Building Self-esteem That Won’t Crack Under Pressure

Healthy self-esteem is a powerful protective factor for our kids. What works in creating healthy self-esteem and what doesn't?

Self-esteem is seen as a cure-all for social problems. We believe that if we give kids high self-esteem then they will withstand peer pressure and be successful. They will resist drugs and alcohol, they won’t feel the need to send or post inappropriate photos of themselves and they’ll never bully. They will have clear boundaries and good relationships.

To a certain degree, that is true, however, if we give them a false, fragile, unexamined self-esteem we set them up for failure. We also run a risk of creating entitled narcissists. Somewhere in between, we find healthy self-esteem.

What is self-esteem?

When we talk about self-esteem, we are referring to a person’s overall sense of his or her value or worth. It can be considered a measure of how much a person “values, approves of, appreciates, prizes, or likes him or herself” (Adler & Stewart, 2004). Research tells us that we can have an impact on the development of our children’s self-esteem.

Often parents see that lots of praise makes their child happy and they associate that happiness with high self-esteem. However, if that self-esteem is not based on solid foundations, the slightest upset can bring it crashing down. Kids with fragile self-esteem don’t bounce back. They end up with limited resources of resilience and grit.

Shallow praise doesn’t lead to healthy self-esteem.

These days I find myself saying, “Good girl” or “Well done” to kids, almost as a reflex. You might be doing it too. On reflection, is the child actually achieving something worthy of praise or are they just doing what is expected? During junior school reading time, a child is expected to sit quietly and read. In high school, they are expected to bring their sports uniforms on certain days. At home, they may be expected to make their beds. There are some behaviours that are the bare minimum. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, you shouldn’t get praise, a certificate or a gold star for doing the bare minimum. In life, we are expected to turn up!

Santa Maria College psychologist, Jane Carmignani, says, “We don’t always have to feel good about ourselves.” A great deal of life is going through the motions. Nobody tells an adult, “Good job on paying the bills”, yet we are training kids to expect rewards for everything. This can lead to unhelpful arrogance; self-appreciation without self-reflection.

Kids need an internal locus of control to develop healthy self-esteem.

Children need to develop an internal locus of control. That means they believe they have some control over what happens to them in life. This allows them to achieve a sense of pride and fulfilment in their own, real achievements. This, in turn, leads to the development of healthy self-esteem. Raising kids purely on positive reinforcement teaches them that reward comes from outside of themselves. What happens when they grow up and their personal cheer squad isn’t around?

If your child isn’t selected for a sports team, do they believe it was because they aren’t good enough yet and they need to improve? Or do they believe it is because the coach doesn’t like them? An internal locus of control makes a child feel capable of change. Carmignani says, “The inevitable occasional sense of discomfort motivates us to be more than we thought we were.”

(You can download a free poster version of this image here.)

How to build healthy self-esteem.

Ultimately we need to aim for healthy self-awareness and self-acceptance. This comes through:

  • Reflection and daily, realistic assessment of self
  • Purposeful praise
  • Honest feedback
  • Clear goals that a child is invested in

 Reflection and Daily, Realistic Assessment of Self.

With effort and reflection kids will have actual power over their lives, rather than the flimsy illusion of power that praise provides. We are aiming for them to be able to say, “I stuffed up. That’s okay, but If I want to get better, I need to….”.

Self-reflection is essential to healthy self-esteem, however, it doesn’t come naturally to children. It’s our job to teach a child to reflect and that is best done by questioning. It’s our job to say, How do you think it went today? What did you do well? What do you need to work on?

Delivery is the most important aspect of helping kids reflect. Ms Carmignani says, “It’s all about tone. We need warmth and love and unconditional acceptance, not unrealistic, unconditional praise”.

Purposeful Praise

Praise is most powerful when it is specific and honest. When you praise a child for working hard, make sure they actually have worked hard. Otherwise, we lower the bar for them.

Up until they are about twelve, it is developmentally appropriate to praise children just for effort.  As kids’ brains develop we need to start looking at their use of process.

As they enter their teens, kids should be starting to question how they are doing things and reflecting on whether or not there should be changes made in order to improve performance. For example, Are their strategies for studying for tests working? Or do they need to reassess and try new strategies for better results? Praise older kids for their effective use of processes and strategies, even if the final product isn’t exactly what they want.

Honest feedback

Kids need honest, helpful feedback. The automatic, “Good girl” doesn’t give them anything to work with. Feedback shouldn’t always be about making a child feel good. It also needs to help with development. Talk to kids about things they do well and areas where they can improve. This can all be done in a way that is positive, accepting and loving.

Clear goals

Self-esteem comes from a sense of achievement. In order to foster that sense of achievement, it is important that children have clear goals that they are invested in. There is a difference between your goals and your child’s. I saw a very clear example of this with my young nephew.

Jonah is 8. Last year he was deeply invested in becoming Mental Maths Champion in his class. On Awards Night, Jonah was named overall Dux of his class, however, on the phone, he didn’t tell me about that. He told me he had won the Mental Maths medal. That’s what mattered to him, what he had worked towards and what he was proud of.


Self-esteem is a worthy goal for us to have for kids, but it isn’t something we can just give them. It must have foundations in personal experience, self-reflection and honest feedback. It must be strong enough to withstand criticism, failure, adversity and the odd, inevitable humiliation. If we can provide guidance in developing that sort of healthy self-esteem, we have given them a great gift for life.

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