their own self-image, appearance or personality.


The naked truth

There are many questions about when the appropriate time would be for children to stop seeing you naked, or for them to stop being naked.  Many cultures have different views around nudity too and different ideas around adults and children being naked.  Apart from cultural norms there is no hard and fast rule regarding nudity at home, and when parents should stop letting their children see them naked. The question is rather when it is appropriate to stop expecting your child to feel comfortable being naked in front of you. As soon as a child start’s requesting privacy with regard to nudity, they need to be given this privacy.  They cannot be forced to change in front of their parents if they don’t feel comfortable doing so, and cannot be intruded upon while showering/bathing or changing. If parents are more comfortable with nudity around the house and a child begins to feel uncomfortable there needs to be a space to discuss and negotiate.  There may be situations where a child may still feel comfortable seeing you as parents naked (even when they are not comfortable to be naked), or may be more comfortable in front of one parent than the other.  At some stage girls will likely stop feeling comfortable naked in front of their fathers or brothers, but may still feel comfortable in front of their mothers or sisters.  Boys are generally less conservative than girls, but will still have certain requests for privacy at certain stages. It is thought that each family can decide on what their ‘norms’ will be. Provided that all parties involved are comfortable (and genuinely comfortable) then there is no rule. Children should be made to feel comfortable enough to request privacy should they require it.


Improve your own self-image

So often as adults we place our own feelings of modesty or conservativeness on to our children, expecting them to feel the same way about their nudity.  As we grow older it becomes more difficult to rectify or deal with poor self-esteem. If parents are struggling with self-esteem the following can be helpful to alleviate some of the difficulties that accompany poor self-esteem:

  • Receive psychotherapy or supportive counselling.
  • Receive cognitive behavioural therapy to change thought patterns about yourself, as well as coping mechanisms.
  • Identify triggers or specific situations that make you think poorly about yourself.
  • Keep as physically healthy as possible. Eat well, exercise and get enough sleep.
  • Meditate or pray.
  • Focus on your strengths – find tasks that you’re good at.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others.
  • Set yourself goals.
  • Do volunteer work that makes you feel good.
  • Receive parental guidance in order to obtain assistance in dealing with your child so as not to impose your insecurities and feelings on to them.


A child’s self-esteem is not determined by one factor. There are a large variety of possible factors in the development and maintenance of a healthy self-esteem.  Parents need to ensure that they provide their children with positive feedback and encouragement, and whenever possible to help their children to believe in themselves and to think highly of themselves. In addition, parents need to ensure that they role model positivity and healthy body and personality image in order for children to recognise what is important.

Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine


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