Fostering Self-Esteem in Children

Children with positive self-esteem generally hold an optimistic outlook on life and are more resilient to challenges. How does self-esteem change as a child grows, and what can parents do to help their kids develop healthy self-esteem?

Dr. Sean Akers, a pediatric psychologist with Children’s Behavioral Health at Children’s Nebraska, offers advice on helping your child develop a healthy sense of self-esteem.

Topic Breakdown

01:04 – The age that children become self-aware
03:17 – How children develop self-esteem
05:09 – Impact of parents on self-esteem with their children
08:46 – Building a positive self-esteem in the social media era
13:50 – Words to use when it comes to self-esteem
16:14 – Self-esteem and failure


Gina Melton: You know, if you’re like me, you have lots of questions when it comes to your kids. I think if only parenting came with a step-by-step book, wouldn’t that be great, but of course it doesn’t. And now that I have a teen in my house, social media is a thing for us, and that brings into play anxiety, self-esteem and that’s just one of the topics that we’re going to go over today with our expert.

I’m Gina Melton with the Just Kids Health Podcast from Children’s Hospital & Medical Center. Join me as I talk with the region’s pediatric experts about everything related to children’s health — from medical issues, to mental health, all to keep your children healthy, safe, and strong. Isn’t that what we all want? So just sit back and listen, or you can multitask, like I always do.

Now today, we’re going to welcome pediatric psychologist, Dr. Sean Akers with the Children’s Behavioral Health, to discuss kids, adolescents, and self-esteem. Welcome today. Good to see you.

Dr. Sean Akers: Thank you. Appreciate you having me today.

The age that children become self-aware

Melton: You bet. Now I think there are all stages here of life from toddlers up to, I have a teenager in my house that this could apply to, but at what age does a child become self-aware, I guess?

Dr. Akers: You know, that’s a good question. It’s a difficult question because it’s really a developmental process over time, and it’s not something where we expect to — like, walking, usually occurs right around, you know, age one. Being self-aware is something that is a gradual process that occurs over time. And I mean, there’s some adults that I consider not particularly self-aware. So we, you know, we have to sort of put it into context a little bit.

Gina: Sure.

Dr. Akers: When we talk about being self-aware, I really think about it as being aware of our own thoughts and our feelings and our behaviors and our impact on others and in the world. So, as I think about children, I think about that middle elementary school kind of kid, where they are typically playing with everybody and they’re open and it’s not — they’re not as aware of the social stuff that’s going on in the world, but when do they become more aware of that?

And we think about kind of that late elementary school, middle school — one of my daughters is a sixth grade teacher and you think about those 11, 12 year olds when they start breaking up into groups and they start being able to see their differences between themselves and other people and how that relates to the more wide world. And that’s where I really see some of that awareness coming in.

Gina: That’s interesting. Kind of like the cliques and things like that, that, you know, that I saw in high school and things.

Dr. Akers: Yeah, exactly. Now then the last part of that process is when people start becoming more aware, not only of their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, but that other people have thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may be different from themselves, and that’s again a little bit more later down the line because, you know, as kids, there’s a part, younger kids, they start thinking that everybody feels, must feel the way I feel. You know, they’re just sort of self-centered in that respect. And so it is a developmental process that happens over time.

How children develop self-esteem

Gina: Well, Dr. Akers, how do children develop self-esteem? You know, how does that come about?

Dr. Akers: It’s another really good question. And I was thinking, you know, when you did the introduction that if there was a manual, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Gina: Wouldn’t that be great? I know that’s what I was thinking. Could you come up with one of those?

Dr. Akers: Yeah, the 20-page manual that would fix everything. And so one of the things I’m always going to go back to on this though, is to always remember early development. That when babies are born, what’s really important is that they’re born into an environment that’s safe and secure and loving and nurturing, because that sets the stage for everything.

Now, you know, we don’t remember our infancy but that’s so important to developing everything else later that we, you know, taking good care of our babies, getting their needs met, their physical needs met, their emotional needs met is so critically important. And you know, we don’t necessarily immediately associate that with self-esteem, but that sets the stage for things so much.

Then beyond that, it’s allowing them to gain skills. So, you know, think of even toddlers as they’re learning how to roll over and crawl and then walk and run. They’re gaining skills as they grow older and they’re gaining skills sometimes daily. And then as we do that, one thing about self-esteem is learning competence. They’re learning skills and then they’re learning to be good at them, you know?

And I remember my kids, all my kids are adults now. I remember when they ran everywhere, right. And they know when they learned to run and then, you know, you’re going through the house and they just have to go to the kitchen, to their bedroom and they’re running because that’s just their … That’s what brings them joy and they’re good at it and that makes it fun for them.

Gina: Absolutely. And now as an adult, I feel like that all the time. I’m just running here and running there, right?

Well, as parents, how do we kind of affect our child’s self-esteem, and how can we kind of help with that? I mean, you know, hearing like, should we be telling our kids, “you’re beautiful,” or, “you’re so smart”?

Dr. Akers: Yeah. So with this I think I’m going to first be a little bit more broad. So how do we affect…dirst off, we affect in our genetics. I mean, our biology has passed on.

Every kid is different. You know, I have three kids and all three of my kids are different. They have different temperaments, different personalities. They approach the world a little bit differently. And there’s no judgment there, but some are a little slow to warm up and they take the world a little bit slower and they want to get their bearings. And other kids are more extroverted and outgoing, and they, you know, they’re … And other kids are fearless and they just want to try everything and go everywhere. And I think it’s important to understand that’s why there’s no manual, right? There’s no …

Gina: Right.

Dr. Akers: Because we have to take into account their temperaments and their personality as well as their biology and then their environment. So as parents, we affect it by the biology, we affect it by the environment that we provide, we affect it by what limits and guidelines are we going to set on our kids as they get younger, or as they, from their young, as they get older.

And then what kind of feedback do we give them? So you know, it’s really important. Like I have a family member who wanted to do things in high school, but their parents felt that some of those activities were dangerous. So, “Oh,r cheerleading is dangerous, so I don’t want you to do that.”

Gina: Right.

Impact of parents on self-esteem with their children

Dr. Akers: So they weren’t able to try out for some of the things that they wanted to do, even though they wanted to. So, you know, we affect our kids that way, in terms of what choices and boundaries we allow them.

Gina: That’s interesting that you say that ‘cause with my son Parker, I wouldn’t let him play football until he got into high school and he was so mad at me. He’s like, “Mom, you know, I’m so far behind now that you wouldn’t let me do that.” I’m like, “Yeah, but you know what? Your safety is really important too.” So, and that’s just my personal opinion, but it 00 that is kind of interesting.

And the other thing that you said that really resonated with me is I have two boys and they could not be more different, you know. I mean, they are just, they could not be more different in their ways. And I love each of them for, you know, who they are. And I also deal with them differently. You’re right about that.

Dr. Akers: I bet you have to approach them a little bit differently.

Gina: Yeah, really I do, ‘cause they’re just completely different kids, but that makes things interesting.

Dr. Akers: But then, you- — interestingly, they’re going to bring up, “Well, you treat them differently,” or use you, you know, “Why don’t they have the same guidelines as I do?” And that again creates sometimes a little bit of a different sort of dynamic that goes on because our kids’ personalities are different.

Gina: And the whole building self-esteem with our kids that, you know, that whole thing is just — sometimes I feel like there’s a line there that I don’t … I’m not sure where that line is like really, should I be, you know, sometimes I think, “Oh, every kid should have an award and I want my kid to have an award.” But that’s not really how the world works. So are we setting them up for failure by doing that?

Dr. Akers: You know and that goes into some of the other thoughts that I had later on is, how do we give them feedback? You know, what is the best way to give them feedback? And when I was raised in the 1970s is very different now of getting a, you know, trophy on everything we do or, you know, do we over-praise kids versus under praise. And I think those are valid arguments.

Building a positive self-esteem in the social media era

Gina: Yeah. Now social media — now that my son is in high school, I worry about that. I’m on social media and it can be difficult to navigate. So how can you build positive self-esteem in the social media era?

Dr. Akers: You know, the research is a little mixed on that. But when I take a step back from social media, think about this, the internet at large, right? The internet in general. If we give our kids unlimited access to the internet, that’s a scary place for a lot of people, for a lot of kids, especially.

Now, the thing that I have to … My default is always be careful about avoiding things because social media is everywhere, right? It’s the reality of our life and so I don’t usually advocate just never allow our kids to do social media. So avoiding it. But there are different ways of approaching social media that I think that, you know, I would always advocate and I try to use with my own kids. And one of them is remembering that social media — in general, people use it to highlight their life.

Gina: That’s true. Only the best, right?

Dr. Akers: It’s the best, right and one of-

Gina: The best of the best.

Dr. Akers: One of my friends is in Hawaii right now, and Hawaii right now versus the weather that we’re having, you know, looks really good.

Gina: That’s for sure.

Dr. Akers: I really wish that I was … I’m envious of my friend in Hawaii right now. But you know, remembering that people don’t generally post things on social media that is, “Oh, I just had an argument with my kid” or something like that. You know, they’re highlighting their life. And so it’s important to keep that in mind.

Gina: Right. I know I do that on social media. You know, I’m on social media a lot for the radio station and I think about that, like, should I be putting up some stuff that’s, you know, that’s not the highlight of my life, but I think people don’t want to see my crazy hair in the morning. I think it’s … Have you heard of this Dove campaign that they had, this real beauty research that, you know, teen girls just want their parents to kind of communicate better with them. And this includes frequent open and honest conversations and things like that. I think that that’s really neat and I think our kids are looking for that honesty. Do you agree with that?

Dr. Akers: I do. You know, there’s — I think sometimes a misnomer that our kids, as they get older, want less contact with us. And that we should let them, you know, sort of give them — certainly we give them more independence as they’re into teenage years, but I think what’s true is that they actually really still need that contact and that open communication and the ability to talk to us.

Gina: So I want to circle back to the social media thing ‘cause I think, you know, as a parent, again, that’s critical for me right now ‘cause I’ve kind of allowed my kid, my older son to be on there a little bit. ut I don’t know, like the Snapchat stuff and the Facebook and Twitter. And I mean, what kind of limits? Is it different for every kid, the kind of limits that you put on them so that they don’t get so, you know, involved in this, you know, idea?

Dr. Akers: Yeah. You know, I think back to that one positive about social media or having internet access is that it does allow us … It could be a teaching tool to allow us to teach our kids moderation. You know, we can do some of these things and then we can put it aside and we can do or play baseball or we can do our activities and we can play family games and we can have dinner together without all these things that we don’t necessarily have to be on these electronics as much as sometimes kids are and that we can teach them that. That it’s okay to be on, but it’s also okay to be off. That we don’t have to use that as important as sometimes people use.

Gina: Great. And I think self-esteem when you’re talking about boys and girls, that’s a whole different thing. I only have boys, so I would talk to them probably different than I would girls, right?

Dr. Akers: You know, I think most of us would agree that one issue with society is that there’s a lot of comparisons and it’s easy to compare ourselves to others. It’s easy to — whether it’s social media, social media makes it very easy to compare ourselves to others. But you know, whether it’s magazines or television or movies, they’re all these images of appearance and how we present ourselves. And I think it’s very tough. It’s tough for girls as well as boys, just in different ways.

Gina: Well, and just what we emulate as parents, right? How we kind of approach life and, you know, “Oh, I look,” — go up to the mirror and I say, “Oh, I look so ugly in this outfit. I look so fat in this outfit.” I mean, that’s, you know — those are things that we’re passing on to our kids, whereas more of the positive talk.

Dr. Akers: Yeah, they hear us.

Words to use when it comes to self-esteem

Gina: That’s right. They hear us. Yeah. Are there some good words we can use when it comes to self-esteem? You know, I mean, are there specific words you would say, like if I’m talking to my kids about self-esteem that you would suggest using?

Dr. Akers: And I want to go back to the praise sort of thing. I do think that giving feedback to kids is important. The one thing that some of the research shows is that over-praise can actually be counterproductive. We want to be careful about that. What I typically advocate is specific pointed praise.

So the other day, I got a really nice note from a colleague here in the hospital. And it was just about appreciating something that I did in the hospital. And it was so meaningful to me. It was so nice that somebody said, well, “ appreciate what you did, and this is what you did, and this why I appreciated it.”

And that really makes meaningful as opposed to, “Oh, you’re the best” or something vague and not very specific.

That was something helpful. But when I think when we over-praise or overdo things sometimes, kids can pick up that that’s not necessarily genuine. And we have to be a little careful about that. That’s where … Maybe they’re not that good at a particular sport, but they love it.

Gina: Right.

Dr. Akers: And we don’t have to necessarily build them up to, you know, pretend that they’re the best player on that sport. We have to, you know, we have to moderate things a little bit.

Gina: So something like, if I were to say to my son who’s doing wrestling right now, “I really, you know, think it’s great that you’re having so much fun doing this,” and, “I love that you, you know, you praised another kid” or something like that, very, you know, more specific things?

Dr. Akers: Effort. I think it’s the best thing we can really do is, “Wow, you were out there hustling. you were running up and down that court.” And, “Wow, that was awesome to see.” You know, so you’re giving specific praise on effort. ot necessarily the outcome or, you know, “, You had to score three goals, you know, to do this.” ut it was just, “I really saw you working hard today.”

Gina: I love this. Thank you so much. This has been a great conversation. I think a lot of parents — it’s going to really resonate and it did with me. So I really appreciate you coming in today.

Self-esteem and failure

Dr. Akers: The other point that I would make is I use the word resilience a lot, and this is something I think is important to think about as a parent in terms of allowing failure. And we don’t think about that that much sometimes when we’re thinking about self-esteem, but it’s really important to allow kids to struggle and then figure out, problem solve. “How do I get through this?” Not, “How do I avoid this?”

Gina: That’s interesting. Yeah, ‘cause sometimes as parents, we just want to lift our kids up, you know.

Dr. Akers: Oh, absolutely.

Gina: But that’s probably not doing them much good if we’re always just, you know.

Dr. Akers: And we want to be … That’s where the balance is, and there’s no easy answers to these things ‘cause we don’t, you know — none of us want to see our kids distressed or upset.We want to hug them and put them in a little bubble sometimes. But we have to remember that sometimes that struggle. And then help them learning to, “How do you get through the season? You committed to the season, we’re going to get through this, even though it wasn’t the best experience for you. How can you still put out your effort and enjoy the time, even though this might not be your sport?”

Gina: Sure.

Dr. Akers: Or just not doing well in a certain area. And that’s how we build resilience, as opposed to expecting that everything must go well and I must be an expert at everything immediately.

Gina: Right.

Dr. Akers: That I can try things and I can do things. I may not be great at it, but I enjoy it. I can have my social time or I can, I like my coach or I like, you know, working out and I get a lot out of it, even though I’m not the best at it.

Gina: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Really resonates. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming in today. This was really interesting. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Akers: Thank you so much.

Gina: You bet. And thanks so much for listening to the Just Kids Health Podcast. Now, please remember to rate, review and subscribe and for more information on how we could help your child visit and follow us on social media.


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