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4 Ways Parents Can Hurt Kids' Self-Esteem

Sarcasm, overprotection, and guilt.

Key points

  • Having strong self-esteem encourages us to push through challenges, try new things, and believe in ourselves.
  • Loving parents can sometimes unintentionally hurt their child's self-esteem.
  • The more you communicate with your children in positive ways the more you will support their self-esteem.

Healthy and strong self-esteem is crucial for 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 are, after all, only human. We sometimes make mistakes when it comes to what to say and how we behave.

These parental miscommunications are often driven by parental misjudgments. They can negatively impact our children's self-esteem even though we, as parents, have positive underlying intentions. To avoid these mistakes, we first need to know what they are and how they cause a negative impact.

A Cautionary Note

This post is intended for parents who are seeking to learn and grow. That said, some people are truly not meant to be parents. For anyone reading this post who has experienced or is experiencing truly toxic parents, I empathize with all the pain you have endured. I encourage you to value all your strengths and see your parents as injured, limited people. While I value the act of forgiveness, that is something that best comes if and when people are ready to do so.

4 Types of Self-Esteem-Depleting Parental Behaviors

1. Criticizing harshly. Being criticized by a parent can be emotionally challenging, especially if it is done in a harsh or demeaning manner. In my experience as a child psychologist, most critical parents are struggling with their anxieties that come out sideways and overwhelm their children. Critical comments can erode a child's self-esteem and sense of worth and can cause feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration. These sharply delivered rebukes can also lead to a decrease in children's motivation and a lack of confidence in their abilities.

2. Overprotecting. Constantly shielding a child from challenges and obstacles can prevent them from developing confidence and a sense of competence. While parents may want to do all they can to make sure their children do not suffer in life, they ironically stifle their kids by being too controlling. 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.

3. 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. Many parents tell me they are trying to teach life lessons, but instilling guilt negates whatever wisdom they have to offer. Parents who use guilt to control their children run the risk of alienating their children.

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. The use of sarcasm hurts children because it feels shaming. Parents who are frustrated may end up speaking in these destructive, hurtful ways. Sadly, putting a child down through sarcasm creates an obstacle to trying to communicate effectively—and makes everything feel worse.

Decreased Self-Esteem May Increase 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 to me that these negative emotions and behaviors they engage in after feeling hurt by their parents.

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 Craig sarcastically mocked his son 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. Parents must promote a nurturing and supportive environment, providing unconditional love, encouragement, and positive reinforcement to foster their child's healthy self-esteem.

© Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. (All rights reserved) Unauthorized retention, duplication, distribution, or modification of copyrighted materials is strictly prohibited by law.

LinkedIn image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock


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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