Building self-esteem in children

Building self-esteem in children
Self-esteem is an essential skill to teach your child. How do you do it?

To develop self-esteem, as well as respect for others, a child needs to know that what they think, feel, and do is important. Your little one’s self-esteem is highly dependent on you. Your words and actions as a parent have the power to build or diminish it.

If your child is 5 or older, consult our fact sheet on self-esteem in children aged 5 and older.

What is self-esteem?

The terms self-confidence and self-esteem are often used as synonyms. However, there is a difference between the two, even though they’re related. To have good self-esteem, you first need to have self-confidence. That means believing in your ability to succeed.

Self-esteem is related to the awareness of your personal value. It’s knowing how to recognize your own strengths and limitations and having a realistic view of yourself. Self-esteem can also vary from one context to another. A child may have good self-esteem in terms of their motor skills (e.g., when riding their tricycle or climbing at the playground), yet lack self-esteem in terms of their relationships with others.

Your child’s self-esteem grows every time they achieve something, receive positive feedback, or try something new.

Having good self-esteem involves getting to know your strengths and weaknesses and accepting yourself as you are. It’s also about feeling worthy of love and feeling secure enough to use your abilities to face life’s challenges. It’s understanding that you have value, even if not everything you do is perfect.

A child with good self-esteem is able to do the following:

  • Make choices
  • Feel comfortable around others
  • Express their needs, feelings, ideas, and preferences
  • Dare to take small risks and allow themself to make mistakes
  • Trust themself and others
  • Ensure they are respected

How can you help your child develop good self-esteem?

The best way to help your child build self-esteem is to let them know that they are loved. There are many ways to do this!

  • Show your child that you love them for who they are, unconditionally, not for what they do or how they look. You can do this by frequently telling them that you love them and by being affectionate.
  • When they learn new skills, draw attention to them by giving positive feedback. This contributes to your child’s self-confidence by making them feel even prouder of accomplishments they already felt good about.
  • Help them gain self-awareness. One way to do this is by getting your child to recognize their preferences and their strengths. For example, encourage your child to make decisions, such as what to wear for the day.
  • Encourage them to face new or difficult situations. However, stay by their side so they don’t feel overwhelmed, and make sure to only put them in situations where they have a good chance of success. That being said, don’t push your little one too hard. Keep your expectations age-appropriate (without setting the bar too low), otherwise your child might think they aren’t good enough.
  • Encourage them to take on challenges that are appropriate for their age and abilities. For example, let your child do small chores around the house. If they have a few small responsibilities, they’ll useful and proud of themself. You should also encourage your child’s autonomy. If they try to put on their shoes by themself, for instance, wait until they ask before helping them.
  • Make time for them. Whenever you spend time with and pay attention to your child, you’re letting them know they matter to you.
  • Have fun with them. Your child feels good and happy when they’re playing and having fun, which helps build self-esteem.
The importance of praising your child
  • Provide a stable routine and clear rules. This allows your child to develop a sense of security, which helps build their self-esteem.
  • Praise them when they accomplish a difficult task. For example, you can say: “You took your time and buttoned up all the buttons on your coat! Great job!”
  • Teach them that everyone makes mistakes. If they do something wrong, explain why it was a mistake, but leave it at that. This way, you protect their self-esteem and the confidence they need to succeed in life.
  • Treat them with respect. This is one of the best ways to teach your child to respect themself and others. Listen carefully when they have something to say and take them seriously. If you don’t agree with them or don’t like something they’re doing, tell them using sentences that start with “I feel . . .” and “I think . . .” To avoid sounding critical and judgmental, avoid beginning your sentences with “You are . . .”

There are things you can do every day that will help your child develop a sense of their self-worth and a positive view of themself. Check out our fact sheet on day-to-day self-esteem to learn more.

Behaviours that undermine self-esteem

  • Don’t be overprotective. This prevents your little one from learning and sends the message that they aren’t able or good enough to do things.
Your child does more good than bad over the course of a day. Focus on the positive and try to say at least three kind and constructive things to them every day.
  • Don’t constantly criticize. If you always give your child negative feedback and are never satisfied with their behaviour despite their best efforts, they’ll become discouraged. Most importantly, don’t criticize them in front of others.
  • Avoid labelling your child, such as by calling them lazy, slow, or exhausting. It’s hurtful, and your child ends up feeling like they have less value than others. Focus on the behaviour that needs to be improved rather than judging your child as a person. For example, if they hit their brother, tell them that hitting isn’t nice rather than saying they aren’t nice.
  • Don’t ignore your child. Take interest in them and what they do. You are at the centre of their universe. How you see them and the attention you give them carries a lot of weight.
  • Don’t compare your child with their siblings or other kids their age. Compare them to themself by pointing out the progress they make.
  • Don’t emotionally blackmail your child. Don’t tell them, for example, that it would make you really happy if they could do what you’re asking them. They might think that you only love them when they please you. Your child needs to know that you love them unconditionally, even if they aren’t always perfect.

Be a good role model for your child

Your child learns a lot by imitating you, so you can help them by working on your own self-esteem. Here are some examples of what you can do:

Don’t ask too much of yourself: this will only hurt your self-esteem and lead you to demand too much of your child as well.
  • Don’t be discouraged by the amount of effort a task requires.
  • Be openly proud of your accomplishments, even if they seem small.
  • Do activities for fun, not for performance.
  • Don’t assign too much importance to what other people think.
  • Put yourself first now and then.
  • Don’t put yourself down. If you make a mistake or don’t do something particularly well, simply explain to your child that you’ll try again and learn to do better next time.
  • Consult a professional (e.g., a psychologist or psychotherapist), if necessary, if you aren’t able to see things in a more positive light.

Things to keep in mind

  • To have good self-esteem is to appreciate yourself as you are and to recognize your true value.
  • You can help your child build their self-esteem by praising their efforts, spending time with them, and giving them small responsibilities.
  • You serve as a role model to teach your child to have good self-esteem.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: February 2019


Photos: 123rf/petro and GettyImages/LightFieldStudios


Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • Duclos, Germain. L’estime de soi, un passeport pour la vie. 3rd ed., Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2010.
  • Duclos, Germain, et al. Quand les tout-petits apprennent à s’estimer… : guide théorique et recueil d’activités pour favoriser l’estime de soi des enfants de 3 à 6 ans. Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, Montreal, 2015, 126 pp.
  • Laporte, Danielle. Pour favoriser l’estime de soi des tout-petits : guide pratique à l’intention des parents d’enfants de 0 à 6 ans. Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, Montreal, 2017, 136 pp.
  • Vallières, Suzanne. Les psy-trucs pour les enfants de 3 à 6 ans (chapter titled “L’estime de soi”). Éditions de l’Homme, 2009.