How to Build Children’s Self-Esteem

By Greg Baer M.D.

February 9, 2023

Low self-esteem is the most commonly observed mental health problem in children, as I have learned in my interviews with thousands of parents. But these children are also badly overlooked and not getting the help they need.

How could this be?

We tend only to take children to the doctor for “more serious problems” like ADHD and depression. But we put up with what we describe as “just a lack of confidence.”

Doctors can’t BILL us for evaluating or treating low self-esteem. There’s no billing code for it. Imagine.

We actually enjoy many of the symptoms of low self-esteem. Who could complain about a child who is quiet and causes no trouble? We don’t, teachers don’t.

So why should we care about self-esteem in children? Because, by definition, these children do not feel good about themselves, and this strongly affects their thoughts, feelings, and choices. It also contributes to more obvious and serious problems in childhood and throughout adulthood—anxiety, depression, cutting, suicide, and even physical disorders. 

And NOBODY sees the potential of all these problems in a child who is just quiet and “shy.”

Child Low Self-Esteem Symptoms

Children with low self-esteem have a negative perception of who they are, which is devastating, but we parents do not want to believe that our child has this problem. Why? Because (1) we’d have to entertain the notion that we might be responsible for the problem in some way, AND (2) we’d have no idea what to do about it.

To make our task even harder, children never announce that they have low self-esteem. We have to look for it, and we have to look for it diligently. How?

About your child, ask yourself: Do they

  • tend not to speak spontaneously? Do you have to initiate conversations?
  • often avoid activities that are new or potentially risky?
  • appear defeated and discouraged when they make mistakes?
  • visibly shrink into themselves when they’re criticized?
  • avoid groups of people, preferring to be alone?
  • avoid eye contact?
  • just act “small,” like they lack confidence?
  • use expressions like, “I can’t do anything right” or “What does it matter?” or “Who cares?”
  • have trouble concentrating on homework or conversations?
  • disconnect from family and friends, spending time alone in their room?
  • display a kind of emotional deadness, with a narrow expression of feelings?

It’s very likely that you won’t want to see these tendencies, but if you want to help your child, you must be rigorously honest.

What Causes Child Low Self-Esteem

THIS is THE question. Until you can answer it, you will be confused and helpless with your child. And almost no experts can answer it.

We cannot understand our children until we first realize that what we all need more than anything is to feel LOVED. As proven by many studies, love is THE ingredient necessary for happiness, and without it we WILL be in pain. We WILL feel small and helpless, and we HATE that. So do our children.

Our children are in pain because they don’t feel sufficiently loved BY US. Yes, I know you love your children as well as you can, but YOU were not given the KIND of love YOU needed as a child either, so you don’t have it to give. LOVE is both the reason for our children’s pain and also the answer. But we must understand that NOT just any kind of love will do.

What we all need is UNCONDITIONAL love, or Real Love®, which means to care about another person without any thought for something in return. There is no disappointment or irritation in Real Love. You didn’t get that kind of love—with no disappointment or anger—so you don’t have it to give your children.

How do I know that you didn’t get unconditional love? Remember in your childhood how many times:

  • your parents or others rolled their eyes at your mistakes.
  • they criticized your performance, especially with a “tone.”
  • they told you they were disappointed in you—with their words, their facial expression.
  • you just needed to talk to someone, but there was no one there.

Each of these times we were not unconditionally loved—whether aggressively or by simple neglect—we FELT the message, “I don’t love you.” Really. It was like being poked with a sharp stick. Our children have the same pain.

All of us—including our children—MUST be unconditionally loved and taught

  • How to find and maintain our feelings of worth
  • How to find our creativity and let it blossom
  • How to identify and be responsible for our feelings.

When children don’t feel unconditionally loved, they try ANY behavior that will earn our approval or protect them from feeling worthless. They try to please us, to earn praise. When that wears off, they try anything that temporarily numbs their pain or gets attention:

  • Whining, complaining 
  • Disappearing into screens
  • Anger, fighting, resisting
  • Endless behaviors that hurt them and annoy us.

When everything fails to make them genuinely happy—not just entertained or briefly satisfied—they become emotionally discouraged. They feel small. They acquire a belief that they’re flawed, even defective.

To be plain: the reason your child has low self-esteem is that you simply were not loved unconditionally yourself, and now you don’t know how to give that lifegiving ingredient to them.

And yes, you’re doing your best, but your disappointment, irritation, or simple lack of involvement with your child—all of which happen much more often than you might think—are crushing to his or her sense of worth.

Do not feel guilty. It all began with the love you did not get yourself.

Take the first step right now. Say out loud these words: “My child feels bad about himself/herself because of MY disappointment, irritation, or lack of involvement, which proves that I simply don’t know HOW to love my child unconditionally.”

Yes, ouch, but now we can talk about truly effective solutions.

How to Increase Self-Esteem in a Child

Is There an Answer?

Oh yes, there IS an answer. And I know that you’re looking for a cute list of steps to take—we all are. But there is no shortcut to learning to be a loving parent, which is easily one of the most difficult jobs on earth.

We must be TAUGHT how to parent, and in the Ridiculously Effective Parenting Training, you will learn how you can completely eliminate disappointment and anger from your life. And THEN you can learn how to unconditionally love and teach your children. THAT is the solution to preventing and treating a child’s lack of self-esteem.

After thirty years of experience I have learned that love WORKS, but learning to receive and give it requires vulnerability and focused effort on your part.

There are no easy or quick solutions, but there IS a solution.

I promise you that children who feel loved simply don’t suffer with feeling of worthlessness. I know this. They acquire a real reason to live. They become happy and creative. Why? Because they have ENOUGH of what they need most—the love of a parent.

Your problems—and your child’s problems—were created over many years. How fortunate that solving these problems can happen much more quickly. Change takes focus and practice, but loving is certainly not more difficult than the way you and your child are living now.

As you learn to be loving, you will feel so much happier yourself. 

You will enjoy the privilege of watching your child naturally and freely acquire the self-worth they need to be confident, creative, and happy.

You will experience the peace of a loving home, the confidence of being a loving parent, and the joy of raising children who are loving and responsible.

What could possibly be better?

Watch and learn more!

Learn how to build your child's self-esteem.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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