Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

Did I Create Low Self-Esteem in My Child?

Being a parent is an enormous responsibility and we often wonder if we’re doing a good job at it. Often I have heard parents say, “I dearly love my child, I’m always encouraging her and praising her, and yet she is still so hard on herself,” or “Why does my child have such low self-esteem? What have I done to him?” or “When I tell my child she’s terrific, she doesn’t believe me. What can I do?”

It continues to surprise me that many children who grow up in comfortable, loving, safe homes can still suffer from low self-esteem. And like-wise, there are children I know who have endured unspeakable abuses, unstable family situations, and terribly unsafe living conditions, and still manage to hold on to a solid sense of self-worth. As a young therapist, before I had my own children, I found it easy to hold parents responsible for their child’s social and emotional makeup. “If these parents only did ‘thus-and-such,’ their child would be so much better off.” “Why can’t they just blah, blah, blah,” I’d think. Perhaps that attitude helped me feel more in control back then.

But now I know that a child comes into this world with a unique temperament, part of which is inherited. Some babies are peaceful and placid right from birth, while others are not. There are babies who are slow to warm up to people, and babies who are hypersensitive to external stimulation. There are criers and there are whiners. There are those who are eager to engage with others and those who are more cautious.

A baby with a complex temperament may be more prone to self-esteem issues. His reactions are more unpredictable. For instance, a smile from a parent may not necessarily result in a smile from the baby. As a result of his temperament, a difficult child will more likely be treated differently than will an easy child who fits in more naturally. After all, a difficult child can make a caretaker feel very inadequate. Parents frequently find that successful methods used to raise their first child do not work at all with their more complicated second child. This doesn’t mean, however, that this child’s life is set in stone. This is where the child’s environment comes in.

Throughout their lives, children are affected by many important outside influences. Teachers, siblings, grandparents, and friends all impact your child’s self-esteem. Your child’s natural disposition will make it either easier or harder for others to appreciate him. For instance, a child who misbehaves in the classroom is most likely going to get negative feedback from his teacher. This, in turn, perpetuates bad feelings, continuing the cycle of negative interaction.

As a parent, you cannot completely control who interacts with your child, but you can make sure that you create an atmosphere at home and in your family life where your child can flourish. It’s important that you first accept your child’s unique qualities and let go of unrealistic expectations of him. This doesn’t mean that you stop setting appropriate limits and boundaries. You need to become aware of any personal feelings of disappointment you may have about your child, and then work to not let those feelings dominate your interactions with him. Focus instead on your child’s strengths and competencies. We need to accept who our child is, and then learn how to create an environment in which he can flourish.

On Wednesday I will cover Step One in Raising your Child’s Self-Esteem.


Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP

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