You can't touch it, but it affects how you feel. You can't see it, but it's there when you look at yourself in the mirror. You can't hear it, but it's there every time you talk about yourself. What is this important but mysterious thing? It's your self-esteem!
What Is Self-Esteem?
To understand self-esteem, it helps to break the term into two words. Let's take a look at the word esteem (say: ess-teem) first. Esteem is a fancy word for thinking that someone or something is important or valuing that person or thing. For example, if you really admire your friend's dad because he volunteers at the fire department, it means you hold him in high esteem. And the special trophy for the most valuable player on a team is often called an esteemed trophy. This means the trophy stands for an important accomplishment.
And self means, well, yourself! So put the two words together and it's easier to see what self-esteem is. It's how much you value yourself and how important you think you are. It's how you see yourself and how you feel about your achievements.
Self-esteem isn't bragging about how great you are. It's more like quietly knowing that you're worth a lot (priceless, in fact!). It's not about thinking you're perfect — because nobody is — but knowing that you're worthy of being loved and accepted.
Why Self-Esteem Is Important
Self-esteem isn't like a cool pair of sneakers that you'd love to have but don't have to have. A kid needs to have self-esteem. Good self-esteem is important because it helps you to hold your head high and feel proud of yourself and what you can do. It gives you the courage to try new things and the power to believe in yourself. It lets you respect yourself, even when you make mistakes. And when you respect yourself, adults and other kids usually respect you, too.
Having good self-esteem is also the ticket to making good choices about your mind and body. If you think you're important, you'll be less likely to follow the crowd if your friends are doing something dumb or dangerous. If you have good self-esteem, you know that you're smart enough to make your own decisions. You value your safety, your feelings, your health — your whole self! Good self-esteem helps you know that every part of you is worth caring for and protecting.
How Kids Get Self-Esteem
Babies don't see themselves in a good or bad way. They don't think "I'm great!" when they let out a big burp or worry "Oh, no, this diaper makes my legs look weird!" Instead, people around a baby help him or her develop self-esteem. How? By encouraging the baby when he or she learns to crawl, walk, or talk. They often say, "Good job. Good for you!" When people take good care of a baby, that also helps him or her feel lovable and valuable.
As kids get older, they can have a bigger role in developing their self-esteem. Achievements — like getting a good grade on a test or making the All-Star soccer team — are things kids can be proud of. So are having a good sense of humor or being a good friend.
A kid's family and other people in his or her life — like coaches, teammates, and classmates — also can boost his or her self-esteem. They can help a kid figure out how to do things or notice his or her good qualities. They can believe in the kid and encourage him or her to try again when something doesn't go right the first time. It's all part of kids learning to see themselves in a positive way, to feel proud of what they've done, and to be confident that there's a lot more they can do.
A Little on Low Self-Esteem
Maybe you know kids with low self-esteem who don't think very highly of themselves or seem to criticize themselves too much. Or maybe you have low self-esteem and don't always feel very good about yourself or think you're important.
Sometimes a kid will have low self-esteem if his mother or father doesn't encourage him enough or if there is a lot of yelling at home. Other times, a kid's self-esteem can be hurt in the classroom. A teacher may make a kid feel dumb or perhaps there is a bully who says hurtful things.
For some kids, classes at school can seem so hard that they can't keep up or get the grades they'd hoped for. This can make them feel bad about themselves and hurt their self-esteem. Their self-esteem will improve when a teacher, tutor, or counselor encourages them, is patient, and helps them get back on track with learning. When they start to do well, their self-esteem will skyrocket!
And some kids have good self-esteem but then something happens to change that. For example:
- If a kid moves and doesn't make friends right away at the new school, he or she might start to feel bad.
- Kids whose parents divorce also may find that this can affect self-esteem. They may feel unlovable or to blame for the divorce.
- A kid who feels too fat or too thin may start thinking that means he or she isn't good enough.
- A kid who's dealing with an illness, such as cancer, diabetes, or asthma, might feel different and less confident than before.
- Even going through the body changes of puberty — something that everybody does — can affect a kid's self-esteem.
Boosting Your Self-Esteem
Of course it's OK to have ups and downs in your feelings, but having low self-esteem isn't OK. Feeling like you're not important can make you sad and can keep you from trying new things. It can keep you from making friends or hurt how you do at school.
Having strong self-esteem is also a very big part of growing up. As you get older and face tough decisions — especially under peer pressure — the more self-esteem you have, the better. It's important to know you're worth a lot.
If you think you might have low self-esteem, try talking to an adult you trust about it. He or she may be able to help you come up with some good ideas for building your self-esteem.
In the meantime, here are a few things that you can try to increase your self-esteem:
- Make a list of the stuff you're good at. It can be anything from drawing or singing to playing a sport or telling a good joke. If you're having trouble with your list, ask your mom or dad to help you with it. Then add a few things to the list that you'd like to be good at. Your mom or dad can help you plan a way to work on those skills or talents.
- Give yourself three compliments every day. Don't just say, "I'm so great." Be specific about something good about yourself, like, "I was a good friend to Jill today" or "I did better on that test than I thought I would." While you're at it, before you go to bed every night, list three things in your day that really made you happy.
- Remember that your body is your own, no matter what shape, size, or color it is. If you are worried about your weight or size, you can check with your doctor to make sure that things are OK. Remind yourself of things about your body that are cool, like, "My legs are strong and I can skate really well."
- Remember that there are things about yourself you can't change. You should accept and love these things — such as skin color and shoe size — because they are part of you.
- When you hear negative comments in your head, tell yourself to stop. When you do this, you take the power away from the voice inside that discourages you.
By focusing on the good things you do and all your great qualities, you learn to love and accept yourself — the main ingredients for strong self-esteem! Even if you've got room for improvement (and who doesn't?), realizing that you're valuable and important helps your self-esteem to shine.
Reviewed by: David V. Sheslow, PhD
Date reviewed: November 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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