The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the pillars of children’s lives. Faced with quarantine, school closures, and social distancing, many children are deprived of the everyday experiences that normally build their self-esteem — their sense of worth as a person. Self-esteem is a critical ingredient of children’s mental health. Children with higher self-esteem tend to have happier lives, better relationships, and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Many parents see the process of raising self-esteem as building a structure: The first step is to lay a solid foundation. How, then, can parents help lay a solid foundation for children’s self-esteem during the COVID-19 pandemic?
According to theories in psychology, children’s self-esteem is built on two pillars: acceptance and competence. Children feel good about themselves when they feel loved and supported by significant others (acceptance) and when they master new skills to achieve their goals (competence).
“Parents can continue building warmer, more supportive relationships with their children. In warm, supportive relationships, parents share joy with their children, show fondness for them, and express interest in their activities.”
Here, we present evidence-based strategies that parents can implement to cultivate acceptance and competence in children. These strategies do not require much time or resources on behalf of parents. Indeed, our aim is to ease — rather than increase — the burden placed on parents during these remarkable times. Parents may be under extreme stress: the stress of going to work while risking exposure to the virus, of homeschooling their children while struggling to meet their own job demands, and of caring for elderly parents while being concerned about their own health. It is important for parents to be compassionate to themselves and to embrace the imperfections of their new routines.
What can parents do to make children feel more loved and supported? For one, parents can continue building warmer, more supportive relationships with their children. In warm, supportive relationships, parents share joy with their children, show fondness for them, and express interest in their activities. Parents can do so, for example, by spending time with their children and letting them know they are enjoying their presence, by asking children with curiosity about their interests and daily activities, and by talking to children about their worries and fears in age-appropriate ways regarding the current pandemic.
Such experiences of warmth are most likely to cultivate self-esteem when they are provided unconditionally, in good times and in bad. This isn’t about being a super-parent: “You just have to show up, allowing your kids to feel that you get them and that you’ll be there for them, no matter what.”
Of course, as children age, they develop more friendships outside the family. Such friendships are an important source of self-esteem. Unfortunately, quarantine, school closures, and social distancing have made it incredibly difficult for children to maintain their friendships. When playdates are unsafe or simply impossible, children might need their parents’ guidance in connecting with their friends. For example, parents can help children meet up with friends online through games or video chat apps, encourage children to watch a show with their friends remotely, or assist children in making a playlist of their favorite songs and sharing it with their friends.
Although seemingly trivial, these strategies may create upward spirals of self-esteem over time. Indeed, when children build deeper relationships with others, they develop higher self-esteem. And when they develop higher self-esteem, they become more inclined to approach others, show warmth to others, and forge even deeper bonds with them. This, in turn, further buttresses their self-esteem.
“Parents can encourage children to find a topic that fascinates them and provide them with the resources they need to learn more about it.”
Children are born curious and spontaneously practice new skills. They often seek novel and challenging experiences that help them build their competence. As they feel increasingly competent, their self-esteem rises.
Amidst school closures, children may attend online classes, get homeschooled, or not receive any education at all. In these cases, a large burden is placed on children’s intrinsic motivation. How can parents nurture children’s interest and joy in learning? Parents can encourage children to find a topic that fascinates them and provide them with the resources they need to learn more about it. They can use free educational resources (such as National Geographic Kids’ YouTube channel); create art projects; and help children build structures with Legos, blocks, or even household items.
In these activities, it is critical for children to experience a sense of learning and growth. Even small steps on the road toward self-improvement should be celebrated. When children know they are improving themselves, they feel proud and eagerly seek out more activities to hone their skills.
The foundation of children’s self-esteem is laid early in life. We’ve shown that parents can help build this foundation by making children feel loved and nurturing their interest and joy in learning. Given the worries and fears that surround a global pandemic, a solid foundation can help children build toward a better future.
Header photo: The Lowry. Creative Commons.