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Ages & Stages

Signs of Low Self-Esteem in Children & Teens

A healthy sense of self-esteem can help kids handle the inevitable challenges of growing up. If you're concerned about your child's sense of self-esteem, watch for these patterns in their behavior.

A child or teen with low self-esteem may:

  • Avoid a task or challenge without even trying. This often signals a fear of failure or a sense of helplessness.

  • Quit soon after beginning a game or a task, give up at the first sign of frustration.

  • Cheat or lie when they think they're going to lose a game or do poorly.

  • Show signs of regression, acting babylike or very silly. These types of behavior invite teasing and name-calling from other kids, worsening the problem.

  • Become controlling, bossy or inflexible as ways of hiding feelings of inadequacy, frustration or powerlessness.

  • Make excuses ("The teacher is dumb") or downplay the importance of events ("I don't really like that game anyway"). They may use this kind of rationalizing to place blame on others or external forces.

  • Have declining grades or less interest in usual activities.

  • Withdraw socially, losing or having less contact with friends.

  • Experience changing moods, sadness, crying, angry outbursts, frustration or quietness.

  • Make self-critical comments such as "I never do anything right," "Nobody likes me," "I'm ugly," "It's my fault," or "Everyone is smarter than I am."

  • Have difficulty accepting either praise or criticism.

  • Become overly concerned or sensitive about other people's opinions of them.

  • Seem to be strongly affected by negative peer influence. They may develop attitudes and behaviors like a disdain for school. They may cut classes, act disrespectfully, steal or experiment with tobacco, alcohol or other substances.

Ways to support your child's self-esteem

  • Spend time with your child. Find activities you can do together that will make them feel successful. Choose activities that are fun, too, without winners and losers. Attend their soccer games and music recitals. Show them that you are interested in them and what they accomplish. By giving time and energy to your child, you will convey a powerful message of love and acceptance.

  • Treat your child as an important person. Encourage them to express themself, listen without judging, accept their feelings, and treat them with respect. Family mealtimes, even if it is breakfast at the start of the day, offer an opportunity to listen to your child.

  • Allow your child to make decisions whenever possible and assume more responsibility in their life. Show your trust in them.

  • Build close family relationships, and make your child feel that they are a contributing to the family unit.

  • Do not expose your child to, or confide in them, about adult topics or family and relationship tensions that will cause them stress. Try to minimize her anxieties related to family crises and changes, providing them with as much continuity and stability as possible.

  • Encourage your child to provide service to others through volunteer activities or groups such as Scouts or similar programs. This can increase their sense of community, her feeling of belonging and being appreciated, and her sense of importance and personal worth.

  • Teach your child to praise themselves. They should feel pride in her accomplishments.

  • Tell your child how much you love them—without any conditions or strings attached. Although parents' actions and efforts convey love indirectly, children also need to hear the words "I love you."

Giving it time & asking for help

Boosting your child’s self-concept will not happen overnight. It may take

months or years, and it will be an ongoing process. But if your child is not responding to your attempts at helping them, talk with your pediatrician about the need for professional support.

No matter what your child’s self-esteem may be, try to keep helping them feel as good as possible about themselves. Remain sensitive to what they are feeling. Recognize and acknowledge their efforts and gains. Stay flexible and supportive in the way you approach their difficulties. Accept your child as the person they are, and help them feel good about the person they are becoming.

Keep in mind that the single most important factor in maintaining a child’s self-esteem is the presence of an adult who demonstrates respect and acceptance and who provides support that conveys the message "I believe in you."

More information

Last Updated
Adapted from Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12, 3rd edition (Copyright © 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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