Self-esteem is in many ways defined by the challenging events and goals that inevitably occur within children's lives. Some difficult events (divorce, death, war) just happen and must be dealt with. Others are challenging goals that children choose to undertake (such as education or sports related goals). In either case, however, children will tend to judge themselves by how well they manage to cope with the challenges they face. Generally, they end up taking too much personal credit for both their successes and their failures. When challenges are overcome, children will tend to feel confident and good about themselves and believe themselves to be capable and worthy. When challenges are overwhelming, children feel badly and believe themselves to be failures. Thus, children's perception of their success or failure in meeting various life challenges influences their self-esteem.
Parents cannot entirely control the life challenges their children will face, but they can guide children towards some challenges and away from others, and they can help children to gain perspective on the problem solving and coping process so as to not overreact to failure or underplay success. Parents can do this by teaching children that:
1) challenges are a normal part of life faced by everyone, and that,
2) as no one is perfect, perfect performance is not normal or expected, especially when someone is new to dealing with a given challenge.
Children who are taught that "practice makes perfect" (which is a nice way of saying that it's perfectly okay and normal to fail many times in a row when trying to overcome a new challenge) will be in a better position, motivation-wise to persist in problem solving efforts than will children who believe that failure is awful and means they are fundamentally incapable and therefore unlovable. Children who are taught that failure not mean that they are a failure as a person will be in a better position to persevere than will children who do not or cannot make this distinction. As well, children who can make this distinction will more easily view challenges as opportunities for learning and growth than as traps waiting to ruin them. This less pressurized perspective will allow them to worry less and focus more, ultimately increasing their chances of coping success.
Children also need to learn how to cope with strong feelings such as anger, sadness, disappointment, jealousy, and frustration that often accompany challenging situations. In order to deal with strong emotions in a healthy way, children need to be able to realize:
1) that they're experiencing feelings in the first place,
2) to label their emotions, and then
3) to draw accurate conclusions about connection between their feelings and the situations that provoke them.
Parents can encourage children's development of these emotional intelligence skills by talking with children about their feelings and using emotion language. For instance, if a child is crying, pounding his fists, and saying, "It's not fair!" in response to receiving a poor test grade, Dad can say, "James, since you're pounding your fists and crying, you must be angry. It must have been pretty disappointing to get a poor grade on your test, even after you felt like you studied." In this comment, Dad has labeled two different feelings James is probably feeling and has connected these feelings to James' situation of having done poorly on his test.
Learning to identify and label feelings and connect them to events that have occurred empowers children to better understand and accept why the feelings are happening and to better communicate these feelings to others who are in a position to offer support. Labeling also enables children to recognize particular feelings they have felt before, providing them context and perspective to know that since they survived similar feelings before, that they can survive them again now. Labeling feelings after-the-fact is preparation for the more advanced skill of identifying feelings in real-time, as they are happening. Learning to identify feelings as they are happening enables children to make healthier, less reactive and less self-destructive decisions about how best to cope with their feelings. Ultimately, children's development of these "emotional competency" skills helps them form and maintain intimate close relationships with others, further enhancing their sense of belonging and ability to cope with stress.
Parents can help their children develop ways of coping with uncomfortable feelings by making specific suggestions about things children can do which might help them calm themselves. For example, children need to learn it's not acceptable to act violently or destructively when they're upset. Parents observing such behavior might suggest that children instead do something constructive with their pent-up energy such as exercising, drawing, writing, playing with pets, taking deep breaths, crying for a little while, talking to a trusted friend or family member, taking a bath, watching a funny movie, or any other healthy and soothing activity. Each child will develop his or her own individual coping techniques that work best for them. Caregivers can help encourage children to pick activities that they like and that seem to visibly calm them down. Early on in the learning process, children may benefit from prompting that they should use a specific coping skill to cope with a particular feeling. They might not think about it spontaneously at first when they're extremely upset or distracted by the upsetting situation. With practice, however, children's use of effective coping strategies should grow. When children have healthy coping methods to deal with uncomfortable feelings, they feel confident they can handle difficult situations, which increases self-esteem. In addition to suggesting specific coping strategies, parents can also teach their children methods for problem solving on their own. A good method for teaching children how to problem solve is covered in our Middle Childhood Parenting article, in the section on Discipline. This method teaches children how to examine a problem they are dealing with and generate possible solutions for addressing that problem.
When children's self-esteem is bolstered and encouraged by parents through their clear and open communication, attention and unconditional love, and their willingness to teach strategies and methods for managing emotions and solving difficult problems, children's experience of difficult situations becomes transformed. What was once an unrelentingly negative situation starts to become a more positive experience. As children learn that they can effectively meet life challenges, they become less fearful about entering into challenging situations. Such children are less likely to avoid opportunity out of fear that they will not succeed, and thus ultimately more likely to succeed.