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The power of self-esteem: How to prevent bullying in children

Teen sitting alone on basketball court

Self-esteem begins to develop in early childhood when children start to develop their sense of self. As children begin to understand and know who they are, they start to identify the key qualities and aspects of themselves. Self-esteem plays an important role in early development and continues to be impacted over the course of development for a child.  

Why is self-esteem important?

We know that there is a direct link between self-esteem and mental health; therefore, having healthy self-esteem is key to mental health and well-being. Children with unhealthy self-esteem are at higher risk for depression and anxiety throughout childhood and young adult life. Having an unhealthy self-esteem during early childhood can set children up to be at risk for bullying. On the other hand, children with healthy self-esteem are more likely to set realistic expectations for themselves and achieve their goals. This mindset enables children to succeed not only in childhood, but across their lifespan.

Signs that your child may be developing unhealthy self-esteem:

  • Your child is self-critical. They tend to focus more on their negatives and what they’re not good at.
  • Your child minimizes their achievements. They don’t take compliments well or recognize/acknowledge their successes.
  • Your child avoids challenges. They avoid starting something new, such as a sport or instrument, in fear of either failing or not being good at it.
  • Your child reacts too strongly to criticism from others. When they are told negative feedback, the child becomes very emotional or struggles to move forward.

Unhealthy self-esteem & bullying

Children who have unhealthy self-esteem are more likely to be bullied and to internalize the words that they’re hearing from someone who is bullying them. They may be more critical of themselves and tend to focus on their negatives, further worsening their self-esteem. Children who engage in bullying may be both victims and perpetrators of bullying. One of the main reasons why someone may engage in bullying behavior could be related to how they view themselves, especially in comparison to their peers. They engage in bullying to build themselves up or to feel better about themselves. Children with unhealthy self-esteem tend to present risky adolescent behaviors as they get older. They are at a higher risk to fall victim to peer pressure and engaging in smoking, drinking, and drug use.  

How parents can promote healthy self-esteem in their child

  • Mistakes are proof that you are trying. Set up an environment at home that allows a child to make mistakes and learn from them. If a child is not given the opportunity to make a mistake, then they will never see that they’re going to be loved regardless. The unconditional love that parents provide for their children plays a key role in helping them develop healthy self-esteem.
  • Make a habit of trying new things. Expose your child to trying new activities and encourage them to continue so that they can see both the positives and negatives that they’re able to do. The number of experiences children are given to either demonstrate their successes or experience mistakes and failures is very important. Not allowing children to engage in activities may limit them from building a healthy self-esteem.
  • Take the risk or lose the chance. It’s an instinct for parents to want to protect their child; however allowing them to take healthy risks can actually promote a healthier self-esteem. Letting a child go outside with no shoes on will let them understand that it probably was not a good choice. The child can then self-correct their behavior instead of having to be corrected by somebody else.
  • Your involvement matters. It’s important to stay active and involved in your child’s life to understand what they’re experiencing. You can help your child process things they’re facing in school and social interactions and guide them on how to approach situations instead of making them figure it out on their own.
    • Exercise: Start a routine at the dinner table where everyone discusses one thing they’re proud of that happened and one thing they wish they’d done differently (your highs and lows of the day). This shows children that life isn’t always perfect and that it’s okay to have bad days, showing a healthy balance and encouraging communication.

The power of a healthy self-esteem

If children can build a healthy self-esteem at an early age, they are more likely to feel confident in who they are and the actions they take. In the situation of being bullied, a child with a healthy self-esteem is more likely to be able to stand tall, look straight into the person’s eyes and vocalize that they do not like how the person is treating or talking to them. This may not always stop bullying from happening, but it can change the interaction or feelings that the child will have in terms of how they responded. Gaining this confidence will hopefully make them less likely to experience bullying in the future, showing that it does not have to have a negative or lasting effect on them. In that moment, the child learns how to stand their ground.

Child Psychology

Child Psychologist; Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine