Although virtually every parent knows what self-esteem is; not every parent understands how it is developed in their children; or just what influence they have on the development of their child’s self-esteem. 

Every child has two basic psychological needs in regards to their sense of self: to know they are loved and to know they are worthwhile.   Even though most parents love their kids there is a huge difference between being loved and feeling loved just as there is a huge difference in knowing worth and feeling worthwhile. Genuine self-esteem is how someone feels about himself privately.  To feel thoroughly right inside, kids need to paint a picture of themselves with living experiences that prove their worth and lovability.  

Self-Discovery as Infant Is First Step in Developing Confidence 

As infants explore their world, they start to make assumptions based on their senses of touch and sound.  They begin to assimilate their value by how they are treated; by how well their basic physical needs are met.   It comes as no surprise that babies are particularly in tune to their mothers’ emotional states.  The infant relies on body language to determine his worth and lovability. 

Even as a child grows and develops spoken language; body language continues to speak louder.  Words must be congruent with the feelings behind them.  When words have underlying judgments, children will adopt the judgments into their pictures of who they are.   It is these judgments from others that bring about the child’s own judgment of self.  By the age of five, kids generally have gathered enough reflections about themselves to form their own estimate of their self-worth. [1]

Development of Self Esteem in Children – Photo by Cheryl WeldonCredit: Photo by Cheryl Weldon

Parents Influence on Children’s Mental Health 

Parents are the first mirrors in a child’s life.   Experiences in life create a kind of filter by which people view all future experiences and interactions.  These filters form expectations.   It is through these filters that parents mirror for their children and it is through these expectations that parents measure their kids.  It is these expectations that dictate how parents parent their children. Some common parental filters include:[1]

  • Inexperience - usually felt with first child
  • Borrowed standards - example- “boys don’t cry”
  • Hang-over wishes - parents own unmet childhood wishes
  • Current hunger - current hunger in the parents
  • Unfinished business - parents own unfinished business from their childhood- According to Briggs (1975), “Most of us raise youngsters on the basis of our own needs rather than theirs.” 

Based on the parents’ standards, kids measure their abilities and draw conclusions as to their value based on how closely they fit those expectations.  

Good Psychological Health Increases with Positive Mirroring 

One of the most important aspects of good mirroring for children is psychological safety.[1]  The foundation of this is trust.  Infants learn to trust when their basic needs are met.   Toddlers learn to trust when parents return from a night out.   Kids continue to learn trust by how honest their parents are with their own feelings; and how those are conveyed to their children.  This does not mean parents must “pour out” their feelings to their children; there are times when parents need to tell their children they cannot discuss their feelings at that moment.   Acknowledging the reservation about the openness is being honest with the child; make sure not to give mixed messages. 

Psychological safety also includes being non-judgmental.   While sharing feelings honestly is important; how they are shared is equally important.  Negative judgment is the core of low self-esteem.[1]  It is much better for parents to react rather than judge.  An example is using the “I” statements rather than the judgmental, accusatory “you” statements.  

It is nice to accept children for who they are; it is even better to cherish children for who they are.  When parents cherish their kids; they look for the positive, treat them with respect, and mirror to their children they are valuable, worthy, and lovable.  

Allow children to own their feelings.  This does not mean behavior runs amok; it means kids have a right to their own feelings, separate from how their parents feel.  The parents can acknowledge those feelings and set limits to the behavior.  This allows kids to be independent from their parents and lets them know it is okay to be who they are.  

Completing the tasks of each phase of childhood is essential for growth in the child.  Parents who expect more from their children than they can do create disappointment.  The parents’ disappointments become the children’s disappointments in selves and in turn, create low self-esteem.   When children successfully complete the tasks at each phase, confidence grows as does a belief in self.  When parents guide children through these tasks in a non-judgmental, honest manner, they mirror the children’s worth and lovability.  The environment is set for self-esteem to grow and flourish.  


The copyright of the article Development of Self Esteem in Children is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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