Five Ways to Help Your Child Build Self-Esteem with Rod Louden

Since the 1960’s, there has been a tremendous amount of thought and action in regard to how to best protect and build children’s self-esteem. Somewhere along the way, the catch phrase “Everyone is a winner” began to take hold in the minds of educators, coaches and parents, which was then messaged to children. While this was a well-intended ideal, the reality is that life is struggle; sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. Wisdom and knowledge are available to be cultivated from both experiences. If we deny failure, we rob ourselves and our children of the valuable lessons that struggle provides. Here are five ways to help your children form a strong relationship with self-esteem.

1. Work to keep you and your child present and focused

Fear, doubt, worry and anxiety are grown when one asks him or herself, “What if?” The combination of these two simple words is responsible for a lot of suffering. “What if?” takes us out of the moment and into the future. Those who struggle to create a relationship with esteem often answer “What if?” in a way that predicts a negative outcome, one that should be feared. In the realm of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, this is known as the cognitive distortion (a form of negative thinking) of fortune telling; one predicts the future and that future is bad. As a parent, how often do you ask yourself the question, “What if my child … ?” and what is the answer you get back?

Children are typically curious and observant. Often, a child is very aware of his or her parents’ mental and emotional states. A child wants to feel that he or she is meeting his or her parents’ expectations. If a parent is not present and living in the future, struggling with “What if?” … a child will pick up on this. This may lead to a child thinking that he or she is responsible for his or her parents struggle. A child may think, “Did I do something wrong?” A child may then travel to the past, where depression is often manufactured, to think about what he or she may have done or not done that is upsetting his or her parent.  Or, a child may travel to the future and start imaging a negative outcome; “What if I strike out? What will my parents think?” The result is neither parent nor child is focused on the present. Be aware when “What if?” pops into your head and do your best to not give it life. Stay present and positive in the moment and let your child pick up on this energy. Focus on what valuable life lesson can be taught in moments of both success and failure. After all, parenting is all about teaching moments. What are you going to teach your child today?

Scenario: Your child appears nervous on the drive to the ballpark. You say to your son, “You seem a bit nervous today. Is everything okay?” He responds that he is “fine,” but you know he is not.

Teaching moment: Don’t follow up with more questions. Instead, pull out the empathy tool. Let him know that it is normal to be nervous at times. “I know that you didn’t play your best last week. If I was in this situation, I would likely be a bit worried about not playing well today. But, the past is gone. Today is a new day. Do me a favor. Take a big breath.  Now, close your eyes and see yourself getting a hit. And, remember that you’re doing this to have fun. So have a blast today.”

2. Teach your child the value of struggle

One of the greatest gifts that you can give your child is a safe environment for failure to exist and to not worry about being ridiculed. A child will be far more likely to succeed if he or she is able to know that failure will not be met with negative energy, but rather viewed through the positive lens of simply being a learning opportunity. At the core of every problem is wisdom and opportunity. If you try to rescue your child from the problem, or to avoid or deny the problem, you lose out on the valuable lessons learned that are inherent in the process of problem-solving. As a parent, work with your child to “mine” what can be learned from process of trying to solve a problem. Also, be on the outlook for opportunities that the problem may have created. In doing so, you teach your child not to fear failure, problems, or the struggle. Instead, you help your child to find meaning in the struggle, thereby creating an opportunity for self-esteem to be built. How good are you at letting your child struggle?

Scenario: Your daughter has a really bad game. In the car on the way home, you see that she is upset and is blaming herself for not being good enough.

 Teaching Moment: I like to say, “There is no great without hard. If you want to be great, the universe will supply the hard.” In this situation, you have the opportunity to help your daughter explore how she views struggle. Help her to see what can be learned from experiencing a situation like this. Help her to let go of the negative energy through forgiving herself. I define forgiveness as letting go with the expectation of change. In letting go of negative energy, we free ourselves to explore reasonable expectations about struggle and how to benefit from struggling. This is different from forgetting, as valuable information is learned when we spend time examining the factors that caused the struggle, which can’t happen if we simply bury negative experiences.

3. Avoid taking the victim stance

When we blame others, we give our power away. If it is the umpires, coaches, or other players’ fault then one is powerless to do anything about it. Yelling at others in an attempt to blame or shame does nothing to strengthen your child’s relationship with self-esteem. This only teaches a child to be a victim, which robs a child of the opportunity to learn from his or her mistake and to struggle to improve. If it is the umpire’s fault that your child struck out, then why should your child go to the batting cages and practice? After all, it doesn’t really matter because someone else will do something that is “unfair” and cause him or her to fail. Is this really what you want to teach your child about life? Taking responsibility for one’s own actions, decisions and outcomes creates power. Don’t teach your child to give or his or her power away.

Scenario: Your son is at bat. The umpire calls strike three on a pitch that seemed to be way out of the strike zone. After the game, your son is upset about the call and is saying a bunch of bad things about the umpire.

Teaching Moment: Instead of joining in with your son to berate the umpire, help him to see what opportunities he may have missed earlier in the strike count. Did he take a pitch that was right over the plate? Did he swing at a ball way out of the strike zone? Encourage your son to continue to practice and learn in order to become more powerful. (There are plenty of great videos here at to help out with that!) Teach that power is created when we take responsibility for our own actions and choices, because then we can choose to do something different.

4. Give yourself and your child the gift of imperfection

Upon waking, give yourself and your child the gift of imperfection. In doing so, you begin the day by creating an environment whereby struggle is welcomed. Perfectionism as a goal sets up an environment for self-esteem to be attacked. Every mistake, no matter how minor, is amplified and then can be used to feed fear, doubt, worry, anxiety and other negative emotional states that harm self-esteem. Successful people don’t dwell on mistakes or define themselves by mistakes. They look to learn from the mistake in order to evolve. They ask themselves, “How can I get better?” This translates into seeking knowledge and practicing in order to pursue excellence. Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” By giving yourself and your child the gift of imperfection, the fear of chasing excellence will be diminished; mistakes can be viewed as a natural part of the process of getting better rather than an attack on the value and worth of an individual. And while you’re at it, give the umpires, referees, coaches, and other parents and players the gift of imperfection as well.

Scenario: Your daughter has a great game, but she made an error. Even though her team prevailed, she is being hard on herself for the error.

Teaching Moment: Ask your daughter what making a mistake means to her. Work with your daughter to think about what she can learn from the mistake rather than worrying about being perfect. You may even want to share the quote from Mr. Lombardi above. In addition, go through moments where she made a great play or got a hit. Ask her what she thinks the difference was between the times she was successful and the time she made an error. Let her know that you expect that she will make an error from time to time because she is not perfect and that she is not expected to be. 

5. Keep your eye on the ball

Why did you enroll your child in a sport? Was it your dream, or your child’s dream to have a career in professional sports? According to the chances of a high-school athlete making a pro roster are slim. In basketball, one out of every 1,860 high-school players will make it to the NBA. For baseball, one out of every 764 will make it to MLB. For football, one out of 603 will make it to the NFL. And in soccer, one out of 835 will make it to the MLS. For a very few, youth sports are a stepping stone to a career at a professional level. For the vast majority, it is not about making it to the pro level; it is about creating friendships, learning teamwork, persistence, sportsmanship, how to compete with honor and integrity, how pick yourself up when you trip, and ultimately to develop skills and knowledge that will lead to success in life and relationships.

Some parents lose focus on why they thought playing a sport would be a good thing for their child. Instead of enjoying the excitement/drama on the field, they become participants in the drama. Instead of being a positive model, these parents teach anger, blaming, shaming, poor sportsmanship, and other ways of being that will do nothing to build self-esteem or teach positive human values. If you find yourself being a participant in the drama, stop, take a breath and think about what you truly want to teach your child in that moment. Remember, your child is watching.

Scenario: The coach pulls your child from the game. You are not happy about this and you go by the dugout to talk to the coach about her decision. The coach is busy and ignores you. This angers you and you start yelling at the coach.

Teaching Moment: The middle of a game is not a time to bother a coach. While you may not understand why your child was pulled, teach your child to respect his or her coach. Instead, shout out support for your child and give him or her a round of applause. Refrain from making negative statements to the coach, or to others around you. As a parent, give your child (and yourself) the gift of vowing to never create drama or become a participant in any drama that is being caused by anyone around you.