How Do I Build My Kids’ Confidence and Self-Esteem?
How do you build confidence in kids? How do you lay the groundwork for better self-esteem? What age does confidence start to plummet in girls? Dr. Lisa and Reena tackle these questions, explain where self-esteem comes from, and cover how parents can help children feel good about themselves in this encore episode.
January 18, 2022 | 26 min
Transcript | How Do I Build My Kids’ Confidence and Self-Esteem?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 50: How Do I Build My Kid’s Confidence and Self Esteem?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: You know it’s an adjustment for so many people getting the kids back in school and it’s the little things like my son being able to bike to school. There’s this air of confidence now that he’s the fifth grader who can bike to school.
LISA: That’s cool that he can do that. So he takes his bike every day and parks it there?
REENA: He just started doing that, and, you know, it’s exciting to see these little things that are actually big things now.
LISA: Yeah. That’s a nice way to put it.
REENA: A letter we got is actually talking about building self esteem and self confidence and it says: ‘Dear Lisa, how can we talk about self esteem and self worth with teenage girls? What is it exactly? How can we help them to strengthen theirs? They can seem to be totally fixated on getting validation from other people or else they feel they are worthless. So, how can we help them build up a sense of self that isn’t only connected with such flimsy and superficial things as social standing or parents. I think it’s especially important for kids who aren’t the most popular pretty or accomplished ones. I think it’s a topic many adults struggle with too. So it would be great to plant a few seeds when kids are still young.’ It’s a great idea. How do you do that? Where do you start?
LISA: Oh, it’s wonderful, and it’s so timely too, Reena, with the news about Facebook and Instagram having all these data about how bad Instagram is, especially for teenage girls, you know, and how much it harms their sense of self worth and value. So, if this wasn’t on people’s minds before it’s certainly on people’s minds now, and let’s talk through the girl thing, but let’s just talk in general. Let’s think together about self esteem and kids and how you help them establish a sturdy sense of feeling valued and valuable. So when I think about this, what actually comes back to me is a story from my post doc. So after I got my PhD, then you have to do a couple years of postdoctoral training to get fully licensed, and I was working, actually, in an adult clinic, and I had this wonderful supervisor, and I had a case. A young adult, someone at the university, who was drinking way too much. She was an alcoholic, really, and she was cheating on her partner, and she was doing a horrible job at her job. She was just not, you know, didn’t care about her job, didn’t do well at her job, and she felt terrible. She felt really, really low, and my supervisor said something that was so compelling. He was like, well it’s good that she feels low. Like if she felt good about all of this, like that would be a problem, you know? And then he said this thing that has just held me in good stead for so long, and he said, you know people feel good about themselves for the things they do well, and she’s not doing anything well right now, so of course she doesn’t feel good, and so, Reena, for me, any time the question or topic of self esteem comes up, where I always like to begin is the sense of, well you have to have something to hang it on. You know it can’t just be your parent or your teacher saying like, I think you’re terrific, or you’re really wonderful, that the kid themselves has to have a sense of, I do something well, or it’s good or it matters, and actually your example of your son riding his bike to school, you know, I get myself to school. I follow the traffic rules. I take good care of my bike. I wear my helmet. I lock it up. That is such a perfect example of I am doing something well. I’m managing myself well, and it’s tiny, but self esteem is probably built on lots of tiny things.
REENA: Where does self confidence and self esteem come from? Especially when you’re little. When you’re an adult, okay you’ve probably had ways to build it and see it crumble, but how do you get and instill that in a kid. Where does it come from?
LISA: Well, it’s interesting because there’s actually a pretty clear developmental trajectory for kids around self confidence and self esteem, and so we can go back to earliest days, you know, 1-, 2-, and 3-year-olds don’t really think much about it. They’re the center of the universe. They know what they feel it, you know, they feel good about all that. Four-year-olds can start to feel a bit more fragile in terms of self esteem because by 4 we do kind of challenge kids’ sense of being at the center of everything. We do sort of expect them to start to be more of a a member of the organization that is the family as opposed to, you know, dictating so much of family life, and you will see in 4-year-olds there’s almost like a compensatory, very high sense of confidence. They are often sort of braggadocious 4-year-olds. I remember one of my daughters like we were driving she’s like, first I’m going to win the Olympics and then I will be a pilot and after that I’m going to, you know, it was just like this wonderfully ambitious but like a little over the top, and, you know, this is where it sometimes it’s a huge liability to be a psychologist. This was a good moment where I was like, yeah you really like sports, you know, and I didn’t feel like I had to take it down a few notches because what happens is as they hit 5, 6, 7 there starts to be a bit of a dropoff in self esteem from what is typically in development a little bit of an over high confidence around, you know, 3- and 4-year-olds, and that drop of comes for a couple of reasons. One is they do get into school and they start to compare themselves a little bit more. They start to sit next to kids who can do things they cannot yet do, and then really, Reena, by third or fourth grade, so we’re talking now 8 or 9, we start to give kids more honest feedback. When they’re in kindergarten, first and second like you’re fabulous, that’s a great scribble, and then by third and fourth, we’re like, eh, you know I’ve seen you do better work. So, part of what parents need to be prepared for is that it sort of has its own highs and lows that play out developmentally. So, if you feel like, man, my kid was so super confident at 4, you know, what happened at 8? Mostly it’s kind of a correction. You know they’re starting to see the world more broadly and see their place within it, but that’s right. That’s the moment, then, when we want to make sure they have ways to feel good that they control, right? So that’s where things like having jobs you do around the house, being expected to be decent and kind within the family, you know, having responsibilities. The expectation that we start to put on kids that even if the work is easy or not interesting to them at school, they’ll do it well. You know, so they may not feel good about the work itself, it may not be their cup of tea, but they can take real pride in how they’ve done it. So, I think if we think about creating a foundation of self esteem, what I would want parents to know is it’s a little bit up and down, wobbly, no matter what you do in earlier childhood, but if you start to have standards and hold kids to standards that are fair, ask them to do things that are within their capacity, praise them when they do a really good job, hold higher standards when they don’t do a very good job, again, so that they can feel good about what they’ve done, that’s where we start to lay the groundwork for good self esteem.
REENA: This makes me feel good. You know in the middle of the pandemic I just could not deal with doing the lunch boxes. At all. So I announced that my daughter became the CEO of lunch boxes. It was her job to decide what goes into the lunch boxes, and then there’s a bonus structure at the end where she would get an LOL, a LOL doll if she achieved her, you know, doing the lunch boxes for the year, and you’re right, like giving her this one thing that I really at her age my parents did for me, gave her such self worth and confidence and she comes up with these ideas and she knows there’s got to be, I will say the beginning of the year we fell off the cliff and it was Cheetos and we had to reevaluate, have a reevaluation, but I get it. Giving them something that they can do that they’re proud of. But my son with the bike, my daughter with the lunch box, I feel like I’ve just gender-ized both of them here. Are there differences between boys and girls? Like am I doing that wrong? Should I have reversed it? Give the boy the lunch box and the girl the bike?
LISA: Well, you’ll probably be able to do that overtime and double take on both, you know, that they’ll expand their capacities. We do see gender differences and what we see is actually that girls fall off a cliff. So, you know, self esteem often can stabilize around third and fourth grade, kids can figure out what they can take pride in and feel good about, and then something happens, and we know more than just a vague something, where girls hit puberty and their self esteem just plummets. You know boys not so much, but for girls it is this incredibly well-established and really upsetting finding where they just start to feel really self conscious, very aware of how they’re regarded by the world, comparing themselves tremendously.
REENA: Is it because their bodies are changing, Lisa? Like their hormones?
LISA: I think a lot of it is that. I think a lot of is that, and, you know, one of the rules that we always hold in mind when we think about puberty in kids is that for girls the modal age of onset, which is the most common age at which something occurs, is 12, and then for boys the model age of onset is 14.
REENA: You mean when puberty happens?
LISA: When it’s most likely to occur in a kid. So there’s kids who happen before and after, so it’s not the average it’s like the frequency number. So it’s highest frequency is 12 for girls, highest frequency is 14 for boys, and it does happen, right? That suddenly the girls’ bodies, here you are, you know, 12 is sixth grade, the girls bodies are suddenly a real object of interest and their puberty is fairly public, which is not, you know, so fun for them, and they do become very aware and the world becomes very aware and they start to get feedback from the world about their growing, changing bodies, and they also are getting feedback from the world about how their bodies are supposed to look.
REENA: And then add into the mix social media, where we’re now learning about just how toxic it is. Like there’s actual research that’s come out of how bad it is for girls.
LISA: It is, and so it’s not that boys can’t have faltering self esteem. Certainly adolescence is its own challenge. What I do think that holds boys in better stead, and then we can think about how we can backwards engineer this for girls, is that they, you know, by the time their bodies are changing, first of all, it’s less public, it’s less of a big deal, but they get to continue to move into adolescence and adulthood, you know, when those things are happening it’s also when they’re starting to hit high school. You know when they start to look more teenager-ish, and in high school one of the beautiful things can be that there’s a lot of stuff you can suddenly do. There’s a lot of clubs and activities and extras that some, you know, kids really school is right up their alley and they get a lot of pride and pleasure out of how they do academically, but as kids get older the more activities become available, which also then becomes more ways for them to feel good, more things for them to do that they can enjoy and take pride and pleasure in. So, I think boys may have all of the upsides of not having such a public puberty and then all of the advantages of a broadening array of things they can do. I think for girls what we can take from that is we want them to be doing a lot of different things that they find interesting and that they can feel good about to try to counterbalance the focus on their appearance.
REENA: But what can parents do to build the kids self confidence? Because I feel like those teenagers I’m dreading, like the moodiness because I remembered from my years, not wanting to be with my parents. How do you help them find things that’ll build their confidence? What can we do?
LISA: Well one of the ways I’ve long thought about this, and actually wrote about it in “Untangled” this way, is I actually like to think almost like self esteem is like a lake that needs a lot of tributaries because sometimes the tributaries dry up. So, it can be really hard on a kid if sports are their thing, and it’s their only thing and they’re like a super soccer player and they’re totally devoted to soccer. These things can be very time consuming, and then they get an injury or they get cut from the team and if they’ve gotten no other things going on, it can leave them very vulnerable, and so what I would say to parents is as long as you can, diversify that your kids do that they can feel good about and make them do it. If you’re asking, like what if the kid doesn’t want to? Doesn’t matter. I think parents can say to kids, you need to be busy, and we do know it is good for kids to be busy, like it’s always good for kids to be busy, you need to be busy, but we’ll put out a menu of things you can do. Like, you know, we feel you should have a sport every season, might be something the parents say, we want you to have volunteer activities or you need to be doing this job around the house or you’re in charge of your little sister. You know there has to be, you know, kids can have choice, but sitting around on the couch watching TV and staring at social media is not really an option for an activity that’s going to take up a lot of your time. It’s not good for you and it doesn’t give you anything to feel good about.
REENA: I know the flip side of this is without us realizing, we can unwittingly undermine kids confidence, and that’s one thing I worry about too. What am I doing that could really diminish their confidence and affect them?
LISA: That’s interesting, right? Like I think about these transactions. When a kid does something well, or when a kid doesn’t do something well, adults respond, you know, parents respond, and I think a lot about these moments because they really are times when we can get it right or we can get in the way of what we want for our kids, which is for them to feel good. So, let’s say a kid brings home a paper with a really good grade on it and good feedback from a teacher. It’s not the worst thing in the world for a parent to say, oh good job. You did a really good job. I’m so pleased. You know, that’s not a horrible thing to say, but I worry that it’s a missed opportunity because good job I’m so pleased is like, yay, you’ve made me happy.I think instead in those moments we might say like, well how do you feel about how you did? You know and get them to talk a bit about it, and then say you should feel so proud. You should feel so proud of what you’ve done. So it’s more that the parent stands back and kind of reflects on how good the kids should be able to feel about it versus the parent themselves feeling good and the child feeling good only because the parent feels good.
REENA: Do you remember that conversation that people had where everybody of the sports team gets a trophy and it just got a whole conversation about that. How do you not just give them false praise because they know, right? They know when they’ve done something amazing and when they haven’t.
LISA: Yeah I think, you know, I think that that was sort of a well meaning flop. You know this idea of like everybody gets a trophy, like I think it was. It came from this place of building up kids’ self esteem and rewarding them and I think you’re right. I think that both the data and common sense showed that kids are like, yeah whatever, like that kid who did nothing got the same prize I did, so the prize doesn’t mean anything, right? So, I think that the way we really make it real is that when kids are doing well, we admire and we say, you should feel so proud. You’ve done something quite remarkable here. I hope you feel really good about it. That can be a nice way to say that. I also do, Reena, I do think it matters to get sometimes to say, also you should know, I’m really proud of you. You know that that matters to kids and so I don’t want us to rob them of that, but then I think that it’s also really okay when a kid has struggled right, when they’ve maybe, you know, had a bad game, or, you know, messed up an assignment. I think in those moments if they’re worried about it or upset about it, false reassurance isn’t a gift. I think to say to them, yeah you didn’t have a great game, and we have to do it gently and tenderly, and then said to them, what do you want to do differently or the kids who are doing what you wish you were doing, how were they going about this in a way that you could learn from? You know to really engage with the areas where they’re struggling because when we do, here’s what I really love about that, it means that when we say, okay you just knocked it out of the park. You should be so proud. They can believe us. If we praise them for everything, you know, even stuff that’s really not impressive or doesn’t take much work at all, then when we praise them for things that are really valuable and that they’ve done so beautifully, it doesn’t matter as much.
REENA: So, go back to the, I’m worried about the negative. Coming from South Asian parents. There’s a whole generation of us who, and not that my parents did this, but I think that parents can be harsh, particularly Asian parents, there is this, oh my god you’re so bad in math. I don’t understand, oh my god. You know, like I don’t want to be like that, there is this generation of us who did hear that, you know, and there’s no positive praise. It’s just real. So how do you walk that line? Being real and not being harsh.
LISA: Yeah that’s pretty real and that sounds to me pretty harsh, and I remember what you’re what you’re making me think about is how there are very much powerful cultural threads that run through this and, you know, I don’t really understand what that kind of interaction means in like the broader context of what it means to be South Asian and, you know, there’s a part of me that’s like, you know, I don’t really get it I want to weigh in on something that I’m naive about, you know, its details, and then the flip of it is thinking back it’s funny, my training’s very heavy on my mind right now. When I was in my training we would have long case presentations and we were working very, very hard to be culturally sensitive, as we should, and so sometimes we would talk about something that came out in the clinical work that seemed to be informed by the culture of the family, and as we danced around it, danced around it, and I had one supervisor, this wonderful woman, and she said, you know? Just because something’s cultural doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It’s always kind of a little bit like, that is true, right? I mean the British stiff upper lip, like it doesn’t serve them well. So it’s one of those funny things, like thinking about it as a clinician where you both want to be very, very respectful of things that are culturally informed, especially if it’s not your culture, and yet I also was so grateful for the supervisor who would always say, you know, you actually, clinically, if it’s making a kid feel terrible, it doesn’t matter if it’s cultural. It still doesn’t mean it’s cultural. So yeah, I would not be like, oh my god you’re so bad, you know, whatever, and here’s why. Here’s why. One of the real fabulous inventions in psychology in the last couple decades is this idea of growth mindset, and it’s one of those things that now has been repeated and stretched probably beyond its original utility, but the basic idea is perfection, which is we want kids to think about their capacities as expandable, and sometimes kids get the idea that whatever skills you’re born with, those are the only skills you you have, and we don’t want them to have that idea. Most skills can be improved upon with effort, and if you say to a kid, you’re so bad at math. You’re basically saying like, you’re stuck. You can’t improve. So, what we really want to say is like, okay you messed up this assignment. You had a hard time with this paper, right? Like something didn’t go right here. How do you want to fix it? You know, what can you work on to improve? Like we want to be in that posture. And then the flip , interestingly, Reena, is we want to be careful about saying, oh my gosh you’re so good at that. Like you’re you’re dazzling, because then when the kid has trouble, then they think like, does this mean I’m bad? Does this mean I’m not smart? So, what I would say the big takeaway from all of this is, what we want to praise, and kids, we should praise our kids. They care what we think. If you want to praise something, praise effort because effort is what your kid controls, and so then if we wanted to get back to this girl question, if we want to get back to the letter and this appearance stuff, one way that parents can dig in on that, is to say look like I know the world gives you a ton of feedback about how girls are supposed to look and bodies and shape. Here’s the problem. You have actually very little control over that. You know, mostly how you look, how you’re built, like mostly genetic. It’s really kind of handed to you, and yeah you could go to extreme measures to try to modify it, but why not really put your energy on the stuff you can control? Like how funny you are, how, you know, interesting you are, all your cool hobbies, school, if it’s something that you feel really comfortable and strong in, and that’s a place that you want to put your energies, we have to have expectations at some level, but we want to also give kids room to be good at lots of other things, and to constantly couch, you know, where we want our energies and our kids energies to be directed, and the more it can be around stuff that they have say over as opposed to this highly superficial universe of appearance, which is really kind of not something we can do much about. I think that is actually where you get sturdier self esteem.
REENA: So, letting them identify early what they can control and work on.
REENA: It’s great. So, Lisa, what do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: So, one of the terms we talk about in psychology is this idea of unconditional positive regard, you know, and that kids deserve that from their parents, to feel liked and valued by their parents no matter what they do, and that holds here. Like we want our kids to always feel that no matter what they’ve just done, whether it’s glorious or kinda shabby, we think they are wonderful, and so if we are mindful of communicating that all of the time or delighting in them and praising them separate from achievement, we then create the conditions where there is a sense of unconditional positive regard, and within that context then we can give a warm and loving feedback about when they’re doing really well and also areas where they may want to improve.
REENA: Lisa, you’ve given us so much to think about this week. Thank you. And next week we’re gonna talk about nagging your kids and what else works. See you next week?
LISA: See you next.