Self-esteem refers to the way people feel about themselves. Children who are accepted, loved and nurtured develop a positive sense of security and belief in themselves. This positive self-esteem allows them to feel valued; try new things; reach out and make friends; manage problems; and feel confident. The growth of positive self-esteem begins at birth and is encouraged or discouraged by the messages children receive from the people around them.
Many children in care have received negative messages from others. They may have experienced emotional abuse through threats, put downs (e.g. you’re lazy, stupid, naughty, useless, a bully, a sook), bullying, teasing, ridicule or humiliation. They may have witnessed violence between parents or family members, had their needs ignored, or been left with other people who may not have cared about them. They may have been in care for some time or had multiple carers.
These experiences can harm a child’s self-esteem. They can affect their confidence, their willingness to take on challenges, their behaviour and their ability to learn and form trusting relationships. Children with low self-esteem may feel worthless, unworthy and unloved.
As a carer, you have many opportunities to develop the self-esteem of children while they are with you. You can:
- Show that you respect the child and their family, including the feelings the child has for them.
- Listen and speak respectfully to the child or young person and take seriously what they have to say (remember to pay attention to their body language to pick up any 'mixed messages').
- Help the baby, child or young person feel accepted and valued, by: spending time with them; including them in family activities; asking their opinions or advice; and helping them to feel needed in the family.
- Focus and comment on the child’s strengths and celebrate their successes and achievements.
- Give lots of smiles and cuddles to babies and toddlers and respond to them when they cry. This can help them feel loved and lovable, and lay the groundwork for positive self-esteem.
- Help toddlers to feel special and lovable by allowing them to make choices and by giving them the opportunity to say ‘no’. This can help them to feel safe and in control during a stage when they are beginning to learn about who they are, what they can do and where they belong.
- Praise the child’s efforts, whether in their school work, play or managing a particular behaviour. You can say things like, “You must have really studied hard on that test” or, “You tried really hard then to stay calm”.
- Encourage independence and confidence by giving the child appropriate tasks to do – even if they struggle, you can praise the child’s efforts for trying and assure them that they can try again when they are ready.
- Encourage and support activities the child enjoys such as a sleepover with friends, a birthday party, joining a sporting club or following another interest.
- Have some fun with the child as the occasion arises (but don't tease, ridicule or laugh at them). Games, songs, jokes and family fun can help a child to feel accepted.
The following websites and tip sheets have more ideas on how to help a child or young person develop positive self-esteem and resilience (an ability to bounce back in difficult times).
NT Families website:
Kids Matter website
Raising Children Network website