You can't touch it, but it affects how you feel. You can't see it, but it might be there when you look at yourself in the mirror. You can't hear it, but it's there when you talk about yourself or when you think about yourself.
What is this important but mysterious thing? It's your self-esteem!
What Is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem can have a big part to play in how you feel about yourself and also how much you enjoy things or worry about things.
To understand self-esteem, it helps to break the term into two words. Let's first take a look at the word esteem (say: ess-teem), which means that someone or something is important, special, or valuable. 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 the things you can do.
Self-esteem isn't about bragging, it’s about getting to know what you are good at and not so good at. A lot of us think about how much we like other people or things, but don't really think much about whether we like ourselves.
It's not about thinking you're perfect, because nobody is perfect. Even if you think some other kids are good at everything, you can be sure they have things they're good at and things that are difficult for them.
The most important thing to know about self-esteem is that it means seeing yourself in a positive way that's realistic, which means that it's the truth. So if you know you're really good at piano but can't draw so well, you can still have great self-esteem!
Why Self-Esteem Is Important
Self-esteem isn't like a cool pair of sneakers you really want but can wait until your next birthday to get. All kids have self-esteem, and having healthy or positive self-esteem is really important. It can help you hold your head high and feel proud of yourself and what you can do, even when things don't seem to be going so well.
Self-esteem 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 positive self-esteem can also help you can learn to make healthy 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 wrong or dangerous. If you have positive self-esteem, you know you're smart enough to make your own decisions. You value your safety, your feelings, your health — your whole self! Positive 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!" Or, they might just smile and look proud. When people take good care of a baby, that also helps him or her feel loved and valuable.
As kids get older, they can have a bigger role in developing their own self-esteem. Working hard to finish a project or assignment, getting a higher grade on a math test, or trying out for a new sport are all things kids can be proud of for trying. Some kids are not very athletic, but they might be good readers or know how to do magic tricks or are really good friends or help other people out — these are all accomplishments that help kids feel good about themselves.
A kid's family and other people in his or her life — like coaches, teachers, and classmates — also can boost 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. This can also be called negative self-esteem, and it's the opposite of positive self-esteem. Maybe you have low self-esteem sometimes 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 or other kids might make a kid feel like he or she isn't smart, or maybe there are mean kids who say hurtful things about the way a kid looks or acts.
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. When some kids do well and win prizes and awards, other kids might feel like they’re not as good or there's something wrong with them.
Some kids have positive self-esteem but then something happens in their lives 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 and think they are not a good friend.
- Kids whose parents divorce might find that this can affect self-esteem. They may feel bad when a parent can't give them attention or come to their game, or they might feel that if they had behaved better or kept their room clean, their parents would not have split up.
- Kids who look different from other kids may not feel good about themselves because they feel "different" or someone makes fun of them.
- A kid who's dealing with an illness, such as cancer, diabetes, or asthma, might feel different and less confident than before.
- Kids who have learning differences or know they have trouble reading a book report aloud might start losing confidence and focus too much on things they're not good at.
- 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 affect how hard you try 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 like yourself.
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.
Self-esteem can improve when you start trying things you thought were too hard and then do well at them, or when a parent, family member, or other adult encourages you, is patient, and helps you get back on track. When you start to do well, self-esteem will skyrocket!
Here are a few other 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 or that you feel thankful for.
- 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 you're healthy. 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. Remind yourself of things you're good at and if you can't think of anything, ask someone else! You can also learn a new skill (for example, karate, dance, a musical instrument) so you can feel good about that!
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?), knowing what you're good at and that you're valuable and special to the people that care about you can really help you deal with growing up.
Part of growing up is learning to focus on your strengths and to accept and work on your weaknesses — and that, in a nutshell, is self-esteem!
Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: April 2012
© 1995-2012 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.