Promoting positive self-talk in children

We examine ways to encourage good self-esteem and a healthy internal dialogue in your child with Kim Henderson, clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre.

There has probably never been a time when children have been subject to so much external judgement, especially tweens and teens. Whether it’s endless academic evaluation, parental expectation, or social conformity (now turbo-charged by social media), growing up can feel like a hugely stressful time. As a result, children’s self-esteem can be affected and this provides a unique set of challenges for parents, who want to create a positive and supportive environment for them to flourish.


Self-esteem is impacted by a range of different factors, including not just social circumstances but also health, personality type, age, life events and even genetics. It develops in early infancy, when the feeling of safety and acceptance is introduced, and is underlined by parents through praise and positive reinforcement as kids encounter new experiences and situations.

Once they start school, children are exposed to a new layer of scrutiny from peers and adults in an unfamiliar setting, all while learning and adapting to unfamiliar rules, both social, as well as institutional. This is where low self-esteem can manifest itself, and be compounded by negative messaging from teachers, friends, siblings and even parents. These negative messages then stay with young people far longer than positivity or praise. Children and teens are like sponges and will absorb the messaging they receive, internalising it as their inner dialogue towards themselves. Unfortunately negative reinforcement, experiences, feelings and words make a much deeper and longer-lasting impression than positive ones, which are more easily forgotten.

Understanding these challenges and pressures, and the conflicting emotions they generate, is important for parents to help their children develop and maintain a strong sense of self-worth. Here are some tips to cultivate strong self-esteem in your children.


Children can be very hard on themselves for many reasons, particularly in terms of perceived academic or sporting failure in school. In these instances, it’s important to show empathy. Try to become an emotion detective. Ask yourself “What emotions is my child showing me? Is it sadness, disappointment or frustration?” Then, validate that emotion. Use phrases like “I can see that you’re frustrated with your spelling test. I know you were trying to get 10/10 this week.”

Try to create a balance between acceptance and change, allowing children to accept what we cannot change and helping them build a tolerance to distress. Then work on problem solving together. What, for instance, could we learn for next time?


All parents want to praise their children. However, it’s much less a question of how much we praise, and much more a question of what we are praising. A recent Stanford University study of toddlers proved that praising the effort, not the outcome, leads to greater motivation and a more positive attitude towards challenges. Therefore, building self-esteem isn’t about saying everything your child does is perfect. Instead it’s actually based on the skills they build for themselves. As an example, instead of saying, “What an amazing painting, you are such a brilliant artist”, try something like “Wow, this painting is really creative, with such bright colours. Did you have fun painting it?”


At preschool and primary school age, giving children balanced feedback is key. In sport, for instance, try to show your child the value of joining in, regardless of whether they won or lost. Phrases such as “Did you enjoy running with your friends?” are a great way to frame these activities. If your child looks disappointed at not winning, say something like “Well done for running as fast as you could. I’m very proud of you. Let’s go and say well done to Jake for winning”.

Parents can actively test winning and losing by playing games with children at home. Encourage turn-taking, but also show how to play together as a team. It’s important to make sure everyone has fun whatever the outcome, which gives your child confidence to model this in social situations without you.


It doesn’t matter what the task is, it can be anything from swimming laps to beating levels on a video game, but always encourage your child to set a goal for themselves in something that they enjoy. The point isn’t the task itself, but for them to see a task through to the end so they feel that sense of accomplishment.


Research suggests that self-esteem doesn’t change significantly between the ages of 11 and 15, however, it increases rapidly after that – usually in line with greater personal autonomy, freedom to choose and the friendships kids make. Again, boundaries are needed for each, but safe option-giving is vital when teenagers are exploring different parts of their personality.

In “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did)”, Phillipa Perry covers this topic beautifully. This book is a wonderful way for any mother (or father) looking for an emotionally intelligent way to connect with their children to learn more about how to do that.


All parents do, but it’s very important to make it clear to your kids that your love is unconditional. Let your child know that they are loved regardless of if they fail or succeed, while encouraging them to always try their best.


All parents hope that their children will grow up with an abundance of resilience and high self-esteem to help them navigate the bumps and bruises of life. However, adults who make negative comments about the way they look for example, can influence how children talk about themselves and how they view and feel about their own body. Research suggests that if we, as parents, feel unsure about our self-worth, we can turn to our children for a boost – demanding affirmations of love or praise or overreacting to feelings of rejection. It’s an easy pattern to fall into if we are not mindful about our parenting and our own experiences as children.


Every child and teenager will have low self-esteem at some point in their life but it’s important we recognise the red flags and intervene if appropriate. In isolation, negative self-talk is natural and not a cause for concern but it can be evidence of low self-esteem, anxiety or depression etc. Look out for these signs:

  • Negative self-talk that is persistent and pervasive
  • Comments not based in reality: e.g. your daughter always gets good grades in her spelling test but she is convinced every time she will fail
  • Negative self-image that impacts your child’s relationships or schoolwork
  • A change in your child’s eating and/or sleeping patterns

If in any doubt, never be afraid to reach out to an expert for medical or psychological advice, be that your doctor or a child psychologist. One of the best things you can do to encourage your child to have positive self-talk and healthy self-esteem is to model this behaviour for them in yourself and your interactions together. It’s never too late to change a pattern or improve these things. With time and consistency, you can help your child to move towards their happiest, most resilient self!



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