Feeling fine

Reading Time: 4 minutesOur children live in a competitive and constantly changing world, so a real sense of who they are and their place in the world is increasingly important. Healthy self-esteem acts as a cushion during those times when life lets us down or is not fair, when our best efforts are not always successful.

Research shows that the most important influence on a young person’s self-esteem is their parents — partly as a result of genetic inheritance and partly through the degree of love and concern parents show their children. Children with healthy self-esteem trust themselves and others, they are proud of themselves — and their pride comes from within, not from arrogance. They show enthusiasm for new activities and people. They take responsibility for their actions, and can cope with challenges and changes in life. In the face of rejection and failure, kids with a strong sense of self-esteem rebound and keep on going.

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On the other hand, children with poor self-esteem often doubt themselves, give in to peer pressure, and feel inferior or worthless. They avoid challenges, tend to give up easily and turn to others for help before trying long enough to succeed. Others may turn to drugs or alcohol to cover their wounds and numb the pain. Some become bullies and put others down to make themselves appear smarter. Recent studies show that adolescents with poor self-esteem use material possessions as a coping strategy for feelings of low self-worth. Not surprisingly, research from the California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem has even branded the concept a ‘social vaccine’, a dimension of personality that “empowers people and inoculates them against a wide spectrum of self-defeating and socially undesirable behaviour”.

Self-esteem is often confused with arrogance and superiority. Some argue that too much self-esteem is bad for kids. Social promotion, indiscriminate praise, flattery and a falsely inflated sense of self-worth are not what self-esteem is about. Healthy self-esteem is based on facts and truths, achievement and competence that a child genuinely sees and experiences. When we help kids build self-esteem, we are not teaching them to show off. We are teaching them to take pride in themselves by praising their efforts, rather than results or achievements. We are praising them genuinely for their right decisions and for taking responsibility for their actions, and celebrating their successes, no matter how small or intangible.

Children are born with a range of feelings and emotions, which serve as signals to help them respond to the environment for survival. Good feelings such as happiness and pride enable us to continue doing certain things that make us feel happy again. Bad feelings such as anger or nervousness tell us that we have a problem to solve. For parents and teachers, it is important to acknowledge and validate feelings and to teach children to trust their feelings and perceptions. Denying feelings can hamper a kid’s capability to detect problems and deprive them of opportunities to learn to cope. When children have a solid understanding of their feelings and needs, and a realistic sense of their abilities, they feel secure and confident in themselves and they develop healthy self-esteem.

Every child is unique and possesses his or her own strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to focus on your child’s individual strengths and provide opportunities for him or her to succeed. Children need to feel that others see that they have special qualities and talents so you need to provide your child with opportunities to feel they are functional and important members of their family, school, neighbourhood or community. These opportunities don’t have to be competitive or sports-related but are better found in everyday life. At home, you can give your child responsibilities in the family and seek their input in decisions that affect them. In a highly
competitive and achievement-driven society such as Hong Kong, parents place great emphasis on academics and extracurricular activities. With the help of domestic helpers, parents sometimes overlook the importance of self-help skills that actually enhance children’s self-esteem by reinforcing their sense of independence and personal choice. So allow and encourage your children to take care of themselves, even if takes longer for them to get ready for school or bed. The joy they feel when they make strides toward independence can be very rewarding and motivating for a child.


One of the major goals for parents is to teach their kids to behave and do well. For many of us, this kind of teaching means pointing out mistakes. But as children learn, they are more likely to make mistakes, which means there are many mistakes for parents to point out. Often, while trying to be helpful, parents jump in to help or protect their kids from danger or mistakes. Inadvertently, we take away opportunities for our kids to learn and build their self-esteem by trying. Some parents even use threats, comparisons and humiliation to ‘teach’ their children to do better. But over time, these children are given the message that they are not good enough and can’t do anything right, which in the end means poor self-esteem. What kids really need are parents who can show them the right way and then sit back and watch them try to do it themselves. When kids succeed, their parents are there to cheer and celebrate the moment. When they fail, these parents praise their kids for trying and keeping at it although it may be hard to start with. It is the sense of personal power and perseverance that will create success and help children overcome challenges in their lives.

Dr Minna Chau is a psychologist who specialises in children and adolescents.

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