Building the self-esteem of our children requires both what ‘to do’ and what ‘NOT to do.’ While not an exhaustive list, perhaps this provides some guidance and direction on how to properly build self-esteem. You, as a parent after all, play a crucial role in developing a strong belief or confidence in your kids.
Teach basic responsibility without reward
First, parents of confident kids, do NOT praise and reward their child for doing essential things of responsibility. Every child as soon as they walk, CAN do ‘chores’ or ‘jobs’. In our household we called it ‘teamwork’.
Teach young kids (ages 2+) to put away their toys and belongings, fold their laundry, pick up trash, and make their bed. If you are balking at me at this moment, then consider I recently witnessed an 18-month-old learning to snowboard. Those are parents are hands-on about properly building and raising a daughter who believes in herself.
As soon as your children are tall enough to reach the washer and dryer, then train them without pay to DO their own laundry start to finish. My kids began doing their own laundry at age 10. And, several times now, my son has taught his fellow college friends how to do their laundry. It is a sad statement when a college aged individual does not know how to clean clothes.
No matter their age, your children can lend a hand and do things to make the household run well. This properly builds their self-esteem. And, since they are living there for free, it is also one way to respect you as the provider and authority figure of the home.
Rather than praising them for a ‘job well done’ and rewarding them with a sticker or money, simply indicate the value of their actions to the ‘team’. This is so key. It trains the brain to NOT need affirmation for basic responsibilities. Feelings do not matter here, properly building their self-esteem does. The benefit of the work to the team is more important than their feelings. In other words, doing the work regardless of feelings is the vital life skill you are teaching. This increases self-sufficiency and lowers their dependence on emotional support.
‘When you put your toys away after you’re done playing, then we can walk on the floor and not worry about breaking them or hurting our toes.’
‘When you clean your room and bathroom, while I am cleaning the kitchen, then we will have more time to go to the park or do something fun today.’
Praising and rewarding kids for doing basic things actually cripples your kids. Your kids learn they should receive adoration for performing these things. You know as an adult, you do not get appreciation every time you clean, do the laundry, cook a meal, and drive to practice. You just DO it. You do NOT want your kids to grow into teenagers and adults who emotionally crumble when the admiration and compliments do not come from a coach, teacher, or potential boss.
Encourage effort and learning over results
Our kids need to understand their value does NOT come from results of their performance but rather giving best effort and learning. Yes, DO acknowledge and affirm their work ethic. Encourage them to keep going and keep studying regardless of the outcome—winning or not, receiving an A or not. Attention to process properly builds their self-esteem since these are the things in your child's control.
Curious, in 25 years as a sports psychology therapist, not one person as asked me if I got straight A’s through school. No one cares if I graduated with honors or secured Championships in my athletic history (which I did). Many times it is the lack of results in performance that lands an athlete in my office and once we get focused on the process, the results come.
Teach your kids to question their thoughts
A large majority of anxiety and depression in our children is fostered by erroneous thinking and making assumptions. Instruct you children to question their thoughts. This teaches critical thinking and properly raises their self-esteem to not just accept the first thing they consider.
Is that really true?
Is that accurate?
Am I assuming a conclusion about what I saw or heard?
Is this assumption correct?
Do I actually know what he or she is thinking?
We all have automatic negative thoughts (ANT’s) and crazy illogical ideas. We must explain that is normal and then equip our kids to question the accuracy of such thoughts. Their ability to correct their own thoughts and speak truth reduces anxiety and depression and increases their confidence and self-esteem.
Be a role model
Children learn from watching your actions and behaviors and seeing if your words match. You demonstrate confidence by speaking positively about yourself, setting goals, taking action, and embracing challenges with stability of emotion.
Our kids study us. Thus, as parents, teachers, and coaches, we must role model the way during difficult times and with difficult people. Every day adversity gives you the opportunity to show youngsters how to be angry yet not be destructive. Loses and difficulties in life provide prime environments to show your negative feelings such as sad, hurt, grief and NOT be controlled by your thoughts and emotions.
If you fly into a rage when someone cuts you off while driving the kids to school, you are allowing your feelings to rule you. If your child makes a mistake costing a position, rank, or play time, and you verbally berate your child, then this is a complete mismanagement of your own thoughts and feelings. Be better and properly show what healthy self-esteem looks like for your athletes.
Teach coping skills
Take advantage of your child’s challenging situations and conditions. Your athlete does NOT gain esteem by simply participating or being told ‘good job.’ They gain esteem when they learn to face trouble, encounter difficult people, and experience negative emotions. Do NOT protect them from this. Do NOT jump teams when it gets hard or there is a tough-minded coach (not talking about abusive coach).
Help you child to embrace and navigate the demanding situation. My son’s youth football coaches, myself included, all commanded high responsibility and effort. They yelled. They pushed the limits of the player's physical capacity.
Around 8 years old, my son began sobbing uncontrollably at the end of practice one night while running gassers. The struggle was real. He did not think he could keep going. But we as coaches demanded he finish. Soon, it was not just tears rolling down his face, the snot was flying from his nose. He was at his physical limit.
This writhing scene cause one mother to run onto the field telling us to stop pushing the kids. I escorted her back to the sideline and told her my son was fine. I told her Josh was learning he can do more than he originally thought he could. This is the gift of sports and tough coaches. We push because we believe in the capability of an athlete. And, many times our belief is greater than what the athlete believes about self. We have to help them believe they can do more and it won’t come easy.
Of course, this environment proper grows self-esteem And it leads to winning. We won 4 city Championships in 5 years in the Frisco Football League during the years Josh played. Those young boys feared us as coaches because we were so demanding. There were disciplined and conditioned. And, they also knew we loved them and stood as their greatest cheerleaders.
DO provide opportunities for your child to solve his or her own problems. You can do this by providing choices for your child while allowing them to figure things out.
Recently, a young 12-year-old athlete arrived in my office with both his parents. I watched this athlete control his parents by his intense fear and discomfort in answering my questions and sharing his sport experiences. He would hide in his mother’s arms, cry, say ‘no’ and refuse to answer questions. Both parents remained calm yet pleaded, begged, and even bribed the youngster to participate in session. Nothing worked.
This was no surprise to me as I watched this unfold. The child trained the parents to support and coddle him when he felt uncomfortable. The parents clearly did not know how to help their son improve his self-esteem by controlling his emotions and appropriately responding to my questions.
Following two sessions of this type of behavior, I gave the parents some homework. I told the parents when this happens at home, give their son a choice ‘sit at the kitchen table until you can choose to talk and then we will have a conversation’ about the issue.
This places a natural consequence for lack of emotional control without condemnation. Think about it. You cannot have a conversation with anyone who is emotional out of control. Self-esteem improves when kids choose to control emotions and have calm dialogue to discuss and resolve.
Within a few weeks, the parents reported transformation. Their son was able to sit and chose to self-regulate his emotions, sometimes quickly and sometimes it took a while. He improved his self-esteem by being uncomfortable, self-regulating, and then talking through important things rather than avoiding them.
Now this young athlete enters my office by himself for sessions without mom or dad. We bring his parent into the session at the end for him to teach what he just learned. This further develops his belief in himself.
Support their interests
Children are more confident when they engage things they enjoy. DO allow them to choose their sport rather than you choosing it for them. Allow them to experiment. One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was exposure to a variety of activities. It helped me learn what I liked and what I did not like.
While I issued a rule to be physical active for my children, I let them decide which sports they wanted to do. My daughter pursued everything from swimming, basketball, to flag-football and triathlons. My son played baseball, golf, and football, and took his stab at basketball. Now he is college football player with an avid disk golf habit.
DO expect times when they complain, find it hard, and may even express a desire to quit. This is normal when they are learning and developing their skills. Refer back to the above questioning thoughts and teaching coping skills. Do NOT let them stop a sport in the middle of a season. Properly building their self-esteem comes through working through the difficulty and honoring their commitment.
Overall, remember, building a child’s self-esteem does not come from rhetoric or shielding them from challenges. Sports provides an incredible environment for this process but so does your home. Do NOT make it easy on them. DO make it appropriately difficult with responsibility, respect, and love. Your children will thank you when they are highly functioning adults with a vigorous self-esteem. Yeah, the affirmation comes back to you but it takes a while.