Self-love – or self-esteem – is a set of ideas, thoughts and emotions a person holds about themselves – it's their perceived value and worth. When kids have a healthy level of self-love and self-esteem, it significantly impacts their ability to cope with adversity and bounce back from challenging situations, also known as resilience. Those with high self-esteem tend to have a more positive outlook on life. They are also less likely to give up when faced with setbacks and believe in their ability to handle difficult situations, including when bullying and harassment occur. Adversely, when kids experience low self-esteem, they tend to struggle with feelings of inadequacy. They are more likely to internalize failure, making it harder to recover from setbacks.
Alicia Wheelington, Ph.D. , and Laura Kuper, Ph.D., APBB, pediatric psychologists at Children's Health℠, explain why self-love is important to kids' mental health and share tips for parents to build their self-esteem at home.
Why is nurturing self-love in kids important?
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of more than 7,000 teens in 2021 found 4 in 10 felt "persistently sad or hopeless," while 1 in 5 had contemplated suicide. While that statistic alone is devastating, additional studies show that the risk is even higher for girls and LGBTQ+ youth. With the rise of mental health issues in children, it is even more important for parents to know what their child thinks of themselves.
Your child's perception of their body image, abilities, value and worth matters greatly to their mental health and outlook on life. When a child can appreciate what makes them unique, it builds their confidence, resilience and boosts their mood.
"We can't always change the experiences kids have in the world, but we can help them manage their responses to those situations and help them build resilience," explains Dr. Wheelington. "In the face of negative behavior like teasing or bullying, a child with healthy self-esteem will remember they have positive traits and be able to rise above that current, negative situation."
Signs of low self-esteem in kids
It's important for parents and families to recognize poor self-esteem issues in their kids because those issues may be a sign of a bigger mental health concern, such as depression or anxiety. A primary sign of low self-esteem in children and teens is making negative comments about themselves, such as:
- "I'm not smart enough."
- "I'm stupid."
- "My face looks ugly."
- "Nobody likes me."
- "This doesn't fit me right."
If you wonder how your child thinks about themself, ask them to talk about what they like or don't like about themselves. Kids with low self-esteem will have trouble pointing out things they like and will focus on the negative. If they can share the qualities they like about themselves and talk about their strengths, that's a good sign of healthy self-esteem.
Causes of low self-esteem in kids
The causes of low self-esteem can be complex and influenced by many positive and negative factors. Potential threats can significantly impact a child's self-esteem, self-worth and well-being. Several causes of low self-esteem may include:
- Bullying and social rejection
- Criticism and negative comments
- Past social experiences
- Traumatic experiences
- Unrealistic expectations
- Comparison to others
- Social media and body image
- Internalizing negative beliefs
These causes can undermine the development of a nurturing, supportive environment.
How to boost your child's self-esteem
Boosting your child's self-esteem can positively impact how they navigate life's challenges. Here are some ways you can help your child develop self-love.
1. Focus on body positivity and self-compassion
Body positivity is the part of self-love that relates to how a person thinks about the body they're living in. How a person thinks about their body includes the way the body looks, how much it weighs and what other people might say or think about it. If you hear your child talking negatively about their body, offer a positive way of thinking about their body. Help them develop a positive inner voice by guiding them to focus on the important qualities they have and the great things their body allows them to do. Focus on the body's ability rather than its appearance.
Because we live in our bodies, we should ideally learn to appreciate and love them. "The best way to have body positivity is to appreciate your body for what it can do – like how it can stand up out of a chair or how it can run and play – rather than focusing on its weight or shape," Dr. Wheelington says.
Help your child reflect on all the things their body does. Then, help them think of ways to add to their body's abilities by exploring new skills, such as shooting a basketball or learning a new dance. This can help them feel grateful for their body and concentrate on the positive things it can do.
2. Model self-love for your child
An excellent way for parents and families to teach self-love to kids is by developing their own self-esteem, body positivity and self-compassion. Parents should freely and openly comment on things they like about themselves. They should be cautious about modeling negative body or self-talk around kids. Again, focus on your body's abilities rather than its appearance.
3. Reaffirm your child's identity with positive affirmations
Throughout their development, tell and show your child that you're there for them and love them for the person they are, unconditionally. Make sure your child knows that there's nothing that could stop you from loving them.
Additionally, if you hear your child speaking negatively about themselves, you can create positive affirmations with them to challenge them. For example, if you hear them say, "I don't like the way I look," you can encourage them to embrace a positive affirmation like, "I am perfect just the way I am."
You get to decide who you are and what you think about yourself.
"You get to decide who you are and what you think about yourself," reminds Dr. Wheelington.
For parents with children who identify as LGBTQ+, reaffirming their identity is especially important. Avoid dismissive comments (e.g., "it's just a phase") and avoid encouraging your child to keep their identity or relationships a secret. The adjustment to using a new name or pronoun is often difficult but is a powerful way to demonstrate your support and love.
4. Cultivate a growth mindset
Another way to build self-esteem in your child is by cultivating a growth mindset. Rather than focusing on a fixed way of thinking, families should focus on growth and development. Instead of giving a compliment to your child that focuses on a fixed trait like, "You accomplished this because you're so smart," try something like, "You work so hard. You worked on that project for a long time, and it was tough, but you accomplished the task."
This way, when a child faces a challenge in the future, they have the confidence to keep going and keep pushing. This mindset focuses on growth and skill development rather than on personality traits.
Nurturing self-love in youth who identify as LGBTQ+
Self-love is critical to a person's mental and emotional well-being, especially in kids who identify as LGBTQ+. When kids are taught to love and accept themselves for who they are, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, they can develop greater resilience and emotional strength. This is especially true when addressing the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth. The Trevor Report found that fewer than 40% of LGBTQ+ young people found their home to be LGBTQ-affirming.
"LGBTQ+ youth want to be seen and affirmed," Dr. Kuper says. "They may lack support because their family, peers, school or faith community aren't affirming, or because they don't feel comfortable talking about their identities and experiences with doctors or other professionals."
"Self-love and self-esteem are important for everyone, but especially for kids and LGBTQ+ youth because their skills, understanding and ways of thinking about themselves are still developing," Dr. Wheelington says.
Acceptance and actions of family, friends and supporters can make a difference. In fact, The Trevor Project study found that having support from family, friends or a special person reduced suicide attempts from 22% of youth with less support to 13%. Similarly, youth were half as likely to report attempting suicide if they had access to gender affirming clothing, a supportive school environment and people who used their chosen name and pronouns.
Self-love can help youth who identify as LGBTQ+ develop a positive self-image, foster self-acceptance and cultivate a sense of pride in their identity. By embracing their unique qualities and recognizing their inherent value, they can navigate the challenges of growing up LGBTQ+ with confidence and self-assurance.
See more tips on how to nurture your child’s mental health. If you have questions or are concerned about your child, contact a professional. Children's Health psychologists and psychiatrists can help children and teens manage feelings of depression and anxiety. Learn more about the mental, emotional and behavioral health programs we offer kids of all ages.