"My child is convinced she is ugly. She has such a poor opinion of herself. How can I help raise her self-esteem?"

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

Self-esteem is the collection of pictures children carry around of who they are and how they fit in. It is formed early in life. Even though children make these decisions internally, parents have a tremendous influence on the unconscious decisions children form. The way parents communicate, both with words and actions, helps children form healthy or unhealthy decisions about themselves.

Children usually form healthy self-esteem decisions when parents demonstrate that they believe their children are capable by giving them opportunities to experience their capability. They thrive when parents create an environment where children are allowed to contribute, and when they let children influence what happens to them by participating in decision making.

Children usually make unhealthy self-esteem decisions when they think they have to change to be good enough, or when parents do too much for them so they don't experience their capability. As a parent, you may think your children are great just the way they are, but what is more critical is what your children decide is true.


  1. Avoid any kind of name calling. Do not call your children stupid, lazy, irresponsible, or any disrespectful put-down. Focus on solutions instead of blame.
  2. Separate the deed from the do-er. Deal with the behavior, making it clear that you love the child, but you don't like crayon drawings on the wall. Remember that mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow and not character defects in your children.
  3. Listen to your children and take them seriously. They are forming their ideas and opinions. How they think today may be different from how they think tomorrow, but they still need their parent's ear and support. They need validation that their opinions are important.
  4. Stay away from the use of praise. Praise may seem to work when things are going well and the child is succeeding. However, your children may be learning to be approval junkies. This means they believe they are okay only if someone else tells them they are. If you overuse praise, what do you do when your child is failing? That's when he/she needs encouragement the most--some word or gesture that lets him/her know, you're all right!
  5. Do not compare children to each other. Each child is a different, unique person and is valued and belongs just the way he or she is.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Watch out for having overly high expectations for your children or making your love conditional on their behavior.
  2. Hold regular family meetings so children have a place to air their opinions and to be reassured that they belong and are significant. Brainstorm for solutions to problems so they learn that mistakes are opportunities to learn. Plan opportunities for them to contribute and experience their capabilities.
  3. Spend special time with each child alone, reminding him/her of his/her uniqueness and how much you appreciate his/her special qualities. Don't play favorites.
  4. Be sensitive to situations where your children are being put down by siblings, teachers, classmates, friends, and other family members. Talk to your children about their feelings and share yours. Let them know that some of the mean things people say and do are about their own insecurities and have nothing to do with them.
  5. You may choose to remove your child from a classroom if a teacher uses methods that are detrimental to the development of healthy self-esteem. However, there is a fine line between over protectiveness and alertness to a negative environment. Don't try to make everything even, equal, and fair. That gives your children the idea that something is unfair and usually has the opposite effect from what parents wanted.
  6. Don't forget to have fun with your children!

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that they don't have to prove themselves to be loved, and that they are good enough the way they are. Also, they can learn that they are capable of solving problems and making a contribution.

Parenting Pointers

Value the uniqueness of each child. Avoid comparisons and work at finding out who your children are instead of trying to get them to live up to a picture of who you think they should be. The better you like and accept yourself with all your mistakes and shortcomings, the better model you give your children about self acceptance.

Booster Thoughts

There are times when staying positive about teenagers can be a real challenge. In the case of sixteen-year-old Jesse, his family members were all having a hard time for various reasons. His mom was angry because he was flunking out of school. His grandmother was worried about him because he had pierced his ear. His father was upset that he didn't follow through on his commitments, and his stepmother was ready to choke him for leaving his laundry in the washer, dryer, hallway, and car.

Thank goodness for Grandpa! Just when he was needed the most, he came to visit. He watched everyone nag, lecture, and avoid Jesse, and in his Grandpa way he didn't say a word. But out of nowhere, Jesse started finding notes in the strangest places, and they all said the same thing, "Jesse, you're all right!"

There were times when the family would be sitting around the table and Grandpa would look at Jesse and say, "Jesse, guess what?" Jesse would grin from ear to ear and say, "I'm all right?" "Right, and don't forget it."

These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.