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  2. Behaviour
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Building self-esteem: babies and children

0-8 years

Children’s sense of themselves changes as they get older. At different ages, they need different kinds of support to build healthy self-esteem.

Babies and self-esteem

Newborns and very young babies don’t see themselves as being their own person. This means they don’t really have self-esteem.

You can still lay the groundwork for healthy self-esteem by:

  • caring for your baby gently
  • responding when your baby cries
  • giving lots of cuddles and smiles.

All of this tells your baby that she is loved and lovable.

Self-esteem is about liking yourself and who you are. For children, it comes from knowing that you’re loved and that you belong to a family that values you. You can read more about children’s self-esteem.

Toddlers and self-esteem

Toddlers are beginning to develop an understanding of themselves, what they can do and what makes them who they are.

Your toddler wants to make more decisions – and it’s a good idea to let him have a go at deciding between safe, toddler-friendly options, like which toy to play with or which hat to wear. As they learn, toddlers realise that they have the power to make things happen, which adds to their developing self-esteem.

But children at this age still see themselves through your eyes, so you have a very important role to play in building your toddler’s self-esteem. Here are some ideas:

  • Let your child explore her environment but be present and ready to respond to her if she needs you. For example, your child might like stacking blocks but get a fright when they fall down. She needs you to let her know it’s OK.
  • Let your toddler make reasonable decisions – for example, whether to have jam or vegemite on toast. This gives toddlers an exciting sense of control, which helps to develop confidence and a sense of self.
  • Give your child the chance to say ‘no’. Toddlers need to assert themselves. For example, if your child says no when you ask him to put a jacket on, that’s OK. Getting cold won’t hurt him. Your child is learning to make decisions and might often practise by saying ‘no’, even if he actually wants what you’re offering.
  • Coach your child through tricky social situations. Toddlers might find it hard to share and take turns because they’re learning who they are and what’s theirs. So you can say, ‘It’s my turn to have the red block now. Great sharing – well done!’.
Toddlers learn about themselves by discovering what they look like – for example, mirrors provide hours of fun. They’re also discovering what they can do, and ‘I do it’ is often a favourite expression. And they’re working out where they belong, often by seeking out their loved ones for comfort and reassurance.

Preschoolers and self-esteem

By around three years, most children realise that their bodies and minds belong to them. Most children can cope with some time away from their families by now, because they feel safe and loved. At this age, they often like to compare themselves with others, and will ask whether they’re the biggest, fastest or best at whatever they’re doing.

Balanced feedback is a good way to respond. For example, you can say:

  • ‘I think you’re the best four-year-old painter I know!’
  • ‘Alex is a faster runner than you, but you’re better at catching a ball.’

This lets children feel pride in themselves, but sends the message that other people are important and can do things well too.

Primary school-age children and self-esteem

At school, children might compare themselves with their friends and classmates. This can put a dent in their self-esteem. They might feel less capable than others for the first time. New rules and learning new things can be a challenge for some children.

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Give extra love and cuddles at the end of the school day.
  • Focus on your child’s strengths and the effort she puts in. Praise your child for what she’s good at, and let her know you’re proud of her for trying things she finds difficult.
  • Teach your child about fair play. He needs chances to win and lose.
  • Coach your child through tricky social situations – for example, ‘Try giving a big smile when you want to join in. People will want to play with you if you look happy’. You could try role-playing these situations with your child first.
  • Give your child the chance to try new activities and learn new things.
  • Foster a good relationship between school and home by talking with the teacher to find out how your child is going. It’s also good to get involved in school life if you can, and show interest in your child’s schoolwork and homework.
  • Watch out for the signs of learning problems, and bullying or other social difficulties that can affect your child’s self-esteem.
At primary school, self-esteem tends to relate to many things – including how well children learn, how they look, how they do at sport and how easily they make friends.

Looking after your own self-esteem

When it comes to your wellbeing, keep in mind that children learn a lot about self-esteem by watching their parents. Here are some tips for boosting your own self-esteem – and modelling good self-esteem for your children at the same time:

  • Take pride in your achievements, and talk about the things you’re good at. For example, ‘I cooked a great risotto tonight’.
  • Show your child how to handle failure in a healthy way. For example, if the risotto didn’t turn out well, one response might be ‘I am a hopeless cook’. But a healthier response is ‘That’s a shame – something went wrong this time. I’ll try again next week’.
  • Use positive self-talk, and avoid criticising yourself in front of your children. For example, ‘Exercise isn’t my favourite thing, but it’s good for my body to go for a walk – so here I go!’.
  • Look after yourself. Do some things that are fun. For example, learn something new, take a relaxing bubble bath, play sport, read a book, go for a walk or listen to music.
  • Spend some time with friends who are positive and support you.
  • Make regular time to be together with those close to you.

If a health issue is affecting your self-esteem, it’s a good idea to talk to your GP.

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Last updated or reviewed
07-07-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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