A newborn hasn't yet formed a true sense of self. But she does have a remarkable brain that absorbs thousands of impressions each day ("That's Mommy's face," "My blanket is soft and warm," "Milk tastes good).
If these impressions are primarily pleasing, your baby begins to build a positive sense of her world, the people around her, and ultimately, herself.
Your loving gaze tells your little one how much you value her. Sometimes this is called mirroring because as you beam at your baby, your baby shines back, reflecting your love as she basks in it. Sometimes it's called matching because when the baby laughs, you laugh, confirming this happy feeling for her. Mirroring and matching are the earliest ways to build self esteem. Your infant is learning,
"My mom looks at me and likes me. She thinks I'm important. I must be a good baby." On the other hand, a child whose parents ignore her babbling instead of talking back, or who leave her to cry alone, grows up thinking, "My mom doesn't talk to me. She doesn't think I'm important. I must not be a good baby."
The key to self-esteem at this age, therefore, lies in spending as much time as you can looking and smiling at your baby, touching and stroking her, holding, soothing, and just plain loving her.
Once your baby learns that you're a good parent, he's a good baby, and the world is a good place to be, you've created an experience of unconditional love-being loved for who you are, no matter what you do. But a toddler is also beginning to be able to do many things by himself-not all of which are agreeable or acceptable. How can your child hold on to his growing sense of self-worth when you're constantly correcting him?
Since a toddler's sense of self is still fragile, you need to keep reassuring your child that he's good, it's the behaviour that's bad. One way to do this is by generalizing your discipline: "The rule in this house is no pinching" instead of "I saw you pinch your baby sister. Why are you so mean?" This helps your understand the distinction between doing something bad and being a bad child.
A child valued for who she is has the best chance for true self-esteem.
It also helps to avoid judgmental or humiliating language. For instance, say, "Now that you're getting to be a big boy, you need to pee and poop in the potty," instead of "Only babies pee in their pants."
It's at this age, too, that your child first experiences a wide array of emotions (anxiety, envy, excitement), which can lead to difficult behaviours (whining, impulsiveness). But your consistent, loving support through mixed moods and misbehaviours will enable his self-esteem to flourish.
As your child's world widens, she needs to be able to sustain good feelings about herself away from the support of her family. Mastering new skills helps her do this. As your youngster learns to count, throw ball, recognize words, she is developing an increasing sense of confidence and competence. So if your 3-year-old is having trouble fastening buttons, praise her progress ("You almost have it! You're trying really hard") instead of criticizing ("No, not that way! Aren't you listening to me?").
If you find it too frustrating to watch buttons slip out of little fingers over and over again, get your spouse or an older sibling to help. There's a direct link between real accomplishment and authentic self-esteem, so the more capable your youngster feels, the more self-confident she's likely to be.
As your child spends more and more time with kids her own age, she will begin to compare herself with her peer. Sometimes this helps build self-esteem ("I'm the only one who knows my colours, Mommy"). But sometimes it can diminish it ("Why are Lisa's pictures always better than mine?").
If the latter happens, offer empathy and empathize one of your child's strengths: "You're right, Lisa does make good pictures. Her mom's an artist, and she and Lisa draw together all the time. But you are very good at riding your bike, and Lisa still has training wheels." This helps your youngster realize that we all have things we're good at and we're not so good at, and that she doesn't have to be perfect to feel good about herself.
A child this age spends most of his day in an academic environment, so he is likely to derive a great deal of his self-esteem from how well he does in school. If your youngster is having trouble in class, show respect for his efforts rather than just the outcome ("I'm really impressed by how hard you worked on that problem"). This way he can feel good about himself even if he doesn't get an A.
You can further bolster self-esteem by encouraging extracurricular activities and emphasizing the worth of nonacademic subjects like music, art, or athletics. The key is to make it clear that you value all of your child's achievements, not just his schoolwork.
It's also a good idea to help your child understand that academic intelligence is not necessarily the only (or even the best) route to success. A child with high social intelligence might be elected class president and grow up to be a company CEO or psychologist. A kid with sharp visual skills might plan the class mural and grow up to be an architect or photographer.
What if your child is highly successful in school? You should still make sure that he isn't relying on academics as his only source of self-esteem-to the exclusion of friendships, sports, arts and other activities. All children need to learn that effort is just as important as outcome and that nonacademic achievements are important in addition to scholastic success.
Your love and support have gone a long way toward building your child's self-esteem. But what your youngster needs now is the affection and alliance of peers. A child without friendship is likely to be a sad child, and it's hard to maintain self-esteem when you're feeling lonely. But that doesn't mean your youngster has to be a social butterfly. The esteem of a few peers-even one or two-will do.
If your preteen has difficulty making or keeping friends in school, offer her an opportunity to join a group that casts a wider net in your community, such as a scout troop. Or let her spend a few weeks at camp, where she'll be exposed to a whole new set of kids.
But a preteen can also get too caught up in the social whirl. This can leave a child vulnerable, since friendships dissolve as easily as they form at this age. Special interests can be great sources of comfort and confidence in the face of peer unpredictability.
Finally, keep in mind that no one feels good about herself all the time; we all experience moments of sagging self-esteem. But a child who's been loved and valued for who she is, authentically praised, and encouraged to seek out many different opportunities for accomplishments has the best chance of building and sustaining true self-esteem as she makes the developmental journey from childhood to adulthood.