What We Get Wrong About Children’s Self-Esteem
Why telling kids they’re great doesn’t build real self-esteem...and what does.
Posted December 31, 2018
“I can’t do anything right!”
“Nobody likes me!”
“I’m the worst kid in the world!”
As parents, hearing the children we love make such viciously self-critical comments is heart-breaking. Our first instinct is to rush to contradict them. “That’s not true, Honey!” we exclaim. Trying to reassure our kids, we quickly marshal example after example of their talent and specialness. But the more we tell our self-doubting kids, “You’re wonderful!”, the harder they argue, “I’m terrible!” No matter how sincere and well-meaning our pep talks are, they just never seem to sink in when our children are struggling with low self-esteem.
We Don’t Have to Love Ourselves
Self-help gurus and inspirational articles often promote the idea that we have to love ourselves to have a happy, fulfilling life. This is nonsense. How many people honestly stand in front of a mirror and think, “I love myself!”? And if they do, would you want to be friends with those people? Probably not.
Logically, it makes sense that kids who feel better about themselves ought to do better in life, but that’s not what research finds. Roy Baumeister at Florida State University and his colleagues (Baumeister, Campbell, and Krueger 2003) conducted a very thorough research review and concluded that higher self-esteem does not cause better school performance. It does not prevent kids from smoking, drinking, using drugs, or engaging in early sexual activity. High self-esteem also does not lead to healthier relationships.
Protecting Kids’ Self-Esteem Can Backfire
When kids focus on protecting or increasing their self-esteem, it can backfire and set them up for failure. Imagine a student who’s afraid that she will do badly on a test. A healthy coping strategy would be to start studying early, so she has plenty of time to go over old quizzes and homework assignments, and ask for extra help from the teacher. But if the student is focused on protecting her self-esteem, she won’t do any of those because she won’t want to look or feel “dumb.” Instead, she’ll put off studying until the last minute. That way, if she performs poorly on the test, she can protect her self-esteem by telling herself, “I didn’t have enough time to study! I could have done better if I tried!”
Jennifer Crocker and her colleagues at the University of Michigan (Crocker, Moeller, and Burson 2010; Crocker and Park 2004) point out many self-defeating strategies to guard self-esteem including cheating, lying, hiding mistakes, making excuses, avoiding challenges, blaming or looking down on others, and responding angrily to criticism. Trying to “look good” can sometimes bring out the worst in people!
Why self-esteem matters
So, if pursuing and protecting self-esteem tends to backfire, does this mean we should abandon the whole idea of self-esteem? No. We know from long-term studies that low self-esteem can be a risk factor for depression and eating disorders. Research by Ulrich Orth at the University of Bern and his colleagues (Orth and Robins 2013; Orth et al 2012) shows that low self-esteem isn’t just a symptom of depression; it predicts and precedes depression at all ages, from childhood onwards.
Low self-esteem can also be very emotionally painful. When kids hate themselves, the misery can feel intense, pervasive, and inescapable.
Self-esteem boosting strategies don’t work
Many of the obvious strategies for trying to help kids with low self-esteem just plain don’t work. For instance, telling kids they are wonderful can make kids with low self-esteem feel worse. In one study, Eddie Brummelman at Utrecht University and his colleagues (Brummelman et al 2014) had kids play a computer game. First, they did a noncompetitive practice round after which some kids got a text message telling them, “Wow, you’re great!” Next, the kids played the game. Among kids who lost the game, those who had been told “You’re great” before the defeat felt more ashamed than kids who hadn’t been given this praise. This effect was especially pronounced for kids with low self-esteem. Hearing they were “great” set-up kids with low self-esteem to feel “worthless, inferior, and exposed” when their actions didn’t live up to the praise.
What about having kids tell themselves positive statements? Saying very positive things to themselves can actually make kids with low self-esteem feel bad about themselves because they become acutely aware of how much they don’t measure up to the positive statement. A study by Joanne Wood (Wood, Perunovic, and Lee 2009) involving college students showed that prompting students with low self-esteem to repeat to themselves the statement “I’m a lovable person” or to focus on how that statement was true made their moods worse, instead of better, and made them feel less happy with themselves! Rather than boosting their self-esteem, this positive self-statement ended up highlighting and confirming their belief that they are not lovable.
Maybe kids with low-self-esteem need to experience success to feel better about themselves. Nope. Kids with low self-esteem are experts at dismissing and discounting their victories. They pick apart their performance, insisting, “It wasn’t that good. Anybody could have done it. And besides, I messed up one section.” Another study by Joanne Wood (Wood, Heimpel and Newby-Clark 2005) found that people with low self-esteem feel more anxious after a victory than a defeat. They expected the defeat, but the victory seems surprising and dangerous.
Success usually doesn’t penetrate low self-esteem because it’s hard to absorb and feels threatening. Performing well tends to make kids with low self-esteem worry that they won’t be able to keep up this performance or that people will now expect more of them or that people are now paying more attention to them so their inevitable future failures will lead to even more public humiliation... Wood calls this “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
The reason all of these strategies for boosting self-esteem don’t work is because they involve increased self-focus. They encourage kids with low self-esteem to think about and evaluate themselves, which they always do harshly. Self-focus intensifies negative emotions and makes kids with low self-esteem feel worse.
What real self-esteem looks like
The key to breaking free from low self-esteem is to move beyond self-focus. Real self-esteem isn’t about believing we are special or wonderful. Real self-esteem means being able to let go of the question, “Am I good enough?”
Think about how you feel when you get together with a close friend. Your friend knows you, warts and all, but you’re not sitting there wondering, “Does my friend like me?” or “Is my friend impressed by me?” or even “Is my friend going to dump me?” Those questions don’t even come up because you’re not thinking about yourself. Instead, you’re completely focused on the conversation or activity with this friend, which brings a satisfying sense of ease and comfort.
Real self-esteem involves developing this type of fully engaged presence in what we are doing right now. When we’re not mentally standing back and judging ourselves, we are free to listen, and learn, and try, and experience, and do, and care…
The path forward
So, how do we help kids with low self-esteem step beyond self-focus so they can let go of their harsh self-evaluations? Extensive research by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci at the University of Rochester (e.g., Ryan and Deci 2000) shows that the key lies in addressing children’s fundamental needs for Connection, Competence, and Choice. Connection involves building meaningful and satisfying relationships that create a sense of belonging. Competence refers to embracing learning and developing mastery. Choice is about making decisions that reflect personal values.
We don’t need to “boost” our children’s self-esteem. Instead, we want to ease the harsh self-focus that’s the root cause of low self-esteem by helping them connect with something bigger than themselves.