Low self-esteem is expressed through the need to constantly impress others by seeking their approval. When negative feedback is repeatedly offered to a child with low self-esteem, he begins to believe the negative evaluations as truth about his abilities and self-worth. These negative evaluations then become direct reflections of the child’s belief that they are incapable, unsuccessful, and unworthy. There are two common low self-esteem responses: 1) to feel reserved, incompetent and worthless; 2) to feel angry and desire to get even with others. Individuals who feel down generally feel unsuccessful and overwhelmed by the tasks of life. They are shy, tend to remain where they feel safe, and try to find ways of escaping unpleasant realities or situations. Angry responses to having low self-esteem include constantly finding fault with the world, being negative about everything, and taking things out on others. Since their behavior generally reflects their self-image, their misbehavior is derived from their negative self-concept; a child who believes he is bad portrays his behaviors to fit his self-view. The more he misbehaves and the more anger, punishment, or rejection he receives, the more his belief is reinforced that he is a bad child. How children express self- esteem difficulties depends upon their personal experiences and varies among individuals. Some children express more emotional or behavioral difficulties while at school, whereas others may express them at home.

The following profile illustrates a child who has low self-esteem: 

Sue is a seventh grader who is an average student. Her teacher refers to her as “reserved and quiet.” She has minimal friendships, completes half of her homework assignments, and perceives herself as being less competent academically when compared to her peers. She becomes frustrated and gives up easily on tasks that she feels she will never master. She constantly seeks the approval of other adults, but then focuses on and emphasizes any negative feedback she receives. She interprets her parent’s and teacher’s frustrations as indicating she is a “bad” child, which reinforces her core belief that she is a bad child. Her negative view of self influences her outlook on life and keeps her from developing new interests and attempting new tasks.

Intervention options

Individual Therapy – Usually once per week – ideal for identifying and addressing negative core beliefs of individuals. Very helpful for children who wish to speak with someone outside the immediate family. Cognitive therapy is very beneficial for children with low self-esteem and depression. Specifically seek out a therapist who specializes in children or adolescents.

Family Counseling – Usually once per week – good for addressing family issues and examining family roles, structure, and values.

Group Therapy – Usually once per week for 60-90 minutes. Good for education about self-esteem, its origins, and for social interaction with others who share similar beliefs about themselves. Check with the child’s school psychologist for available related groups.

Parent Workshops – Usually offered at various times and places. Check with school resources, therapist referrals, psychiatric hospitals, local support groups, local college or university childhood education departments, or community organizations.

Potential Resources

  • Behavioral health professionals (including psychologists, social workers, counselors, and psychiatrists)
  • School psychologists, counselors, and teachers
  • Your family doctor or pediatrician
  • Your minister, rabbi, bishop, or priest
  • Parent support groups
  • Your health insurance company (look for ‘behavioral health services’ or ‘mental/nervous services’ listed in your health benefits booklet)
  • Community information referral services
  • Self-Esteem Enhancers For Parents
  • Value Your Child Unconditionally

Accepting a child regardless of their strengths and weaknesses is pertinent for expressing unconditional love to them. This must also be reinforced by the amount of quality time (focused attention) spent with a child each day. Although it is not feasible for a parent to designate all of their attention to a child, it is necessary to spend at least 20 minutes of quality time three to four times per week. Throughout the week parents can continuously express their interest and attention by offering hugs and smiles.

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