5 common mistakes that affect children’s self-esteem

Every parent wants to boost their children’s self-esteem and confidence. However, the latest research shows that some of the things that parents do with the best of intentions can actually be detrimental to a child’s self-esteem, particularly because our actions can make children doubt our sincerity and cause them to become afraid of failure.

Here are the five most common mistakes that most of us make:

1. Using evaluative praise

One of the keys to developing a child’s self-esteem is to make them feel good about themselves, and many parents think that the best way of doing this is by ensuring that children receive lots of praise and encouragement. Whilst it is true that some forms of praise and positive comments made to our children are likely to motivate them, research shows that certain types of praise can actually do more harm than good.

Indeed, research suggests that using evaluative praise with statements such as “You’re smart” or “You’re good at this” can create a fear of failure, because children become afraid to do anything that could expose their ‘flaws’ and call into question their ‘talent’.

And yet such praise is commonly used by parents because it used to be advised by parenting experts in the ‘self-esteem building culture’ of the last couple of decades. Using such evaluative phrases focuses on our children’s ‘innate’ talents rather than their ability to develop new skills, and we run the risk of boxing them into adopting a certain identity. Because if a child identifies as being ‘smart’ or ‘good’, they may feel as though they have to live up to that perception all the time, which can lead to them becoming afraid of failure.

Such pressure results in children becoming less likely to try new things or take risks for fear of not getting it ‘right’, and so they end up missing out on essential opportunities to develop their confidence and sense of self. Even though we may use it with the best of intentions, evaluative praise puts too much pressure on children to live up to our idealised perception of their ability and ‘talents’ and often serves only to make children feel uncomfortable. Indeed, many parents find that the more praise they try to give as their child grows up, the quicker their child is to reject it!

That’s not to say that we should avoid praising our children altogether, in fact quite the opposite is true. The key is to praise in a more effective way in order to develop a growth mindset.

2. Focusing on the outcome

If we tend to focus on the outcome by praising them with statements such as: “I’m so proud of you for getting 100% in your school test”, we can inadvertently overlook the effort that our children have put in on the occasions when they don’t excel or aren’t successful in an exam or activity. When in fact, the effort they put into something and the potential mistakes that they make when they don’t get it ‘right’ are usually more valuable experiences for developing self-esteem than the outcome itself.

Also, if we only praise our children if they achieve a good outcome, then we run the risk of making them feel as though they have to ‘win’ or be successful every time, and if they don’t achieve it then they are somehow failing. For some children, this feeling can make them afraid to take on new challenges.

3. Criticising and comparing to others

There is nothing more demotivating for a child than receiving a constant ‘diet’ of corrective feedback or ‘constructive criticism’. This can make them feel singled out and as if they’re being shamed for aspects of their personality or behaviour.

And yet, it is quite easy to find ourselves as parents in ‘error detection’ or ‘fault-finding’ mode, particularly when we feel our child is being lazy and is not putting enough effort into a task or activity. When we focus on highlighting what the child has done well instead, it boosts their confidence and makes them believe that they are capable and that they will be able to improve.

It is also essential that we avoid comparing them to a better-behaved sibling or school friend as this is also demotivating, and it could send children the message that they have innate flaws and therefore have little to no capacity to change.

4. Overpraising and going overboard

Giving children constant praise for even the slightest of achievements may seem like a good way of increasing their confidence, helping them to become more competent and improving behaviour. This type of constant ‘positive reinforcement’ is still advocated by a lot of parenting experts nowadays. However, research shows that praising children indiscriminately means that our praise is likely to become meaningless to them and loses its power to influence over time.

By being praised for everything they do, children are likely to become ‘praise junkies’ and to be overly influenced by what other people think of them because they are so used to being evaluated. This also makes it more likely that they will become ‘people-pleasers’ as adults who seek constant validation from other people. As a result, they may find themselves frequently being either ‘made’ or ‘broken’ by someone else’s opinion of them.

Similarly, if we become over-excited when praising children for the slightest of achievements, this can make them doubt our sincerity. In other words, if we go too ‘over the top’, we may find that in the long term our children become cynical of our praise and start to doubt the sincerity of the appreciation we have for them.

The other problem with exaggerated praise is that children of today are already under such intense pressure to look perfect and be perfect, that if they perceive themselves to be less than this, this can leave them feeling emotionally crushed.

And when you also take into consideration the conflicting messages kids get about who they are and what they should be from their friends, parents, teachers and social media, is it any wonder that so many end up with a distorted view of themselves?

The way that children react to these pressures differs from child to child. Some children respond by pushing themselves harder to try to prove their worth. This can result in them putting all their focus and effort into pleasing others, even though it doesn’t make them truly happy, and then giving up in anxiety and frustration. While other kids adopt a mentality of ‘Why bother? I’m only going to fail miserably and embarrass myself’ and decide that the safest thing to do is stop trying altogether.

5. Using reward systems and sticker charts

Rewards and sticker chart systems have become hugely popular over recent years; parents use them as a means to encourage good behaviour from their children and help them develop a positive attitude towards daily tasks and household chores.

Whilst such systems can certainly be effective in the short term, the reward chart system teaches kids that the only point in being well-behaved is that they will be rewarded for it. Indeed, research shows that the external motivation provided by the reward becomes stronger than the internal motivation of simply behaving the way they should. This means that if we constantly reward our children for something now, we are effectively reducing the chance for them to repeat that behaviour again unless they are cajoled with more rewards.

This can be difficult for some parents to accept, as rewards and sticker charts often tend to produce quick and impressive results. However, the change in behaviour is unlikely to last because such reward systems only focus on increasing the external motivation of the child, rather than having any real effect on their beliefs or attitude. They are essentially a way of ‘bribing’ our children to do as we ask and once we remove the reward, the good behaviour disappears with it. In the long term, parents are very likely to find that their children come to expect greater and greater rewards so that by the time they become teenagers, they may refuse to comply with any of our requests without some form of reward such as a financial incentive.

If you’re used to making some or all of the mistakes listed above, which most parents make, you can find better alternatives in our book Raising Happy Confident Kids. It will equip you with effective strategies and better ways of praising that will help to raise your child’s level of self-esteem and maximise their chances of growing to become confident and independent adults. You can also build your children’s happiness and confidence by getting them a Happy Confident Me Super Journal. Check out the reviews from some of our happy customers.

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