Signs & Symptoms


Is your child displaying a low self-esteem?

Your children may have times in life when they seem to have a low self-esteem, self-image, or self-concept. These terms mean a poor sense of self and a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities.

Children with low self-esteem may hesitate to put themselves out there, often waiting for guidance from you. They may shy away from new experiences or think new peers won’t like them. They may make negative self-statements that are broad and unfounded.

For example, “I’m terrible at math. I’ll probably fail” is a negative self-statement that is global and catastrophizing.  Alternately, saying “division is really hard for me” is specific, controllable, and may be accurate. Saying “I’m terrible at math” is unfounded, not specific, and uncontrollable.

The “I’m terrible at math” statement is more consistent with low self-esteem. Often, low self-esteem can lead to depression. It is related to a sense of inadequacy and poor self-reliance, which are negative feelings about yourself and your capabilities.

The unfortunate consequence is that some of these negative self-statements become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Individuals who think they will fail, often do.

Research shows that optimists tend to believe their performance is better than it is. As a result, they tend to take more risks, practice more, not give up, and in the end they ultimately perform as well as they think they can.

What do challenges with Self-Esteem look like?

  • Saying, “I’m not good enough, fast enough, smart enough or pretty enough?”
  • Thinking he’ll fail the math test because he can never get that problem right?
  • Saying that other people are better at soccer, reading, or singing?
  • Often relying on you to guide him through homework or to talk to his teacher about that missed assignment?
  • Expecting you to plan out her weekend social activities?

Why is Self-Esteem happening?

Clinically, negative feelings about yourself can lead to depression. Having a low self-esteem leads a child to make negative self-statements. If your child is caught in this cycle of negative beliefs, it is important to consider what psychologists call ‘attributions.’ Attributions are the ways we explain things that happen to us. Happier people tend to believe that any ‘failure’ on their part is specific, changeable, and due to external factors. 


People who are unhappy tend to attribute failures to global, unchangeable, and personal factors. 


If your child is caught up in the negative, practice thinking with him or her in more specific terms. For example, if your child said, “I failed that debate…I suck at talking in front of people, I’m a terrible student.” 


  • A specific statement would be, “I really struggled on that debate today.” 
  • A changeable statement would be, “I didn’t do well because I didn’t take enough time to practice it.”
  • An externalizing (non-personal) statement could be, “I don’t think it was really explained to us how we were supposed to prepare for this debate.” 


An occasional negative self-statement from a child can often be countered with by highlighting evidence to the contrary or by noticing a strength. Constant evidence of low self-esteem can be indicative of depression or can leave a child vulnerable to other mental health concerns. In that case, it will be important to see a psychologist for help.

How can I manage Self-Esteem at home?

In terms of strategies for someone who struggles with low self-esteem, talking to your child and, even more important, listening, can help. Hear your child’s comments and do not dismiss them as false. Sometimes just a caring and concerned posture is enough. Let your child vent his or her frustrations.

Make sure the child knows you understand first and foremost. When you offer encouragement, be realistic and specific. For example, “I understand that it feels like you are the worst student ever, but there are things we can do to make it better.”

Be sure that your child has a number of outlets in life that he or she can feel positive about. For the child who is struggling in school, pursuing interests in music, sports and youth group can provide areas of positive outlet. “Math has been tough this year, but your recital performance last week was wonderful. You are one of the most talented violinists in your class!” This response is an example of specific positive feedback.

Saying “You’re great!” is not as helpful as specific praise, such as “You may have had a tough time with that math assignment, but you aced your history test. We are so proud!”

To recap, hear your child’s feelings, listen and offer help. Additionally, praise areas of strength. Work to support your child in an area of need. If math is the issue, offer to provide some help with tutoring or support your child in having a conversation with the teacher.

If you suspect your child has low self-esteem that may be interfering with functioning in any way (suicidal statements, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, depressed mood), it would first be important to consult with a psychologist regarding your concerns. Having someone for your child to talk to can be very helpful in recognizing and treating depression.

If your child meets criteria for depression or for a learning concern (like our example with math) or another disability, he or she may need an IEP or Section 504 Plan to provide additional supports and services at school.

It will be important to share any diagnostic information or reports with your School Psychologist to get the ball rolling. For a child who is depressed, having someone to talk to at school can go a long way. A counselor or school psychologist can provide a listening ear.

School staff can also work to pair your child with good peer buddies and to facilitate friendships that can support the developing of positive self-esteem.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Self-Esteem?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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