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Hurting Your Child's Self-Esteem: 4 Blindspots

Even the most loving and caring parents may inadvertantly harm their kids.

Key points

  • Loving parents can sometimes unintentionally hurt their children's self-esteem.
  • Overprotecting, injecting guilt, criticizing, and slinging sarcastic comments will likely hurt self-esteem and lead to defiance.
  • The more you communicate in positive ways, and are accountable for your negative behaviors, the better your child will feel.

As parents, we try our best to foster positive self-esteem in our children. Having strong self-esteem encourages us to push through challenges, try new things, and believe in ourselves. Self-esteem is highly influential in how we see ourselves, which shapes our behaviors and decisions.

Loving parents can sometimes unintentionally hurt their child's self-esteem. We sometimes make mistakes when it comes to what to say and how we behave. These mishaps can negatively impact our children's self-esteem even though we have positive underlying intentions. We are, after all, only human. To avoid these mistakes, we first need to know what they are and how they cause a negative impact.

Here are four types of self-esteem-sapping parental behaviors.

1. Overprotecting

Constantly shielding a child from challenges and obstacles can prevent them from developing confidence and a sense of competence. Overprotecting can also limit a child's opportunities to explore, learn, and make mistakes, which are all important for their growth and development.

Moreover, overprotecting children can lead to feelings of anxiety and insecurity, as they may not feel prepared to face the world on their own. It can also create a sense of dependence and a lack of independence, which can be problematic as children transition into adulthood.

Parents need to strike a balance between protecting their children and allowing them to take risks and face challenges, to help them develop into confident, self-sufficient individuals. Encouraging independence, fostering self-esteem, and teaching problem-solving skills can all help to mitigate the negative effects of overprotection.

2. Injecting guilt

It’s one thing to ask a child how they would feel if they were in your shoes or someone else’s in a given situation. Too often, however, parents push this to the limit and try to make their children feel guilty because of their thoughts, feelings, or actions. Parents who use guilt to control their children run the risk of alienating them.

3. Criticizing harshly

Being criticized by a parent can be emotionally challenging, especially if it is done in a harsh or demeaning manner. Critical comments can erode a person's self-esteem and sense of worth and can cause feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration. It can also lead to a decrease in motivation and a lack of confidence in one's abilities.

4. Speaking with sarcasm

You are using sarcasm if you say things you don’t mean and imply the opposite of what you’re saying through your tone of voice. An example would be saying something like, “Oh, aren’t you smart,” when your child makes a poor choice. The use of sarcasm hurts children because it feels shaming. Putting a child down through sarcasm creates an obstacle for parents trying to communicate effectively.

Losses In Self-Esteem May Trigger Gains In Defiance

As I explain in 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, as a result of being exposed to the parenting behaviors discussed above, children may lash out later on in ways that are emotionally hurtful and upsetting. This can include tantrums, expressing resentments, frequently being argumentative, and defying reasonable requests. Many children and teens have admitted tome that these negative emotions and behaviors they engage in after feeling hurt by their parents.

Reflect On Your Negative Behaviors To Get Control of Them

It’s easy to say, “I just won’t do that anymore,” and still fall into the pattern of repeating these problematic behaviors. Occasional slips may occur. When they do, address these negative behaviors with your child.

Craig, a single father I worked with, shared with me a recent breakthrough he had made with his 13-year-old son, Tom. Craig was a self-proclaimed “hard ass in recovery.” He had a history of yelling at Tom around the house and at soccer games.

Craig had made very strong progress in relating to his son in a far less critical manner—until one night when Tom and Craig were at a soccer awards banquet, and Tom sarcastically mocked him for looking down when he received his award. I coached Craig not to beat himself up, and he was determined to continue to be less controlling and more open.

With this in mind, Craig approached Tom and said, “Tom, I apologize for being so sarcastic and critical of you. Seeing you up there, getting that award, made me feel honored to be your father.”

Tom later said to me, “Dad gets it now.”

Final Thoughts

Your ways of interacting with your child play a huge influence in shaping how they develop self-value in their life. The more you communicate in positive ways, and model being accountable for your negative behaviors, the more you can influence your child to do the same—and support them in having strong self-esteem.


Aremu, T. A., John-Akinola, Y. O., & Desmennu, A. T. (2019). Relationship between parenting styles and adolescents’ self-esteem. International Quarterly of Community Health Education, 39, 91–99.

Bernstein J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, Hachette Go Publications, New York, NY.

Pinquart, M., Gerke, DC. (2019). Associations of Parenting Styles with Self-Esteem in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-Analysis. J Child Fam Stud 28, 2017–2035.

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