Did you know that self-esteem starts developing as early as a few months old? Even that first social smile is a building block of self-esteem.
Mothers – and mother figures – are communicating worth to their infants as they feed them and bond with them, says Janene Allen, a counselor at Miriam School and Learning Center. She says she can’t overemphasize how important it is to respond to an infant or small child, including with smiles, facial expressions, hand gestures and tone.
The baby internalizes the feedback, and that’s when self-esteem begins to form.
As they get older, children’s self-esteem is dynamic, Janene says. It can change over time, both positively and negatively. The great thing about this fact is that there is lots of room for improvement once you notice warning signs of low self-esteem.
Janene says a few of those warning signs include what she calls the “wilted flower look,” as well as refusing eye contact, speaking softly, making negative statements about themselves, and showing bravado – over-compensating for their negative feelings.
Children who have learning differences also have an extra layer of complexity when it comes to their self-esteem. For instance, autism can make it very difficult to self-soothe, or relax when they aren’t feeling comfortable. A child with ADHD might receive many messages that the child translates as negative, thus affecting their self-esteem.
Janene’s primary suggestion is to slow down. Make time for open communication, social story drawing, art therapy – and don’t forget to notice the good things a child is doing. She also says “unconditional positive regard” from a parent is critical – meaning you make it clear that you love the child regardless of whom they are and what they are doing.
Parents can build their child’s confidence by talking about how to have conversations with others. The child will feel so much more comfortable knowing they can do that, both in school and in social situations. Also, rather than asking how their day was, reflect on what you see in your child. For instance, if you notice they seem down, your question might be, “It looks like you had a hard day. Can you tell me what’s going on?” Janene says to follow that up with a hug, validation of their feelings, and an opportunity to talk about it.
Teachers, too, can have a big impact on their students’ self-esteem. Janene recommends looking for ways to regularly convey success, and intentionally highlight positive aspects of the student’s work. She also suggests narrowing the focus. Rather than fixating on the end goal, teachers (and parents!) should look at each step along the way and notice the small changes. Those small steps are what will ultimately make the difference.
What does that difference look like? Changes in body language and a more positive attitude – especially toward themselves – are two indicators that self-esteem has improved. Another big one is the willingness to try new things. Stepping outside a child’s comfort zone takes a lot of self-confidence – something that is lacking if their self-esteem is low.
To hear Janene talk more about this topic, listen to our podcast! Check it out here.