Low self-esteem in children

Print click for printing article
Will Winter, MD, FAAP

How does a child develop low self-esteem problems?
There are probably many reasons why a child might develop low self-esteem.

Some examples include:
Academic difficulty and resulting low grades leading to disappointment in oneself
A poorly coordinated child who then is picked last for sports teams
A child who stands out and teased due to his or her appearance, i.e. being overweight
A child who is immature for his age and therefore has trouble fitting in socially
A child who comes from a household where the parents are fighting.

The thread that all of these examples have in common is, in each instance, the child is forced to focus on something he has no control over- something he is helpless to fix in the near term. Instead of feeling helpless, the child will take on the responsibility on himself. He will believe that it is his fault.

In essence, he would prefer to feel guilty to feeling helpless.

Now that he feels guilty, he cannot be happy with himself. Thus low self-esteem is born.

Low self-esteem leaves one open to all types of future problems including being "bullyable". The interesting thing is that, in both cases, being the victim of bullying or being the perpetrator of it, the basis is anger. It is the object of the anger that is different.

The victim turns his anger inward on himself. The bully turns his anger outward onto others. And both have a desire for control. A victim is not "bullyable" unless he has broken himself down first.

How do you fix low self-esteem?
The child must work on his thoughts and actions. When he has negative automatic thoughts about himself, those must be identified and interrupted. Having the child focus on positive facts about who and what he is- is also very important. This process takes practice and can best be done with therapy.

Secondly, the child must do activities that he enjoys and develop his abilities. Improving one's skill or developing a new one is proof positive that the child is capable and worthy. This is a fantastic defense against low self-esteem.