I’m a Dad and a Psychologist: These Are the Signs of Low Self-Worth in Kids and How to Help

Kids struggling with self-worth can compromise their 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 that their child will not only be healthy but happy and confident. That said, every parent, including myself, will also learn that children will encounter ups-and-downs through the years. And as evidenced by the many challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, adverse societal events that impact health and severely disrupt daily routines and rituals—think family life, schooling, social life with peers, and extracurricular activities—can rattle children’s sense of security and the emotional foundations of their self-worth.

For kids and teens, self-worth encompasses how much they like who they are and how satisfied they are with themselves. It’s a “global” self-perception that emerges in early childhood and can ebb and flow with age and circumstances.

Why is it important? Having a positive self-worth inspires confidence. It provides the fuel for seeking out challenges, coping with adversity, developing positive relationships with peers, and taking good care of oneself. It leads kids and teens to value who they are and to strive to be their best self. On the other hand, low self-worth can undermine a belief in oneself and reduce motivation to invest in schoolwork and extracurricular activities, and numb the curiosity which drives the pursuit of interests. It can lead kids/teens to become socially withdrawn and develop unhealthy ways of dealing with problems, putting them at risk for anxiety and depression.

But parents can help their kids cultivate a positive sense of worth across developmental stages. That's why we want to become attuned to signs that a child is losing their footing so we can help them navigate challenges and cultivate a lasting positive sense of self. As a developmental psychologist, here's what I learned to look out for in my own kid, now 20 years old, over the years and how I've helped.

Signs Your Kid is Struggling with Self-Worth

As every child will experience challenges and setbacks, what are the signs that something deeper is happening, something which is shaking their sense of self? The fundamental principle is to detect systematic changes in their behavior that go beyond the usual fluctuations.

Consider the following:

  1. Increasing and persistent physical complaints—especially of headaches and stomachaches—along 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 noncompliant) and/or withdrawing (being nonresponsive, not talking as much).
  4. Expressions of frustration and boredom.
  5. Increasing negativity about themselves and/or anxieties about capabilities.

Get to the Root of the Problem

As a start, you want to try to promote a platform for open communication with your child. Be a conversation starter and good listener. Ask simple questions, especially open-ended ones, that convey interest and concern and validate the feelings your child is expressing. 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 and an opportunity for you to expand on the answers with more simple questions.

The goal here 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 has attuned me to students who lack consistent access to clean clothes and eventually avoid going to school because of the social consequences associated with that specific basic need. As an educator, partnering with the Challenge Success program at Stanford's Graduate School of Education helped me understand how children can feel extreme pressure to excel across the board and how that can deplete their confidence in themselves.

How to Help Your Kid Cope

Once you identify the source(s) of the problem, you can begin the process of problem solving with your child. You will be doing your child a great service by conveying that it's not only OK but important to acknowledge struggles so we can take them on.

Reminding children that they should focus on where they're at and what they can do to make things better is empowering. Talk about what they can work on to improve while not worrying so much about how well others are doing. Celebrating the small victories—getting better at a difficult dance technique, making progress with multiplication, learning to stand up for their rights with a peer—builds confidence and a platform for cultivating more belief in themselves.

In addition, help your child refocus on all the things they are good at, so they don't attach too much weight to their areas of struggle. Include here basic elements of being a good person; being kind and doing nice things for others is a wonderful way of embracing self-worth.

Promote the Value of Seeking Out Help

You will also be positioned to communicate to your child that part of taking on struggles is seeking out the help of others who care about us. For example, your pediatrician can make referrals to learning specialists for children with learning differences; the same can be said for emotional and behavioral problems. Schools can offer a range of services, including programs aimed at tackling social problems and strategies for reducing academic stress.

The Bottom Line

Just because a child is struggling with self-worth now, doesn't mean that will always be the case. When struggles happen, communicating to children that we can take them on and also seek out others to help us not only addresses the problem, but also sets up a platform for fostering 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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