How to nurture healthy self-esteem in children

31st Mar 16 | Family

It is important for parents to teach their children how to deal with defeat realistically

Back in February I was asked by the local newspaper (pg 76) to share my thoughts about coping with defeat. I discussed our personality as being a big part of how we deal with setbacks, and being a parenting author, I inevitably referred to childhood experience. This part of my reflection wasn't published though, so I'm presenting it now. This article from The Guardian on how famous and successful people deal with rejection inspired me to share this with you…   

The crucial aspect of our parenting efforts to support children in learning from defeat is to help them develop healthy self esteem. The best chance for the children to become well balanced people with stable self esteem is to experience ‘good enough care’. Good enough parents, as Manfred Kets de Vries points out in his book "The Leader on The Couch", must give children three things: support, age-appropriate frustration, and a proper holding environment for their emotional reactions.

Good enough parents are also realistic about their children's talents and abilities. It's common knowledge that children will grow into insecure adults with low self-esteem, when in childhood they experienced neglect. But it is not that obvious that constant and unrealistic positive feedback might also be problematic. Excessive praise of your child might be an expression of exaggerated expectations. It nurtures grandiosity and superiority on the surface, but underneath the person becomes self doubting and very vulnerable to criticism. We cannot expect our children to be perfect and by telling them constantly how perfect they are, we are making them anxious when they struggle or encounter challenges. They perceive their defeats as a major disappointment for their parents.

It's great when we are supportive to our children, offer them positive feedback, show our delight and admiration. But at the same time, we need to make sure that we do it with respect to their own uniqueness, to the reality of their skills and talents, and without a hidden expectation for them always to be the best.

To provide a proper holding environment for emotions means helping children express, understand and process their emotions. Children know and feel that in the face of the defeat, they can turn to us and will be listened to and we will help them to make sense of their experience. To be able to stay calm and provide this safe space for the child, we need to be in touch with our own emotional reactions to the child's defeat and separate it from child's feelings.

Separating our own relationship to defeat and allowing children to discover their own experience and coping mechanisms is important -  when we see our children lose out, face a defeat - we can quickly impose our reactions without waiting for theirs – making space for them to decide how they face it, we might even learn from them.


Agata lives in Galway, she is a mum of two children and author of blog Balancing She promotes creative and confident parenting. She is a psychologist, with experience of working as a personal skills trainer and academic teacher. Find her on Twitter @agata4parents