low self-esteem by parents' words and behaviours
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As parents we all want our children to thrive anywhere they go and not get easily discouraged by the waves of trolls they are bound to encounter in their lives. But before we look at how to help our kids build strong self-esteem, it is important to acknowledge how our own behaviour and words can undermine our children’s self-esteem before anyone.

Research shows that children who grow up under parents with high expectations and often criticize, compare them to others, and focus mainly on their academic and sports performance and manners, have lower self-esteem and self-confidence than other children. 

Even though the statement above might seem clear and obvious, in reality it is often hard for us parents to appreciate the impact of our words and actions on our kids.

The things parents say to their children, whether out of concern or out of fear, can wound children’s emotions deeply and affect them negatively in the future.

1. Criticism and Blame

As none of us are perfect and we are all unique, with different traits and personalities, it makes perfect sense that our children can be quite different from us, so much so that at times it can be hard to understand or accept who he or she is.

But ironically, as close as parents are to their children, their disappointment can have a far greater impact than anyone else’s on a child’s self-esteem. It is easy to assume that our children should understand us more than others, since they share our DNA, but unfortunately, this is not true. While your DNA will undoubtedly be peeking through here and there from your child’s looks, behaviour and personality, there is no reason your child should understand you more than others. Of course, you can build a strong bond, but this can easily be undermined by the way you react when your child disappoints you.

When your child is lacking or slow at something or acts out inappropriate behaviours, you might feel compelled to express your frustration in the hopes of correcting or alerting your child, or at least motivating him or her in the right direction. Letting your child know what is wrong with their actions and advising them what they should be doing instead should be handled delicately, because communication that always goes in one direction instead of a dialogue leads inevitably to criticism and blame. 

Even though your initial intentions might be to inform your child of your observations and thoughts about their overall behaviour, more often than not, advice can easily stray beyond constructive criticism. 

Instead, if you see your child going in a direction that will not benefit her or him, approach the subject in a conversational manner. If your child is still young, use a story, or wonder out loud what the acceptable behaviour might be. If your child is a little older, ask how they feel about the matter, and whether he or she needs any form of help. You can share your (or someone else’s) relatable struggle, and how they overcome the situation.

What you might say

What you could say

“Studying hard and getting a good grade is your job, what else are you going to do at your age, huh?”

“I know, studying something you’re not passionate about can be hard sometimes. What’s the hardest right now? Do you think you could use some extra help from a tutor?”

“Are you eating again? You just ate two plates of spaghetti! How are you gonna deal with all that extra weight?

“I guess you’re having a growth spurt! Are you still hungry? Can I get you some dip and veggies instead of those chips?”

“Is it so hard to clean up your own room when other kids get a part-time job to pay their own cell phone bills?”

“I just looked in your room and it is getting a bit spooky, boy. I took all the laundry out. Could you tidy up your books and stuff a bit after dinner?”

“Are you going to wear that for school? You know you’re going to school, not a nightclub, right?”

“Sweetheart, even though I do not always share your fashion sense, I care about you too much not to mention this. Can we save that dress for a fun outing later, and maybe wear something a little more modest for school, hmm? It is a cute outfit, but a little too revealing. What do you think?”

2. Comparison

Parents might believe comparing their child with someone else who has accomplished more and exhibits more positive characteristics will motivate their children in the long term, but unfortunately, this type of comparison only inflicts pain on children and lowers their self-esteem.

Parents should avoid comparing their child, not only with someone else’s child, but also with siblings. When parents bring any strength of a sibling into comparison with a child who is underperforming in that area, the damage is greater, since kids tend to take that as evidence that parents have a different amount of love for each child, based purely on how smart each child is and how proud they make their parents. This can cause the sibling rivalry to take an ugly turn, and create a gap between them that could last a lifetime.

What you might say

What you could say

“Do you think Linda’s mom ever has to worry about her daughter’s grades like I do, huh?”

“Was it hard to focus this semester? Most of the subjects for this semester will be the basis for next semester, so I’m a little worried you’re going to have a hard time. Can I help you review them, or do you prefer doing it yourself?”

“Your brother never gives me a hard time with his behaviour. Why do you always have to act like you never learned manners?”

“Did I upset you because I said you can’t go to the concert with your friends? The problem is I booked the date with you for your grandparent’s visit way before that concert. And we barely ever have a chance to see your grandparents. Can we skip this concert but set a date for the next one?”

“Your grandma never let me watch TV this late, and I grew up perfectly fine. Why can’t you stop complaining?”

“Honey, it’s a bit late, don’t you think? Mommy’s worried that your body won’t be able to make enough growth hormones for you to have legs like your idol, Taylor Swift. Can we call it a night now? Yes?”

“My friend Sylvie’s son is so into sports that he was made captain of the baseball team this semester. What’s wrong with you, can’t you even go out for a walk?”

“Join me, my son! I’m going for a long walk. I know you’d rather stay home with your phone, but mommy needs a strong man. Last time I met a creep who freaked me out. Please.”

3. Focusing on results

As much as we all wish we could accomplish our goals, sometimes the results do not meet our efforts or expectations. 

Each individual child struggles with their own lack of skills, and especially since they are still developing physically and mentally, this is perfectly understandable. 

If parents focus too heavily on the results of their performance, kids will fail to learn that often the process is as important – if not more so – than the result. If children get the idea that all that matters is the result, they could even interpret that as justification to cheat in order to get better results. 

On the other hand, if children sometimes get higher grades than expected by some stroke of luck without appearing to have put particular effort into their studies, be careful not to praise them excessively, as this too can lead them to focus on the result only. 

Children should learn from an early age that there will be many opportunities to learn and develop as they go through the step-by-step process toward end results, and real success depends on how much they enjoy the process and put forth their best effort. 

Sometimes children might not enjoy the process, but in spite of wanting to give up in the beginning, they hang in there until they reach the finish line. In this scenario, the fact that the child never gave up and withstood their boredom is something they should be praised for.

What you might say

What you could say

“You said you studied this time. Where is the proof? These are barely passing grades!”

“I saw you studying until late a few nights, but it looks like the test was harder than you expected. You know, sometimes you can ask someone to go through the material with you outside of class when you feel lost in certain subjects. You don’t always have to figure it out alone.”

“I think you should drop snacks altogether. It’s been weeks and I don’t see any change in your weight.”

“Hey mini-me, you said you were kind of interested in that dance class. If we enroll together, will I embarrass you too much? Can we try that together?”

“What’s the point in spending all that money on your lessons? You don’t try hard enough to score even a single goal.”

“Your coach said you are one of the fastest ones on your team. We just have to focus on your swing. Maybe your uncle can take you to the field on the weekend. What do you think?”

“Why should I let you keep having more screen time when you can’t even get one single A like you promised?.”

“Son, can we go back to the normal schedule like we agreed to? I’m more interested in seeing whether you can keep your promise and take the consequences like a man, than whether or not you get an A. What do you say?”

4. Letting your disappointment and exhaustion show

Children can detect their parent’s emotions based on their slightest facial expressions, tones, and gestures. Expressing unfiltered disappointment in your child’s low performance can negatively affect self-esteem.

It is a no-brainer – seeing their best cheerleaders for life show the most disappointment in them is heartbreaking to children. 

You might do nothing more than habitually sigh around your kids, instead of discussing a problematic situation out loud. But simply expressing your disappointment and exhaustion in front of your child can transfer your negative emotion to your kids. 

If you catch yourself frowning, sighing, or rolling your eyes around your child, intentionally monitor your expression and tone of voice. Non-verbal communication makes up more than 70 percent of our overall communication. Protect your child from getting hurt by the little expressions and tones you use around them.

Let’s wrap it up


In summary, even though you may want to point out areas where your child is lacking, or not making enough effort, or behaving inappropriately, a one-way conversation amounts to nothing more than criticism and blame, which lead to negative results.

Likewise, comparing your child’s lack of skills or accomplishments to things their siblings or other people have done will wound them deeply as well as create sibling rivalry and distance. 

Moreover, only focusing on the results of your child’s performance and their achievements can plant the wrong idea in your child, namely that only the result matters, and how they reach that goal is unimportant – an idea which can encourage dishonest behaviour.

 Lastly, even if parents do not verbally express their disappointment, non-verbal facial expressions, body language and changes of tone can sometimes speak louder than words. 

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