My Son Has Low Self Esteem

Annie The Nanny

Annie The Nanny

Get your parenting advice questions answered at Annie´s Advice Column
Annie the Nanny is a professional parenting educator. She writes a weekly advice column for parents who need help with their children's behaviour. Her advice has also been featured on CTV, CBC and in all kinds of print media. For more information about Annie, please go to her 'about' page.

Hello Annie,

My son has low self-esteem. He’s eight.  I always try to tell him how well he does things, yet he does not believe me. He constantly thinks he has to do everything perfect the first time and melts down if he doesn’t. Do you have any solutions or recommend any good books I can read about this? Please help.  Thanks, Dave.

My Child Has Low Self Esteem Hello Dave,  The first thing that might make you feel better is that 6 – 9 year-old children commonly rub things out and start again, so much so that amongst many parents it’s fondly termed the “eraser age.” If the behaviour seems to you to be excessive, then the first thing I would do is try to draw attention away from it. Children do things for a reason, and usually they get something out of it that makes the behaviour worth continuing. It’s what I spend a lot of my time explaining to parents and helping them deal with through the various services that I offer.

My son has low self-esteem: Realize that too much praise can backfire.

Start trying to look at when and how you praise your son. If you praise too often and for really unremarkable stuff, you actually end up instead creating a lot of attention-seeking behaviour inadvertently. I’ll give you an example. Let’s pretend your son is engaged in an activity. You interrupt to praise him. He enjoys the praise (who wouldn’t?). He would like more of it, so if these interruptions happen on a regular basis, he subconsciously looks for ways of getting more of the same. He soon figures out that if he engages in self-criticism, like any well-meaning parent, you will likely rush over and take the time and effort to assure him that what he’s done is not worthy of his harsh critique.

Over time, the constant self-criticism becomes a habit, and he genuinely starts to believe that what he’s doing isn’t any good. Now he’s no longer doing whatever it is he’s doing for the innate worth the activity holds but instead to get positive feelings from you. You have become the arbitrator of what is worthy and what isn’t.

Now you’ll probably say that he’s the one who wants to erase the work and not you, and yes, that would be expected. He no longer feels confident in his own judgment, and so it’s easier to simply start over. Being unable to really do the activity any better the next time will create feelings of frustration and failure, which is probably where the meltdowns are coming from.

My son has low self-esteem: Teach him to trust himself.

So what to do? In my view, probably the best solution is to take away all the attention that he’s used to getting for this behaviour. In order to get him to learn to trust himself, he must stop looking at you. The only way to accomplish that is to withdraw your attention from his constant worrying. This may sound harsh because when you stop providing support, it will precipitate meltdowns. Your child will be uncomfortable as he comes to terms with his feelings, and he will be confused for a while if you withdraw your attention, but don’t worry. For your part, you need to offer your attention only long enough to guide him in the right direction and ensure that he knows that you trust him to make his own decision about the worthiness of his efforts. You can mention that you think it’s fine, but don’t overdo it. Don’t gush, and if he decides to tear it up and start over, don’t say anything and try to remain as cheerful as possible.

My son has low self-esteem: Just don’t turn him in to a praise junkie.

Make sure that you only praise things that are really worthy of praise. If at any point you notice him calmly looking at his efforts, then you can certainly engage him, but avoid validating or not validating his efforts and instead ask questions or make appropriate comments. Questions like “Is it a windy day in your picture?” or a comment like, “I bet your horse feels cold in that wind?” Chatting about his picture when he comes to you and is calm is fine. If you refuse to give attention to the outbursts or uncertainty about his efforts, the behaviour will eventually cease, and he will learn to trust his own judgment.

As far as books go, my advice is to stay away from them. There is nothing more confusing than a ton of different points of view, and nothing that is more corrosive to your confidence as a parent than a whole lot of conflicting advice.

In terms of his general self-esteem building, offer opportunities for his growth as a person. Anything that makes him feel that his contributions are part of helping his community. Scouts is a good and if you’re an outdoor person, he’s just the right age for Junior Forest Wardens or some other community group. Helping out at home and even shovelling Granny’s driveway (yours or someone else’s) in the winter can be a great source of pride and a good self-esteem builder.

To get more of your parenting questions answered, please visit my parenting services page.

All the best to you and your family.


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