6 ways to develop your child’s self-esteem without encouraging narcissism

In this podcast (episode #502) and blog, I talk about 6 ways to develop your child’s self-esteem without encouraging egotism or breeding narcissistic attitudes.

As parents and guardians, we know that it is important to praise and compliment our children, especially when celebrating their achievements. However, we also need to avoid praising our children too much, which may encourage vanity and narcissistic-like behaviors. 

In recent study, researchers following more than 500 children observed that parental warmth appears to be a better strategy than inflating a child’s ego with too much praise. “Parental warmth” does not exclude praise; rather, it focuses on helping children develop their self-esteem in a healthy and balanced way, while encouraging them to also grow their social skills and empathy and understand their place in their world as they develop their identity. Praising your child too much, on the other hand, teaches them to just focus on themselves, which can have a negative impact on their mental wellbeing and resilience, especially as they age. 

The key difference to note here that a healthy self-esteem is not the same as inflated self-importance. As the researchers in the abovementioned study point out, children “with high self-esteem think they’re as good as others, whereas narcissists think they’re better than others”. As parents and caregivers, we want to encourage our children to understand and navigate the world in healthy ways, not encourage attitudes that seek to use and abuse other people to feel happy or satisfied. 

Thankfully, there are several ways to we can encourage our children and praise them without encouraging egotism: 

1. Think about how you praise your child, and what you say to them. I love what the psychologist Adam Grant said recently on social media, that parents should focus on the idea that “you’re special to me, NOT you deserve special treatment”. When we praise our children, we should do so in a way the underscores this; for example:

  • “Everyone is so special, including you,” NOT “You are more special than other children.”
  • “Everyone deserves good things in life,” NOT “You deserve something extra in life.”
  • “We can learn from each other,” NOT “You are a great example for other children to follow.” 

Moreover, when we praise our children, we should do so for the effort they put in a task or goal, not just for fixed qualities like being smart, beautiful or athletic. We should say things like “even though it wasn't your best game, I am proud of you for not giving up!”. We should also praise them for any progress they make and their attitude (if deserved). For instance, you could say something like, “You are improving at spelling! I am proud of you for not giving up”.  

It is also important to praise children when they exhibit healthy social qualities, not just when the achieve something or do well at school. We should celebrate moments of kindness, caring, empathy, and gratitude, as well as when our children own their mistakes.

2. Let your children try and fail, and praise the trying. A big part of this means letting your child make mistakes! We should avoid what is known as “helicopter parenting”, where we feel the need to overprotect our children and do everything for them so that they don’t get upset or unhappy. Helicopter parenting creates entitlement—a child starts to think that they deserve to have everything done for them, and they expect that the people in their life are there to serve their needs.

3. Avoid harsh criticism. Don’t say things like “You are so difficult!”, “You are so bossy!” or “You are so lazy!” Correct your child when they misbehave, but do so with patience. Explain why they did something wrong, and help them learn how to respond better in the future. Focus on teaching your child and helping them grow, not punishing them. When we respond harshly and just focus on disciplining our children rather than helping them do better, our children may associate hurting others as way to way to feel better about themselves: “I am not good enough and this hurts, so the only way I can function and feel better about myself is to make people feel bad about themselves.” It can also result in pent up energy from unsatisfied needs, which may lead your child to hurt others to feel better.

4. Don’t punish your child for making a mistake. This can make your child feel like they are a failure, and that they need to make others feel like a failure so they can feel good about themselves. We should focus on helping our children see the value in their mistakes, and what our failures can teach us about ourselves and others.

5. Provide more opportunities for team-building activities with family and friends. This will help your child see the value in working with others, and how community involvement is fun, healthy and satisfying. Not only will this show your child how important deep, meaningful connections are in life, but it will also remind them that they are not the center of the universe; rather, they are an important and vital part of a community centered around love and support.

6. Help your child develop their mind management skills. As parents, we cannot prevent trauma from happening 100% of the time. We cannot protect our child from every bad thing or uncomfortable emotion, and we shouldn’t, as this can affect our child’s mental development and resilience. However, we can, and should, teach our children how to manage their thoughts and emotions from youth, so that they have the skills to face and manage the ups and downs of life. As I discuss in my upcoming book, How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess, this is one of the greatest life skills that we can teach our children, one that will help them grow, develop and thrive as adults.

To do this, I recommend teaching your child the mind management process I have developed over the past three decades, called the Neurocycle (which I also talk about in detail for different age groups in How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess). This is a clinically-researched system that helps rewire thought patterns by breaking thoughts down into their different elements, analyzing them from all angles and creating solutions that help change thinking patterns and habits, which is a way to harness your thinking power to change. It has 5 steps: 

First, walk your child through 1. Gathering Awareness of how they are feeling by observing their warning signals more deeply. For example: 

- “I feel worried and frustrated.” (emotional warning signal)

- “I have an upset tummy.” (bodily sensation warning signal)

- “I want to cry and not talk to anyone.” (behavior warning signal)

- “I hate school.” (perspective warning signal)

Next, walk them through 2. Reflecting and 3. Writing/Playing/Drawing what they feel, which will help them better understand what their warning signals above are pointing to. You can encourage them to ask themselves questions like:  

Why do I feel sad and frustrated?

Why is my tummy sore?

Why do I want to cry and not talk to anyone?  

The 4. Recheck step will help your child work out how to make the situation better. In this step, encourage your child to explore their feelings and thoughts and try to find a way to make what happened to them better.  

Lastly, the 5. Active Reach step is like taking a “treatment” or “medicine” each day to help their thinking and feelings get better. Help your child come up with ways they can do this when they are feeling overwhelmed or unwell. This step is characterized by actions and things your child can do that are pleasant and happy, which stabilize what they have learned and anchor them in a peaceful place of acceptance. This step is great at teaching children to try and look for solutions rather than get stuck in their emotions, which is an important part of building a child’s mental resilience.   

For more on parenting and children’s mental health, listen to my podcast (episode #502). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).     

Preorder my new book How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess before August 7th, 2023 to receive exclusive bonuses, including access to a 1-hour webinar + Q&A session on back-to-school tips and strategies to help your child mentally prepare for the year ahead! You can preorder here.      

This podcast is sponsored by:  

BetterHelp. Whether you’re dealing with decisions around career, relationships, or anything else, therapy helps you stay connected to what you really want while you navigate life – so you can move forward with confidence and excitement. Trusting yourself to make decisions that align with your values is like anything – the more you practice it, the easier it gets, and therapy makes this so much easier! Indeed, therapy is a great tool to not only learn how to make hard decisions, but also to discover positive coping skills and how to set boundaries. It empowers you to be the best version of yourself, and isn’t just for those who’ve experienced major trauma. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online. Designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist, and switch therapists any time for no additional charge. Let therapy be your map, with BetterHelp. Visit BetterHelp.com/drleaf today to get 10% off your first month.

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Podcast Highlights

4:20 The difference between building self-esteem & encouraging narcissism

10:35 Why we as parents need to make time for ourselves as well 

11:08 How we praise are kids is key to building healthy self-esteem 

19:07 Why we need to let our children make mistakes & learn from their failures 

22:40 How harsh criticism can impact your child’s self-esteem 

31:48 Why we need to help our children see the value in their mistakes

32:35 How team-building helps children develop healthy self-esteem 

35:15 The connection between mind management, self-regulation & self-esteem 

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional. 

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