How Do I Help My Child Build Confidence and Self-Esteem at an Early Age?

To start: Teach them to celebrate their differences.

boy like a video game character reaching a star
Photo: Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Confidence-Boosting Mama

My 5-year-old son has quirks that never bothered him until other kids started pointing them out. I love that he has an independent and eccentric personality at home, and I don't want that to change. How do I help him build his confidence and self-esteem at an early age?

— Confidence-Boosting Mama

When our children become old enough to possibly feel rejected by their peers, it makes us miss the days of baby-proofing, when we could clearly identify safety hazards and do something about it (like canvassing the house with those plastic outlet covers). As our children get older, we realize how important it is to identify and resolve those emotional safety hazards, but unfortunately, they don't make outlet covers for that.

Children around age 5 are pretty famous for being blunt. They haven't quite gotten the social graces of not staring, pointing, or making cringe-worthy comments. We view what they say as embarrassing or hurtful, but they are often simply stating what they see, like a narrator of their own experience. They haven't yet internalized those things called social norms!

Regardless of the intention of the other children pointing out your son's unique habits, what matters most is he feels bothered by something about himself that didn't bother him before other kids noticed. You are right that this is a great opportunity to work on building confidence and a healthy self-esteem and to figure out the balance between embracing his individuality and feeling comfortable with peers. As a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents, here's how I would go about it.

Praise Specific Traits and Behaviors

To focus on building confidence and self-esteem at home, praise specific traits and behaviors, like "I just love how you used your imagination to make up that fun game! You can be so creative!" Remember that when praising, it's important that the praise is selective and genuine. If you are trumpeting "good job!" every five seconds, it becomes meaningless.

boy like a video game character reaching a star
Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Celebrate Differences in Others

Around this age, children are becoming more aware of how they are the same and different, so you can also weave into daily conversations how it's really cool that everyone is unique. Ask your child what they think makes them different from other kids, and what they like or don't like about those differences. Include what you love about their differences. This consistent positive messaging from parents plays an important role in each child feeling confident with strong self-esteem.

Observe Their Peer Interactions

If you think your child is being picked on by their peers for their unique traits, you need to shift gears from building confidence at home to watching what's happening in the rest of their world. Your child may notice other kids' responses as negative, or they may not. Observe the interactions if possible, talk to their teachers about what they see, and keep talking to your child. They may want to change their habits so that they feel more comfortable with other kids, or you may judge that it will help them get along better with other children to make some changes. Either way, you can simultaneously give them the message that they are loved for exactly who they are in your family.

Give Them Tools to Cope

The reality of social development is we do have social expectations that we learn to conform to as we get older. I know we want our children to love who they are all the time, but there are times that we may also help them tweak behaviors. Part of our job description as parents is to coach them through their growth as a social being in the world. Targeting confidence and self-esteem lays the foundation of emotional safety at home, which gives our children the tools to manage what we can't control in other parts of their world.

What matters is you are there for them, celebrating who they are as a person, every step of the way. As they figure out who they are in the world, one social phase at a time, they will know at their core they are loved and special. Trust me, this has more power to build confidence and self-esteem than the fanciest outlet covers money can buy, quirks or no quirks.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles