Praising Children with Low Self-Esteem Can Backfire

How to praise children with low self-esteem

Posted May 08, 2013

Adults tend to view children with low self-esteem as hungry for praise and therefore, they tend to praise them more often than they do children with higher self-esteem. But praising children with low self-esteem can easily backfire. Whether a child with low self-esteem benefits from praise depends entirely on how the praise is worded.

Praising Character Can Lead to Shame

Children with low self-esteem feel insecure and unconfident about their character and well-meaning adults typically look for opportunities to reinforce the child’s sense of ‘self’. Therefore, when the child experiences success, they would pounce on the opportunity to praise them and bolster their self-esteem (e.g., “You’re so smart!” “You’re really great!” “You’re so talented!”).

While praising the child’s character following a success might make the child feel good in the moment, it can also backfire. A recent study gave children either praise for their character (“You’re great”) or their behavior (“You did a great job”) and demonstrated that children praised for their character were more likely to feel shame when they experienced a subsequent failure than children praised for their behavior.

Why Does Praise Sometimes Lead to Shame?

In the child’s mind, receiving praise for their personal qualities makes them attribute outcomes to their character and their basic ability as opposed to their efforts or behavior. Therefore, while praise for success feels good to them, they will also perceive any future failures as reflecting deficiencies in the exact qualities for which they had been praised previously. Because their self-esteem is low, they are more likely to discount their earlier successes and view their failures as verification of the doubts and insecurities they had all along—thus lowering their self-esteem even further.

How to Praise Children with Low Self-Esteem

The best way to praise children with low self-esteem is to comment on their behavior and effort and NOT on their character or qualities (e.g., “You really worked hard!” “You’re efforts paid off!” “You were really well prepared”). Doing so allows the child to attribute their success to their effort and preparation, something over which they have control. If they fail in the future, they will then attribute the failure to a lack of preparation or effort, and not to personal qualities. As a result they will be less likely to experience shame and more likely to feel disappointed or sad, which while unpleasant, are much less damaging to their self-image than shame.

Failure and Low Self-Esteem in Adults

Similarly to children, adults with low self-esteem are also more vulnerable to failure experiences than adults with higher self-esteem. Therefore, when adults fail, it is always best for them to identify variables that are in their control (such as effort and preparation) as opposed to character deficiencies—and to figure out how to improve their behavior and effort going forward (as opposed to lamenting their shortcomings and character flaws).

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For more about the dangers of failure and low self-esteem and what you can do to mitigate them, check out my forthcoming book: Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

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Reference: Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Overbeek, G., Orobio de Castro, B., van den Hout, M. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2013, February 18). On Feeding Those Hungry for Praise: Person Praise Backfires in Children With Low Self-Esteem. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031917