Understanding and supporting low self-esteem
What is self-esteem?
In a nutshell, self-esteem is basically how we feel about ourselves and how we value ourselves. When we have healthy self-esteem, we feel positive about ourselves and our lives and we can cope with life's day to day demands. But, when our self-esteem is low, we can see ourselves and our life in a negative and critical light and feel less able to manage the daily challenges life inevitably throws at us.
We all have times when we don't feel good about ourselves and lack confidence. I see lots of children and young people who say to me things like: I’m not worth it, I don’t like myself, I’m not good at anything, I am useless. Low self-esteem can develop gradually over time and at times it can change suddenly. Parents and teachers often say that a child has lost their confidence or had their confidence ‘knocked’ which can be a helpful way to think of confidence as it therefore means we can find it and get it back and re-stabilize it if it gets knocked and wobbles. Challenging, difficult and/or stressful life experiences can often be a factor in lowering self-esteem, such as: difficulties with school work, physical health problems, friendship problems/fallouts and worries about appearance/ body image which can become particularly apparent in the teen years as bodies change and develop.
Why is it important?
When we have positive self-esteem we have the resilience to try new things, be brave and embrace challenging activities, manage difficulties, mistakes and failures and bounce back. Whereas low self-esteem can stop us from doing things we might enjoy or might achieve at, can make us give up quickly or not want to try and can ultimately make us feel low and worthless.
Sofia was in Year 5, she had been really enjoying school and eager to go, she had friends and was making good progress, she had some difficulties with literacy (dyslexia) and found reading and writing hard but was keen to write and enjoyed listening to audiobooks. However, school staff and Sofia’s parents were concerned that she had suddenly stopped wanting to go out to play and to attend sports clubs and drama clubs that she had previously enjoyed and would often say but ‘ there’s no point, I am no good at it’. She had also started to refuse to do her homework and would say that she ‘can’t read and write’ and there’s no point trying. School staff and Sofia’s parents were concerned that her literacy difficulties were impacting on her self-confidence. I met with Sofia and we discussed how she was feeling about different aspects of school, she rated most aspects of school quite highly, she acknowledged that she found literacy tasks hard but enjoyed stories and writing. There was, however, one exception of friendships, she told me that one of her friends had laughed at her during a PE dance lesson and then others also laughed and they continued to laugh at her and do impressions at breaktime. She felt they were now laughing at her writing and difficulties reading and she felt self-conscious. Sofia agreed to a restorative meeting with her friend. We discussed some things she could do to make sure she started feeling good about herself again starting with developing routines for Sofia to look after herself and to be kind to herself including both active and relaxing activities. We also discussed recording two positive things a day at school and developing a Super Me Scrapbook. We talked with the adults about noticing positives, strengths and good things and encouraging Sofia to record them and also challenging any negative self-comments.
What can we do? Top Tips
Develop routines focused around well-being
Routines are incredibly important, they help us feel safe and settled and are vital when we feel our well-being is knocked and lacking in confidence to try anything new and manage change.
It can be helpful to review current routines and develop routines focused around feeling good – including both physical/active activities and relaxing/calming activities. For example, embedding regular physical activity/exercise, regular mindfulness activities, yoga or listening to music into daily or weekly routines. Ensure some of the activities have a social element, it is important to develop a social network and it can be helpful if this goes beyond school, with activities/groups out of school.
Noticing and celebrating positives when lacking self-esteem does not come naturally and can be difficult, as such it can be helpful to set time aside daily to reflect on the day and write down just two positive things that have happened each day on a post it note - the post it notes will increase rapidly! As it can be hard to identify positives when we don’t feel great about ourselves it can be helpful to refer to some sentence starters for ideas/prompts such as:
I enjoyed…, I liked…, I felt happy when…, I was excited when…, I was proud that…, I felt successful when…
As examples: ‘I felt happy when I was able to read the paragraph in class’, ‘I enjoyed playing in the park’, ‘I was excited when Jo chose me to be her partner’.
Develop a Super Me Scrapbook to celebrate positives and record fun, successes and compliments. It can be particularly helpful to create a physical ‘paper’ super scrap book including printed photos of happy times, successes and social times - annotate the photos, record positives, add certificates, comments and compliments from friends and family and the daily post it notes. The scrap book can develop and provides a really useful focus to reflect back on and help challenge any negative thoughts and beliefs.
Encourage and practice positive self talk: I can do it, I am confident, I am capable! Give examples of when they have done it/have been confident to reinforce the positive statements, refer back to the Super Me Scrapbook to show them the evidence.
Challenge the negative
Notice negative beliefs then challenge them. Practice challenging negative thoughts and translating them into more positive hopeful thoughts, the more you practice the easier it is.
So, here’s some examples of negative thoughts tweaked to make them more positive and more hopeful:
I can’t read – I have got better at reading, it will get easier with practice
It’s too much – I can do this bit first, one step at a time
This is too hard, I give up – I will try this and there are people who can help me
I’m rubbish – it will get easier, I can practice
Again, refer back to the Super Me Scrapbook to show them the evidence.
Thank you for reading – I hope this provides a little insight into self-esteem, managing and improving self-esteem.
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If you or someone close to you needs urgent help you must contact local services.
I have found the following books useful for activities and ideas for building self esteem.
You’re a star – A Child’s Guide to Self-Esteem, Poppy O’Neill
Helping Children to Build Self-Esteem, Plummer 2007
I also love ‘Sitting Still Like a Frog’ Eline Snel, 2013 which contains some lovely, reflective mindfulness activities