Signs of Low Self-Esteem in Kids

Low self-worth can impact kids' academic, personal, and social development. Luckily there are signs parents can look for and ways to help.

Dad and son
Photo: Emma Darvick

Every parent hopes their child will be healthy, happy, and confident. But even with parents' best efforts, children still encounter ups and downs. Major life events, like a death in the family, divorce, or a pandemic, can impact a child's self-worth by disrupting daily routines and rituals. These interruptions can rattle children's sense of security and the emotional foundations of their self-esteem.

For kids and teens, self-worth encompasses how much they like who they are and how satisfied they are with themselves. This self-perception emerges in early childhood and can ebb and flow with age and circumstances.

Having positive self-esteem inspires confidence. High self-worth leads kids and teens to value who they are and to strive to be their best selves. Kids with high self-esteem can:

  • Seek out challenges
  • Cope with adversity
  • Develop positive relationships with peers
  • Take good care of themselves

On the other hand, low self-worth can undermine a child's belief in themselves and reduce motivation. Kids with low self-esteem may be less inclined to invest in schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and other interests. It can also make kids socially withdrawn and develop unhealthy ways of dealing with problems, putting them at risk for anxiety and depression.

But parents can help kids of all ages cultivate a positive sense of worth. And when it begins to slip, parents can help kids course-correct. The first step is to notice the signs of low self-esteem. As a developmental psychologist, here's what I learned to look for and how I've helped.

What are the Signs of Low Self-Esteem?

Every child will experience challenges and setbacks. So, how can you know when something more profound is happening or if their sense of self is shaken?

Consider the following signs that may indicate low self-worth:

  1. Increasing and persistent physical complaints—especially headaches and stomachaches—along with more general expressions of not feeling good
  2. Changes in basic daily routines, including sleep (too much or too little) and eating (too much or too little), especially on school days
  3. Acting out (being irritable, having outbursts, being non-compliant) or withdrawing (being nonresponsive, not talking as much)
  4. Expressions of frustration and boredom
  5. Increasing negativity about themselves or anxieties about their capabilities

The key is to look for systematic changes in their behavior beyond the usual fluctuations.

How Do I Help My Child With Low Self-Esteem?

To help kids experiencing low self-worth, you must first evaluate what is causing the problem. Then, you'll be able to help your child problem solve and seek support. According to the American Academy (AAP), kids need the following to have healthy self-esteem:

  • Security
  • Belonging
  • Purpose
  • Feeling competent
  • Trustworthiness
  • Responsibility
  • Contribution
  • Autonomy
  • Self-control
  • Encouragement
  • Accepting mistakes
  • Family self-esteem

When you understand these components, it can be easier to identify where your child may be lacking. This insight can then help you identify the cause of low self-esteem.

Get to the Root of the Problem

As a start, promote open communication with your child. Be a conversation starter and good listener. For example, ask simple questions—especially open-ended ones—that convey interest and concern and validate your child's feelings.

Asking things like, "I wonder why you're not feeling good lately?" and "Who did you play with at school today?" offers a child an invitation to chat. Their answers may then provide an opportunity for you to ask follow-up questions.

The goal is to give your child a platform to tell you about the source of the problem, even if it takes some time. And don't think younger kids won't be able to express themselves. In my research, I've found that even first graders can be accurate self-reporters about sources of stress that can derail their self-worth.

Having worked with kids ranging from kindergarten to high school seniors, I know self-worth issues can stem from many different reasons. For example, my efforts on the Care Counts Laundry Program by Whirlpool brand attuned me to the struggle students face who don't have access to clean clothes. Students who lack consistent access to clean clothes may eventually avoid school because of the social consequences associated with that basic unmet need.

In addition, partnering with the Challenge Success program at Stanford's Graduate School of Education helped me understand how extreme pressure to excel can deplete kids' confidence in themselves.

Model Problem-Solving

Once you identify the source of the problem, you can begin the problem-solving process with your child. Kids feel supported when they understand that it's OK to acknowledge struggles and tackle them.

Some problem-solving techniques include:

  • Affirming your child for things they are good at (including being a good person, being kind, and helping others)
  • Looking for opportunities for improvement
  • Avoiding comparisons
  • Celebrating small victories (for example, getting better at a dance technique, making progress with multiplication, learning to stand up for their rights with a peer)

Refocusing attention toward positive traits and tactics for growth can offer your child a new perspective and help them get out of a negative spiral. It can also help them feel competent in their ability to come up with problem-solving strategies.

Promote the Value of Seeking Out Help

Communicate to your child that part of taking on struggles is seeking help from others who care about them. For example, a health care provider can make referrals to learning specialists and mental health professionals. In addition, schools can offer a range of services, including programs to tackle social problems and strategies for reducing academic stress.

The Bottom Line

Just because a child struggles with self-worth now doesn't mean that will always be the case. However, when struggles happen, communicating to children that we can take them on and seek help addresses the problem and fosters self-care and self-worth throughout childhood and beyond.

Richard Rende, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, researcher, and educator. Dr. Rende has published extensively in peer-reviewed scientific journals, authored two books, was appointed to the editorial board of a number of academic journals, and provided consultation services for the government, including serving as a grant reviewer for the Center for Scientific Review / National Institutes of Health.

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