Promoting Healthy Self-Esteem In Our Girls

Around the world, self-esteem takes a nosedive as children get older – especially in our girls. Here are steps to intervene.

4 happy smiling little girls looking at camera

Children’s general sense of feeling good or bad about themselves – their self-esteem – changes as they make comparisons to their peers. Preschool-aged kids they tend to make optimistic comparisons, thinking very highly of themselves (“I’m the fastest runner ever!”). By the time they’re in early elementary school, though, self-esteem starts to plummet as kids’ self-awareness becomes more realistic (“Actually, there are a lot of fast runners out there”).

Once puberty hits, self-esteem becomes especially problematic for girls, with a rate of decline that outpaces boys’ significantly. There are many reasons girls are at bigger risk for self-esteem challenges than boys, including being more likely to ruminate on negative thoughts, being more deeply impacted by social media, and receiving more societal expectations of perfectionism and people pleasing. 

Thankfully, there are steps we can take to support healthy self-esteem in our girls at any age.

Understand How Self-Esteem Is Determined

Our first step to heading off self-esteem challenges is to know why children feel good or bad about themselves. Children base their self-esteem on five areas of life, according to psychologist Susan Harter:

  1. Their athletic skills
  2. How liked they are by peers
  3. Their appearance
  4. Their obedience and behavior
  5. Their academic abilities

In general, the more areas a child believes they’re failing in, the more likely they are to have low self-esteem. So a child who’s struggling in classes, can’t get along with peers, and perceives herself to be unattractive and a “bad girl” might see herself quite negatively overall – even if she’s a standout athlete. 

That said, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. If this same girl has been raised to highly value athletics, then being competent in that particular area might be enough to buoy her overall self-esteem, research shows. In fact, kids’ self-esteem is only impacted when they’re doing poorly in area(s) they care about.

Given this knowledge, we can highlight and emphasize the areas in which our child excels. If we’re putting a ton of focus on academics, for instance, yet we have a child with a learning disorder, we might want to rethink our emphasis. This doesn’t mean shutting down academic work by any means, but it can mean commenting more on the areas in which the child has relative strengths – such as in, being a caring and giving friend who works with all peers easily. This will boost our child’s overall self-esteem, in turn making the child more likely to work on their difficult academic tasks because self-esteem makes us more likely to persist in the face of failure.

Carefully Choose Their Activities

Since focusing on areas of strength helps boost overall self-esteem, we can help our girls choose extracurricular activities that capitalize on their talents. For instance, a child who excels at logical reasoning but struggles athletically might be encouraged to join the STEM club at the local library rather than go out for sports every season. This means getting our own expectations for our child in check. We may have pictured ourselves having a girl who would be a star soccer player like we were, but pushing her down that path when she’s clearly struggling athletically can be a recipe for self-esteem issues.

That said, we still want our girls to stretch themselves, of course. None of us is good at everything we do, nor did we get better without a lot of mistakes and hard work. It’s all a matter of balance: our kids can handle bumps in the road in some areas of their lives as long as they have areas in which they feel mastery that their parents and peers actually care about. 

What if you have a child who struggles in every area? That’s a reality many of us face at some point or other since struggles ebb and flow over time; for instance, the girl who’s great with peers in kindergarten because of her zany ways may feel socially adrift in third grade when her peers don’t want to act silly any more. The key during times of struggle is to focus on relative strengths. While the child might not be excelling in comparison to peers, what are they doing well relative to their other abilities? Shining light on that area can help improve their self-esteem, making them more persistent and able to be resilient in the many areas in which they’re struggling.

Provide Feedback Thoughtfully

Finally, there is one key approach to helping every child feel better about themselves, regardless of their level of mastery relative to peers. Originally studied by psychologist Carol Dweck, growth mindset is an approach to giving feedback that focuses on effort rather than ability. 

Praising elementary-aged children on their intelligence made them unlikely to persist in doing challenging tasks, Dweck found. They were afraid that by continuing on, they’d eventually fail and prove the researcher wrong (“look, I’m not smart after all”). In contrast, kids who were praised for effort were much more likely to take on difficult new challenges – after all, you can never fail at trying. 

Not surprisingly, taking on challenges makes children more likely to improve and excel, in turn boosting their self-esteem. In other words, every time we note our girl’s efforts (“you’re really practicing your running!”) rather than telling them they’re naturally gifted (“you’re such a great runner!”), we make them more likely to want to keep trying. In turn, we boost their persistence and, with time, their self-esteem.