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How to build your preschooler’s self-esteem
Photo credit: Thinkstock
By Sarah Henry
Medically reviewed by KT Park, M.D. ,gastroenterologist
IN THIS ARTICLE
Nurturing your preschooler’s self-esteem might seem like a daunting responsibility. After all, self-esteem fluctuates in even the most confident adults! Because we alternate between feeling good and feeling not so good about ourselves, it’s important to cultivate your child’s resilience as well as a sense of pride, self-respect, and trust in his ability to handle life’s challenges.
Try these suggestions for helping your child develop healthy self-esteem.
Give unconditional love
Lavish him with cuddles, kisses, and pats on the back. Tell him often how much you love him, no matter who he is or what he does. A child’s self-esteem flourishes when you accept him for who he is, regardless of his strengths, difficulties, temperament, or abilities.
When you need to discipline your child, make it clear that it’s his behavior – not him – that’s unacceptable. For instance, instead of saying, “You’re a naughty boy! Why can’t you be good?” say, “Pushing Gabriel isn’t nice. It can hurt. Please don’t push.”
Make time to give your preschooler your undivided attention, without siblings or anyone else around to distract you. Take a walk together or have some one-on-one time during the last half hour before bed. This does wonders for your child’s self-worth because it sends the message that you think she’s important.
And it doesn’t have to be a lot of time. It means taking a moment to stop reading your email when she’s trying to talk with you, or turning off the TV long enough to answer a question. Make eye contact so it’s clear that you’re really listening to what she’s saying.
And enforce them. For instance, if you tell your child he has to eat his snack in the kitchen one day, don’t let him wander around the family room with his crackers and fruit the next.
Knowing that certain family rules are set in stone helps him feel more secure. It may take constant repetition on your part, but he’ll start to live by your expectations soon enough. Just be clear and consistent, and show him that you trust him and expect him to do the right thing.
For a 2-year-old, letting her choose between two possibilities is a good rule of thumb. (At this age, too many options can be overwhelming.) For instance, ask her whether she wants to wear her red shirt or the yellow one, or if she wants oatmeal or cold cereal for breakfast.
A 3- or 4-year-old can handle more choices, and letting her know that you trust her judgment boosts her sense of self-worth.
Let mistakes happen
If he puts his plate too close to the edge of the table and it falls, fight the urge to snap at him. Instead, encourage him to think about what he could do differently next time. Help him understand that mistakes happen, and it doesn’t mean he should feel bad about himself.advertisement | page continues below
The same goes for you. If you make a mistake, stay calm and acknowledge it, then move on. This lets your child know that it’s okay to goof up sometimes, and seeing how readily you recover makes it easier for your child to accept his own shortcomings.
Make success a snap
Get a stool so your preschooler can easily wash her hands and brush her teeth at the sink. Find a place for her toys and books that is within her reach. Buy clothes that are easy to put on and take off. By giving your child the resources to take care of her own needs, you’ll foster independence and pride in her ability to do things for herself.
Celebrate the positive
Every day, acknowledge the good things your child does, within his earshot. For instance, tell your partner, “Joshua washed all the vegetables for dinner,” and watch him beam with pride.
Be specific. Instead of saying “Good job” say, “Thank you for waiting so patiently in line.” You’ll enhance his sense of accomplishment by letting him know exactly what he did right.
Accept her emotions
When your toddler throws a colossal tantrum because it’s time to leave the playground, try your best to see it from her point of view. To a toddler, leaving the park may feel like the end of the world.advertisement | page continues below
Help her get comfortable with her emotions by labeling them. Say, “I understand you’re sad because we have to leave the playground.” By accepting her emotions without judgment, you validate her feelings and show that you value what she has to say.
Avoid making comments such as, “Why can’t you be nice like Oliver?” These kinds of remarks just make your preschooler feel bad about himself. Even positive comparisons – like telling your child he’s the best at something – are potentially damaging because a child can find it hard to live up to this image.
If you let your child know you appreciate him for the unique individual he is, rather than how he measures up to others, he’ll be more likely to value himself too.
Model your own self-esteem
One of the best ways to build your child’s self-esteem is to demonstrate your own. Express pride in yourself and your efforts, and do your best to avoid saying things like, “I’m so stupid” when you make a mistake.
Every child needs the kind of support from loved ones that signals, “I believe in you. I see your effort. Keep going!” Encouragement means acknowledging progress, not just rewarding achievement. So if your preschooler is struggling to fasten her snaps, instead of rushing in to do it for her, say, “You’re trying very hard, and you almost have it!” That makes her feel good about herself even if she hasn’t yet mastered the skill.
Swap stories and advice about and building your child’s self-esteem with other parents in the BabyCenter Community.