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Self-esteem is something we often hear talked about, but it is a complex issue that can be difficult to unpack, to quantify, or to really know about ourselves. Self-esteem is then our personal evaluation of how good or bad we feel about ourselves. It is steeped in our feelings of competence, confidence and worthiness, and is intrinsic within our children’s mental health and well-being.

As children seek to discover how to act in the world, they will be looking, both to their parents and other close influential adults as their first and most enduring role models. Because of this, the messages you send them - both overtly and without intent – have a huge bearing on the values they place on things. And even more importantly, the values they place on themselves. As you consider the qualities that you wish to inspire in your children, you will quickly see why this needs careful handling.

  • While children need opportunities to develop their abilities and experience their success, they also need to be reassured that they are important and loved irrespective of their achievements
  • To develop healthy levels of self-esteem, children then need to be shown that you believe in their capabilities, while being giving opportunities to discover who they are
  • They need the time and space to explore what they can do and what more they need to experience
  • And they need to be recognised and praised for the efforts these endeavours require – rather than for any artificial labels beyond their control

But this is tough. Caring for children within our incredibly busy, ever-changing settings is rarely easy at the best of times. Add to this our own anxieties, those of the family and the expectations triggered by social media and news reports; maybe some exhaustion and stress thrown in for good measure and you can see the invisible pressures that surround our children every day. Especially if we become distracted by trying to live up to some artificial representation of perfection.

Access to social media can see unrealistic expectations of what “good” practice looks like as Post-Ready-Perfection becomes the goal, rather than the individual needs of children. Technology that once promised a helpful support to families can see every free moment diarised with dance class, violin lessons and karate – with screen time to fill in the gaps. This can be especially detrimental to a child’s developing self-esteem if their development becomes a media-influenced competition.

So, how do we support our children’s development of self-esteem then?

During the 1970s and 1980s, it was thought that simply bolstering children’s self-esteem was the way to make them happier, more successful and improve their relationships. Unsurprisingly, this simplistic approach was neither productive nor successful. However, research at Florida State University suggested that whilst higher self-esteem might not enhance school performance, the lack of it most certainly can be a risk factor. Self-esteem in itself may not foster healthy relationships, nor stop children from engaging in unhealthy behaviours, but without it they are far more susceptible to difficult times, leading to issues that affect increasing numbers of children, such as depression and anxiety which can manifest as eating disorders, self-harm and worse.

We know that children are like little sponges, taking meaning and forming ideas and beliefs from everything they see and hear around them, even when we may prefer that they did not. As children internalise these messages, their attitudes, principles and behaviours are becoming informed, and over time, structuring their behaviour traits and characters as they develop into the person they are becoming. If they are shown that they are important and lovable, then they must be important and lovable, and worthy of loving themselves.

Whereas if these messages are lacking, either because of time pressures or because the adults around them find them difficult to express, this can suggest to a child that they are not a priority or an important part of the adult’s life. If this belief is being fostered and internalised over a period of time, whether you realise it or not, poor self-esteem is likely to follow. What can make this more difficult to spot – and manage – is that it can be disguised by an apparently high level of self-confidence.

When children have a good level of self-esteem, they develop an inner psychological strength that helps them to understand the world on their terms. They become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, without being frightened of them. And they begin to recognise the power they have to control their outcomes.

Children with a good level of self-esteem typically demonstrate a range of positive attributes, reflected in both their rates of development and in school achievement outcomes. They tend to try new things more frequently and manage the challenges they encounter more positively. They tend to be more flexible thinkers and better problem solvers. And when failure does happen, they are more likely to assign blame for the failure to the situation, rather than to their own short comings.

So, be aware of the messages your children are receiving, both in setting and outside of it. Help the adults in your children’s lives to understand the potential they have to dramatically affect children’s self-esteem and the impact this may already be having, and to recognise the power we have when we work together. Only when all the adults around a child understand the importance of the early years can we securely embed the foundational processes our children need. And in doing so, establish healthy levels of self-esteem in our young children so that we may avoid many of the issues faced by so many of our teenagers today.

Next time, as we continue our reflections of the ‘happy child’, we will look at how self-esteem develops and how you can nurture this process for our children. But in the meantime, bring focus back to nurturing all of children’s growth and development with a Nurturing Childhoods Accreditation. Whether you are looking for a setting wide approach to reflective practice and active CPD, or a more personalised approach with the Nurturing Childhoods Practitioner Accreditation, gain recognition for the nurturing practice you deliver. Through 12 online sessions through the year, join me and hundreds of nurturing practitioners as together we really begin developing the potential of all children in their early years.

About the author:

As Founder of Nurturing Childhoods, Dr Kathryn Peckham is a passionate advocate for children’s access to rich and meaningful experiences throughout their foundational early years. Delivering online courses, training and seminars, she works with families and settings to identify and celebrate the impact of effective childhood experiences as preparation for all of life’s learning. An active campaigner for children, she consults on projects, conducts research for government bodies and contributes to papers launched in parliament. Through her consultancy and research she guides local councils, practitioners, teachers and parents all over the world in enhancing children’s experiences through the experiences they offer. A highly acclaimed author and member of parliamentary groups, Kathryn also teaches a Masters at the Centre for Research in Early Years.

Get in contact with Kathryn by emailing info@kathrynpeckham.co.uk

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