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  • Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT, ATR

Self-Esteem Stars (and How to Effectively Praise)

Parents frequently want to know how they can build their child’s self-esteem. Low self-esteem can manifest in different ways. It can look like the child that is constantly seeking praise and reassurance from you, showing off or asking if you like what they’ve done. Or a child that never seems to feel like they are good at anything, putting themselves down or comparing themselves to others. Or a child that has an extreme reaction and meltdown to any criticism or perceived insult, no matter how small. Or the child with a special need or diagnosis that can only focus on what is “wrong” with them. All of these children need extra help in building positive self-esteem.

Positive self-esteem involves many factors and building a more positive feeling of self-worth in a child can require multiple approaches. There are entire books written about self-esteem, but one strategy to think about is effective praise. Helpful praise does not mean telling your child that everything that they do is wonderful or constantly throwing out vague phrases like “You’re such a good boy” and “I’m so proud of you.” Yes, most kids love to hear their parents tell them how great they are, but over time these phrases can sound hollow and meaningless, especially to a child that is already struggling with low self-esteem.

Helpful praise to build self-esteem should be specific, tied to a concrete example, highlight a positive aspect of your child that you want to reinforce, and ideally encourage a “growth mindset.” Concrete examples help your child to believe the praise, something that is often difficult when kids are depressed or have low self-esteem. A growth mindset focuses on traits that can be worked on and developed, not “fixed” traits that a child is born with (e.g., hard work is a growth trait, intelligence is a fixed trait). So what does this look like? Here are a few examples:

1. “I see that you cleaned your room without me even asking. That really shows responsibility.”

2. “You seemed really mad that your brother broke your toy, but I noticed that you walked away to calm down. You were really practicing self-control.”

3. “You did great on your test! You must have tried really hard.”

Even better for self-esteem is to help your child start to internalize these positive labels and learn to praise themselves. Parents can help to set the stage for this by asking leading questions or even simply noticing positive behavior. That might look like this:

1. “Wow! You got all your homework done without me. What do you think that shows about you?” (Gets your child to supply the positive label for themselves.)

2. “You got an A on your big test! You must feel really proud of yourself!” (As opposed to, “I’m so proud of you.”)

3. “Your friend seemed to have a good time visiting. What do you think makes you a good friend?” (Encourages your child to both notice something good about themselves and to think more about the various qualities involved in being a good friend.)

4. “I see that you got your room cleaned up without any help!” (Simply reflecting the positive action.)

Self-esteem stars can be a great activity to reinforce praise and to highlight positive characteristics in your child. This is especially great for the child that seems to always focus on negative events and failings, forgetting about all the positive things that they have done. I will often suggest this activity as homework for kids that need help with self-esteem…and for parents that need help focusing on what their child is doing well.

Print and cut out several paper stars. Every day, take some time to talk about a positive thing that you saw in your child that day, something good that they noticed about themselves, or a moment that they felt proud of themselves. Fill this in on the star and let your child decorate the star if they wish. Choose a place in their room to hang up the collection of stars, adding to it everyday. Then your child will be surrounded by reminders of the great things about themselves. Over time, try to highlight a variety of aspects of your child, including natural talents (intelligent, funny, artistic), values and characteristics you want to encourage (responsible, caring, helpful), and ways they overcame challenges (hard-working, persevering, able to remain calm).

Want to give it a try? Download my Self-Esteem Stars Worksheet to use at home.

To learn more about praising well, building self-esteem and emotional intelligence in your kids, and developing a stronger relationship with them, I recommend reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

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