The surprising truth about what kills and builds kids' self-esteem

So now that you've read my last post — What I wish every parent (and podcast) knew about self-esteem — you know feelings of self-worth have nothing to do with appearance, praise or high achievement. And you know how frustrated I get when experts peddle misinformation.

That concludes our What-Not-To-Do lesson. Now let's talk about what to do instead.

DOES YOUR CHILD HAVE LOW SELF-ESTEEM? Where would you say your child’s self-esteem falls on a scale of 1-5? If you’re not sure, try asking yourself the following questions. • Does your child have difficulty speaking up? • Does your child say ‘I’m sorry’ a lot? • Does your child seem to go along to get along? • Does your child have a hard time making choices? • Does your child’s feelings get hurt a lot? • Does your child have trouble setting boundaries? • Does your child fish for compliments? • Does your child seem motivated by recognition and praise? • Does your child worry about not being liked or accepted? • Is your child overly self-critical? • Does your child give up easily? Now, first thing’s first: If you answered ‘yes’ to a few questions — or even most questions — don’t freak out! This does not make you a bad parent, or your kid a broken soul. Self-esteem is not a fixed state; it can and does change over time. Simply look at those yes answers as road signs alerting you to the possibility that your kiddo might have a skewed view of themselves right now and need some assistance getting back on track. Oh! And if you recognize yourself in any of those yes answers, join the club. None of us gets to adulthood with 100% high self-esteem; it’s impossible. We live in a judgmental world with systems that constantly question our value and worth. That shit is going to shape our self-concept to some degree or another. And while it’s muuuuuuuch easier to build back self-esteem in childhood — which is why I spend so much time ranting about this subject — it’s absolutely possible to build it back in adulthood, too.


Kids’ self-esteem is built on two foundational benchmarks, or "legs."

  1. The degree to which the child feels unconditional approval from people they love.

  2. The degree to which the child feels competent to handle their own shit.

Okay, yeah, this is probably not how psychologists like Carl Rogers or Dorothy Corkille Briggs (both giants in the self-esteem world) would have worded it. But it's accurate.

As to the first leg: Kids lose self-esteem when they feel that the approval or acceptance of their parents is contingent on arbitrary expectations. (And, spoiler alert, a lot of what we demand of kids seems arbitrary to them.)

As to the second leg: Kids also lose self-esteem when they believe themselves incapable of getting their basic needs met — physical, mental or emotional. When a child is whining for a snack, for example, and the parent denies the child a snack because of the whining, the child's self-esteem diminishes ever-so-slightly. Not because the parent has shut down the whining but because the child is hungry and was not able to meet their need for food.

Remember, kids behave the way they do for the same reasons we do: because their neural pathways lead them in a certain direction; they are meeting their goals and problem-solving to the best of their abilities. So when they are told their minds are steering them in a wrong or bad direction, it breeds distrust of their own instincts, intelligence and decisions. Makes sense right?

Of course, we have to correct our children from time to time. They make mistakes that scare us, or decisions that are so flat-out fucking dumb we can't possibly ignore them. And whining is legitimately annoying. But that’s precisely why we must encourage their behavior and decision-making as often as humanly possible. At the end of the day, we want our approval of them to outweigh our correction of them, so that they wind up feeling that — while they aren’t 100% perfect — they are 100% worthy of our love and approval.


This is me investing in my daughter's self-esteem

Now let's be honest: Our upbringing — and the upbringings of our parents before us — have infused us with some pretty strong opinions about right and wrong, good and bad. And we’ve got our own shit to worry about, right? Unless we’ve got our eyes on the self-esteem ball, it can be incredibly easy to railroad over our kids’ wishes, desires, opinions and decisions in pursuit of a larger goal: to get them to adulthood in one piece. (A worthy goal, indeed!)

Here are three very specific ways to give kids confidence, build self-reliance and show our support for who they are deep down.

1. Say yes to the dress. In other words, “Let them be themselves.” This serves our first leg of self-esteem perfectly. I loved dressing my girl up when she was little. But then she got older, as kids are wont to do, and started to develop her own style — a style I didn’t always love. Still, did I fork out too much money on the bright turquoise bejeweled dress at Kohl’s? You bet I did. Because the way I saw it, I wasn't buying her a dress so much as I was investing in her self-esteem. It’s the same reason it’s helpful to let them choose their own hairstyles and nail colors, let them enroll in their own electives and extracurriculars, listen to their stories and affirm their beliefs and opinions — even as they’re still developing them, even when we know they will change their minds, even when we believe their opinions are wackadoo. Because giving them our respect and holding our tongues are powerful displays of unconditional love and acceptance. It’s not always easy, but it’s always good.

2. Give information, not demands. Becoming competent in anything — whether it’s ordering off a menu or writing an email to a teacher — means allowing kids the space to make mistakes. But we deny them these needed experiences when we step in too soon to help solve their problems or move things along with demands and reminders. When it’s raining, our children will never learn to put on a raincoat if we are constantly instructing them to retrieve it from the closet. By changing the demands (“Get your raincoat!") or reminders ("Don’t forget your raincoat!”) to information (“It’s raining!”), we create room for kids to grow competent. And, hey, what's the worst that could happen if the raincoat is forgotten? They'll get wet — which will make them far more likely to remember it next time and feel great about themselves when they do. One note: It's important when building your kids competency level in things not to rescue them. Empathize with them when they regret their choices or mistakes — no "I-told-you-so's," please — but don't automatically retrieve the raincoat or the mittens or forgotten homework, either. Rescuing might feel kind in the moment, but it cripples the second leg of self-esteem.

"Behind every young child who believes in himself is a parent who believed first.” – Matthew Jacobson

3. Be tolerant of their back-talk.

The problem with coming down on kids for their tone or attitude or shutting down back-talk is that kids don’t have the self-regulation skills to temper their communication the way we do. And when we're too busy reacting to “how” they're communicating, we miss "what" — which sends the message that their voices aren't worth hearing. This delivers blows to both legs of self-esteem at once. Our acceptance feels contingent on their ability to talk more maturely than they are capable of doing, and they begin to doubt their competency as communicators. Even when it seems forceful, disrespectful or downright rude — and yes this can be triggering! — our kids' voices need to be heard. So suck it up. Respond as kindly as you can. And then, later, after the interaction is over and you've had a chance to cool down, work on those self-regulation skills. Remind your kids that they are much more likely to get what they want in life by speaking calmly, set reasonable limits on your kids (no screaming, for example), and brainstorm ways your children can temper their language. Just don't expect them to hit the mark all the time. (We sure don't.) Rest assured, by the time they're 18, they will have learned to communicate more maturely. And when that happens, they’ll be able to stand up for themselves and air all those unique and interesting opinions with strength and kindness.

4. Give them autonomy and actual responsibilities. I'm talking to you, helicopter mommas and daddies. I know you are nuts about those kids of yours, but letting kids pull away from you little by little by little is a hell of a lot easier and healthier than trying to yank the Band-aid off when they head to college. Give kids as much freedom as you can. And look for opportunities to hand over age-appropriate tasks — waking themselves up in the morning, RSVP'ing to parties, getting themselves lunch and dinner when no one else feel like cooking, doing chores, pumping gas, showing you how TikTok works... You get the drift. We want to be out of jobs by the time our kids turn 18. And it's not because we are looking for the respite; it's because we need them to have enough self-esteem to care for themselves, competently and confidently, without us.

“We don’t always do the things our parents want us to do, but it is their mistake if they can’t find a way to love us anyway.” — J Courtney Sullivan Love


I remember when Maxine was young, and all this self-esteem business was new to me. I remember having to manage my feelings of embarrassment and frustration when — in front of family or friends — she insisted on being the center of attention, talking too loudly and being generally impolite. I struggled with her lack of patience (I was projecting), and her stubbornness (projecting that, too), and how she sometimes acted spoiled (okay, so yeah, three for three.)

But because I knew about self-esteem, I was able to quell the soul-crushing comments I could have made — that, in another life, I would have made.

Today, when I see kids with low self-esteem, I can tell almost immediately which "leg" is broken. Generally speaking, controlling parents impair the first leg (unconditional acceptance), while permissive parents impair the second (competency.) If you want to see how this works in real life, check out the following role-play exercise.

“Children rarely question our expectations. Instead, they question their personal adequacy.” — Dorothy Corkille Briggs


This is an excerpt from ParentShift to illustrate how the two legs of self-esteem work together. The role-play scenario asks parents to put themselves in the shoes of a six- year-old who has just been injured on a soccer field.

The setup is simple: You are a six-year-old playing soccer and have just run to your father in tears, pointing to a cut on your knee.

Scenario #1: Permissive Dad Your permissive father says, “Oh, you poor thing! Don’t cry. Daddy will make it better. Here, let me wash it for you and get a Band-Aid, and then you can sit on my lap until it feels better.”

Now, in your role as the child, ask yourself, “Do I feel unconditionally loved?” Generally, in parent-education classes, parents report that they do feel unconditionally loved, although the love might feel a little like pity. But do you feel capable of handling yourself? No way. If anything, you’ve learned that it pays to get hurt, and that someone else is responsible for making you feel better. A consistent pattern of reactions like this one, and you’re likely to suffer a blow to your self-esteem and, eventually, become overly dependent on your parents.

Scenario #2: Controlling Dad

You run to your controlling dad, who says, “Oh, that’s just a little scratch! Big kids don’t cry! Buck up; you’re fine. Your brother got cut last week and had to get stitches. He never cried.” Do you feel capable of handling yourself? To the extent that you have no choice, probably, yes. But do you feel unconditionally loved? No. You’ve just learned that it’s unsafe to show your feelings and that you can’t count on your dad for help. A consistent pattern of reactions like this one, and your self-esteem will undoubtedly suffer. Plus, you’re likely to emotionally detach from your dad, maybe even turning to your peers for support at too young an age.

Scenario #3: Heart-Centered Dad

You go over to your heart-centered dad, who puts his arm around you. “That looks like it hurts!” he says. As you talk about what happened, he nods and listens patiently until you start to feel better. “What do you want to do?” he asks. “I need a Band-Aid,” you say. “Sure!” he says. “Let’s go get a Band-Aid and a washcloth, then you can clean it and put the Band-Aid on.” Now, do you feel unconditionally loved? Definitely, because empathy is love in action. Do you feel capable of handling yourself? Sure. You are the one who came up with the solution, after all, and you will render your own first aid. Your self-esteem remains high and healthy. And the best part? What could have been a bad memory for you just became an opportunity for your dad to show you just how loved and capable you really are.

While we’re at it, let’s take this one step further. You are still the skinned-knee kid, but it’s ten years later.

You are a sophomore in high school and have a mean teacher. Your permissive dad heads down to the school to confront the teacher, or, conversely, minimize the problem by saying, “Teachers will be teachers.”Your controlling dad, on the other hand, blames you for causing the problem, discounting your position and even making you feel guilty. “What did you do this time?” he says, accusingly. Then there’s your heart-centered dad. He patiently listens and empathizes, but he does not offer to step in to solve the problem, nor does he make you feel bad for having a problem in the first place.

Do you see where we’re going with this?

This is where:

You’re now twenty-six. You have moved across the country. You have a job, but the boss is exceedingly unkind to you. What do you do?

Raised in a strongly permissive household, you report the boss to human resources or complain to your colleagues, hoping someone else will solve the problem. When that doesn’t work, you see no clear path out of the mess, and you quit in a disempowering way.

Raised in a strongly controlling household, you allow the boss to treat you badly and stay in a job you dislike. You do eventually quit, but not until you have felt degraded in the job for far too long.

Raised in a heart-centered household, however, you take charge of your situation almost immediately. You brainstorm your solutions with colleagues or friends and then prioritize your options. You try talking to the boss directly, and then you go to your boss’s boss. Things get a little better, but not good enough for you. You find another job and quit this one, feeling confident and empowered. You leave the job undiminished by the experience.

So next time you get annoyed at your child's backtalk, try to remember: Under the crusty exterior and sometimes brutal words, that's your sweet kid doing the best she can, in that undeveloped mind of hers, to advocate for herself. So take a deep breath, keep the end game in mind, and encourage her to keep talking.