How to Help Children with Low Self-Esteem

Woman's Day
child with sad face
child with sad face

By Linda Rodgers

How to Help Children with Low Self-Esteem

When your child puts himself down, your first instinct may be to blurt out something positive. "It's only natural. We get upset when our kids are upset and we want to make them feel better," says Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking and a licensed psychologist. But bathing your child in feel-good statements doesn't get at the root of the matter. Kids often blame themselves for circumstances that are mostly out of their power-whether it's being the first in the class to hit puberty or the only one who stutters. Your mission: "Get your child off the hot seat and point out what he can control," says Dr. Chansky. Learn how to raise your child's self-esteem when...Photo by Thinkstock

...she's the shortest kid in the class

If your child feels bad about her appearance, ask her what clothes she'd wear if she were taller or how she'd do her hair-and then suggest she start now, recommends Dr. Chansky. Or give her something new to feel good about. For instance, Chevy Weiss's then-nine-year-old daughter was the tallest in her class. Now 12 and 4'11", she's the shortest. All those physical changes in such a short span left her feeling insecure, says Weiss, of Baltimore, MD. Because the tween had a beautiful voice, Weiss encouraged her to audition for a girls' community choir. And now she's a member singing solos, says her mom.
Related: Learn how to raise a confident woman.

Why it works:
Replacing your child's disappointments with something positive can boost her confidence, says Maureen Healy, author of Growing Happy Kids. Or as Weiss puts it: "Despite my daughter's discomfort with her physical attributes, her good voice lets her find something beautiful about her body."

...he's overweight

When Dr. Chansky counsels kids who are sad about being heavy, she tells them to draw a chart of the contributing factors, like genetics, activity level and diet, think of other plus-sized family members and come up with specific changes they can make in their lives. For example, they can snack on carrots and hummus two times a week. Or shoot hoops whenever they need a homework break.

Why it works:
Realizing that genetics plays a role in weight shifts the blame away from your child. Plus, the more specific his goals, the more likely he'll stick to them-and feel accomplished.

...she stutters

Stuttering is a neurologically based disorder, so get professional help. In the meantime, when your child is talking, don't finish her sentences or speak for her when you're out, suggests Joseph Donaher, PhD, a speech therapist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. And instead of making her fluency a barometer for success, applaud her efforts, adds Dr. Donaher. Say: "You worked really hard on that presentation. I'm proud of you," instead of, "That was great! You barely stuttered."

Why it works:
Praising your child's efforts instead of the end result takes the pressure off and helps her feel less self-conscious. She'll realize she can do great things while she's stuttering, says Dr. Donaher.

..he's not a natural athlete

When Victoria Marin's son was in fifth grade, his classmates told him that he was on the basketball team only "to give the good players a break." His Norwood, NJ, mom noticed that her daughter's ballroom-dancing class seemed to improve the students' self-esteem, so she booked a private lesson for her son. After that, he was hooked.

Why it works:
Exercise strengthens kids' bodies, releases feel-good chemicals and gives kids a sense of mastery, says Healy, but your child doesn't have to join a team to reap the benefits. Find a physical outlet he enjoys, whether it's gardening, walking through the woods or jumping on the trampoline, suggests Healy. For Marin's son, who has Asperger's and was bullied at school, dancing helped him learn to communicate with his partner, maintain eye contact and lead her around the dance floor. Those leadership skills paid off: He now speaks at anti-bullying programs-and always dances a cha-cha first.
Related: Discover healthy afternoon snack that keep you full.

...he has a learning disability

Kathleen Bunn's 10-year-old dyslexic son struggles with his self-esteem, so the Tallahassee, FL, mom celebrates Jordan's small victories, like reading a word he'd been sounding out for a long time straight through. If he gets a failing grade despite his best efforts, "I explain to him that his brain makes him see things differently when he reads, so he makes mistakes even though he studies hard," she says. "He can't quit striving for As, but if he tries his best and fails, it's okay." Another strategy: Find something your child is good at, so his feeling of accomplishment trumps feeling like a failure. For Jordan, it's being a whiz at video games (better than all his brothers).

Why it works:
Applauding your child's successes, no matter how small, spurs him to keep trying, says Bunn, who blogs about her sons in Life With 4 Boys. And knowing what he can control (studying hard) and what he can't (how his brain works) helps learning-disabled children focus on the big picture and not on their shortcomings.

...she's shy

The usual advice: Schedule a few playdates, stat. But before that, set up your child for social success with small, gradual steps, says Dr. Chansky. Tell her to say hi or compliment other kids, or join a group conversation, even if she just nods her head and makes eye contact.

Why it works:
Sometimes timid kids isolate themselves unintentionally. When they look away during a conversation, their classmates think they're unfriendly. By interacting with other children, your shy child's learning social skills and, ideally, feeling more included. If it's not working, practice at home: Have her ask a few questions or hold eye contact with you.

...he's nerdy

*Charlie, 12, is passionate about writing, acting and cooking, but those interests don't match his classmates', says his mom, *Sara of Reno, NV. When Charlie feels down, Sara reminds him how creative he is and that "having an artistic soul means feeling things more deeply than the rest of the world-and most kids don't get that," she says. He meets like-minded kids through activities like community plays and specialty camps. Another thing that helps, says Dr. Chansky: Coming up with one-line responses your child can give to bullies. Try, "Hey what's your problem?" or "You want my attention that badly? What for?"
Related: Check out 10 things you should never say to your kids.

Why it works:
Celebrating your child's differences instead of trying to create an ideal kid makes a little one feel great about himself, says Healy. And since each child has his own passions and talents, find activities that make the most of them, which in turn raises his confidence.

*Names have been changed.

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