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Feature Article


Helping children feel good about themselves

Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri


All of us, including children, see ourselves in a certain way. We have a mental picture of ourselves. For children, this picture includes who they are, what they can do and how they think others see them. It may be good or bad or some of each. For example, a child may feel that he or she does well in school, not so well at sports, or is good at getting along with friends.

How children feel about themselves is important for a healthy, productive life. Children who feel good about themselves usually get better grades in school. They seem better at taking on hard jobs, they try their best and they usually succeed. Also, children who have a positive picture of themselves tend to make better friends because they seem more sure of themselves.

Children’s feelings about themselves are very important to their future. And parents can play an important role in helping children develop and maintain these positive feelings.

Feeling alone
Children in single-parent families often think nobody else’s family is like theirs. They feel that they are different. As a parent, it is important to remind them that there are many single-parent families. Tell them about friends and others whose families are headed by a single parent. This may not work the first time, but it will help to remind children that they are not “the only ones.”

Children in single-parent families, especially as a result of divorce, may also wonder if their parents still care for them and love them. Children need lots of words of love and hugs that say “I care.” Remind children that friends, grandparents, relatives, teachers and others all care about them.

Children may even blame themselves for a death in the family or a divorce. They may think that it wouldn’t have happened if they had just behaved better. Children need to be comforted and told that they are not to blame for death or divorce.

Building self-esteem
In order to see themselves in a positive way, children must be able to see their strong points. Self-praise is basic to positive self-esteem. Children don’t praise themselves without help — it won’t happen automatically. Parents can help children think in positive terms by helping them see their strong points and talents. For example, at dinner or at the end of the day, ask your child, “What did you accomplish today?” If you know about a success, you could say, “How do you feel about what you’ve done today?” or “I bet you feel good about what you did!”

Teaching children to praise themselves does not mean that you are teaching the child to brag. Bragging puts other people down: “I’m the fastest kid in my class.” “I’m better at math than anybody else.” Self-praise compares the past to the present (then and now). For example, “I can run a lot faster this year than last year,” or “I’ve really gotten better in math.”

Realistic goals
A child’s self-esteem is helped by success and harmed by failure. Help your children set goals that they can really reach. Help them feel successful. Children need goals that fit and work into their lives. Help your child meet a goal by taking small steps. Only one child can be the fastest runner in the class. But every child can run around the block one minute faster than before, and most children can work toward that goal a little bit at a time. Five seconds faster next week, five seconds faster the next week and so on.

Children also need to know how to deal with failure. Sometimes even the best children will not be able to meet some goals. Help your children learn something about themselves even when they fail. The only total failure is when they don’t learn anything from failure. When children don’t do well at school, they can learn to study more for tests or they may try some new study skills. When children do not succeed, help them look at what they did and find ways to do things differently next time. Remember to praise them for trying.

Being perfect is never the goal. And trying to be perfect all the time is a sure way to fail. Just help children try to do better.

Feeling “down”
Like all of us, children have those days when they don’t feel good about themselves. Nothing has gone right at school or a best friend said something mean. Let your children know that you care about how they are feeling. Try to spend time alone with each child every day. It could be when you’re in the car and the child is in the front seat with you. Or as you put each child to bed. Many parents find it important to have a little time alone with each child.

Coping with tough times
Children also have those days when they feel frustrated. They tried to do something good and it didn’t work. Children must learn how to handle these times so that they don’t dislike themselves and let themselves become the enemy. When your children are feeling down, see if they would like to do something special for themselves. Remind them to treat themselves with kindness and love. People will treat you better if you treat yourself well.

You may know of other ways to remind children that they are worth caring about. Sometimes it helps them to be with other friends or family members that they like. Or perhaps they can think of something to do for someone else. Many times it helps to think about the needs of others and to help another person. It reminds us that we are important and have much to offer, even on a bad day.

Discussion questions
The following questions can be used to talk about children’s feelings about themselves.

  1. Do you ever feel like you’re the only kid who lives with only one parent or whose parents live apart? When do you feel like that? What can we do to make you feel less alone?
  2. It’s important to know what you’re good at and to remind yourself about these good qualities. What do you think you’re good at? Do you ever remind yourself?
  3. Have you ever failed at something and then felt like you weren’t good at anything? What did you do?
  4. Some kids feel better when they play with their friends, even if they are feeling down or bad. What can you do when you’re not feeling good?


On a big sheet of paper, have your children draw pictures of themselves. On the pictures, they should draw all the things that they are good at — sports, school work, chores, getting along with others and so on. Hang the picture in your child’s room or on the refrigerator.


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Last Updated 02/22/2016