Self-esteem in children and teenagers

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

Is low self-esteem in children and teenagers increasing?

Research clearly identifies that low self-esteem in children and teenagers is on the rise, and we are often made aware of this in the news. As a result scientists and psychologists have been trying to work out why.

The role of overprotective parenting

Professor Martin Seligman is one of the leading experts in this area. He thinks that one of the reasons our attempts to boost self-esteem in children has been unhelpful is because we have prioritised “how children feel over what they do.” In protecting our children from difficult situations and feelings, we have hindered their ability to learn how to cope with challenges. As a result, they are under-equipped to handle life’s ups and downs.  Many children have never had it so good or so easy. Yet they seem to feel more powerless and less confident than ever.

Where do praise, criticism and failure and problem-solving fit in?

The table below shows how our efforts may unintentionally backfire.

Parenting Strategy

Unintended Problems

1. Giving constant praise for a very little achievement or effort

  1. Self-esteem is based on nothing real and children may feel a “fraud”, so deep down they don’t really believe they are worthy of the praise.
  2. Children become overly reliant on how they are viewed by others. Consequently, they may need constant rewards or praise to feel good about themselves.
  3. Children may assume they don’t have to try to earn respect or praise and so they don’t learn to try hard. They think it is their right.
  4. When they don’t receive praise for something, they may feel quite upset and angry.
2. Protecting our children from constructive criticism.  
  1. Any negative comments feel a huge deal.
  2. Children become highly sensitive to even slight criticism and can’t cope with it.
  3. Children don’t know how to put things in perspective or learn and grow from healthy feedback.
3. Protecting our children  from ever experiencing failure
  1. Children find failure unbearable because they have not learned ways to cope with it.
  2. They avoid doing things they might fail at and so won’t challenge themselves.
  3. Children give up easily when things get difficult.
4. Focusing too much on “self-love” and “self-importance”.
  1. Children may develop an overly inflated view of themselves, which eventually bursts with the harsher realities of life.
  2. There is a risk of extreme self-centredness – putting oneself first at the expense of loving relationships with others.
  3.  Selfishness can make secure and loving relationships more difficult, actually increasing insecurity and feelings of isolation.
  4. Children can develop fixed ideas about themselves (eg. sporty, clever, beautiful), which may not be helpful or accurate.
5. Taking over and solving their problems for them rather than with them.
  1. Children don’t learn the skills to fight their own battles and therefore have to rely on others.
  2. They don’t develop the confidence to try things on their own.
  3.  They may lack confidence in dealing with situations they are unfamiliar with.
  4. Others may be blamed for things that go wrong because children may find it hard to take responsibility for their own actions.
  5. They may assume others will do everything for them.

Areas of self-esteem in children and teenagers

Psychologists think that a child’s self-esteem comes from these three components:

Competence: How skilled and effective a person perceives him/herself to be in a situation.

Resilience: The ability to adapt successfully to life’s challenges.

Optimism: Being hopeful that difficult situations can have a positive outcome.

People develop confidence in different ways. We all have different temperaments, strengths and weaknesses, and therefore it is unrealistic to think that anyone, is confident in all circumstances. For example, a child who is naturally rather quiet and doesn’t like to be the centre of attention may be labelled under-confident. However, she may be perfectly confident in many other aspects of her personality.

Positive change in self-esteem in children and teenagers takes time

What’s important is to gradually teach your child to work out:

  • Who they are;
  • What they enjoy;
  • How to keep learning and growing, and
  • How to feel comfortable about their place in the world.

It is also perfectly normal and healthy for children to go through both overconfident and under confident phases. Most adults will remember feeling under-confident in situations as teenagers. With experience, determination and perseverance, as well as love and support from family and friends, most adults have overcome this.

What can I do, to help my child feel good about herself/himself?

Building confidence and self-esteem in children and teenagers is complex, and is more than simply giving praise to your child, or encouraging “positive self-talk” and discouraging “negative self-talk”. I will be adding blog posts about how to build your child’s resilience, competence and optimism (the building blocks of self-esteem in children and teenagers).

You can help your child develop these skills throughout her childhood because it is never too late! The ideas we will be covering are:

1. Ideas for developing your child’s feelings of competence

a) Help your children experience “FLOW”

b) Show empathy for your child’s struggles

c) Support your child to cope when struggling but don’t rescue

d) Let your child make mistakes

e) Praise effort more than achievement

f) Make sure your praise is specific, not general

g) Teach the art of determination and persistence

  1. Ideas for developing your child’s resilience.

a) Help your child develop a “Growth Mindset”

a) Teach your child to problem solve

c) Encourage your child to think flexibly

d) Teach your child to overcome difficulties rather than avoid them

e) Develop your child’s ability to ask for help 

3. Ideas for helping your child develop Optimism.

a) Help your child recognise their thoughts

b) Challenge your child’s thinking patterns

Further Reading

10 Best Self Esteem Books For Ten Year Olds


With thanks to Nicola Gorringe, clinical psychologist and co-author of  Brighter Futures: A Parents’ Guide To Raising Happy, Confident Children In The Primary School Years (parenting help)

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