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How Can Parents Spot Low Self-Esteem in Their Children?

An expert describes the signs and symptoms of low self-esteem in kids -- and how to spot them in your child.

By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.

Given the many failure situations they've experienced, children and adolescents with learning difficulties often feel low self-esteem and a loss of confidence. In this article, Dr. Robert Brooks addresses the questions: What are the signs of low self-esteem? How hard is it to identify?

Since many youngsters with learning and attention difficulties are burdened by low self-esteem, it is important for parents, teachers, and other adults to be aware of the signs. An increased awareness allows us to have a greater understanding of children with learning differences and to assist them to become more confident and self-assured.

The signs of low self-esteem may vary considerably from one child to the next and even from one situation to the next. Children especially experience low self-esteem in situations in which they believe they are destined for failure. Thus, it is not unusual for youngsters with learning problems to feel most vulnerable in settings in which their learning difficulties are very obvious and exposed, such as in school. Not surprisingly, some of these children feel greater confidence when engaged in an activity in which they feel more proficient, for example, an adolescent boy with learning difficulties who feels "stupid" in school but very self-assured while working on the motor of his car. Unfortunately, for a number of youngsters, a sense of low self-esteem is so pervasive that there are few, if any, situations in which they feel competent.

How do we know when children suffer from low self-esteem? Sometimes the signs are very direct, while at other times the signs must be inferred from the behavior of the children and the ways in which they cope.

Direct Manifestations of Low Self-Esteem

With some children and adolescents there is little doubt they are weighed down by low self-esteem. Their messages — "I am so stupid," "I always do everything wrong," "I will never learn" — capture their despair, sadness, lack of confidence, and loss of hope.

I met Matt when he was a young adolescent. He was diagnosed with learning and attention problems. He lacked confidence and manifested two other signs of low self-esteem, namely, he was depressed and entertained little hope for future success. He wrote a story about school that vividly and directly portrayed the despair and hopelessness of many children with learning problems. As one reads his poignant story, there is little doubt of his struggles with low self-esteem.

School has been and still is something I dread profusely. Going to school has been like climbing up a tremendous, rocky mountain with steep cliffs and jagged, slippery rocks. This mountain is very grey and always covered in dark, murky, cold clouds. I step forth to take on this task of climbing this huge mountain. Each step is a battle against strong, howling, icy winds. The winds contain frigid rain that slams against my body, trying to push me down. I keep battling my way up. Sometimes I am knocked down, and sometimes I have to stop to regain my strength. My body is numb. My hands shake like leaves in the wind as I claw myself up the mountainside. Not being able to open my eyes, I blindly claw myself up the steep cliff. I stop because I am in so such great pain. I look up and see that my struggle has hardly begun. Sometimes I just do not want to go on any further.

Robert Brooks, Ph.D. is on the Faculty at Harvard Medical School and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/5/2012:
"Hi, i am a kid myself and i have low self-esteem issues..i know i have it and i wanna get rid of it but i dont know how. my friends in school call me too mature just because i dont smile and interact much and i have a few more issues i think is whats causing this. im sad most of the time. i just dont know how to cure this. no one in my school understands what im going through. i keep it a secret from everyone as i dont want them to call me an emo anymore and it i wont gain anything from it. no one..really understands me.. it would be great if you could help me with this. im only 12 years old. thank you. "
05/24/2010:
"we have a 12 yr old a 9 yr old and an 8 month old, all boys. we are concerned about our 9 year old he has every single symptom of very low self confidence 'i cant do it, i dont know how, im dumb,i quit, im embaressed,you dont care..........' are his main answers or replys. we've done every thing possible Sports, Hobbies, outings,plenty of praise, tons of love, alone time with mom or dad or both, time with friends, and so much more. when we praise him or tell him good things he says he dosn't want to hear it or he rolls his eyes and basicly calls us liers.when he wants something like to join a sport we enroll him and try so hard to make it last long enough so he dosn't set his mind on quitting because hes not perfect at it or embaressed by it. He has had this low self esteem issue since he was able to talk and we've done nothing but try everything possible to try and break it but hes holding on strong.learning to ride a bike, coloring a picture, learning to swim, school, maki! ng any decision, homework, everything is very exausting when it comes to him although we dont lead on to let him know that. we concistently tell and show him were proud,love,and care about him an that we will never give up on him or let him quit with out good reasoning.He is loving, caring, considerate,well mannered, quiet,cute and very family orientated. we are stuck and we know if we cant help him then in the long run hes not going to prosper and he will just go down hill as age aproaches if you can help or give me any more ideas to try..... anything would be helpfull, if were missing something, doing something wrong, or just continue exhausting our resources.....please let us know. thank you"
03/10/2010:
"My daughter is 15 YEARS OLD, very sweet, but has a very low self-Esteem. SHE HAS PROBLEM CONCENTRATING IN CLASS AND IS VERY HARD FOR HER TO FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. SHE WRITES HOW SHE FEELS THAT SHE IS NOT SMART AS OTHER. SHE ALSO WROTE THAN IN OCCASION SHE CUT HER SELF AND THAT MAKE HER FEEL GOOD... I AM NOT SURE IF THIS TRUE OR IN HER IMAGINATION... I AM VERY CONCERN OF HER ACTIONS.. I TALK TO HER ALL THE TIME BUT I CAN'T TRUST HER... I NEED HELP ON HOW TO APPROACH HER.. OR IF IS A BETTER WAY... I KNOW SHE NEEDS HELP... ALSO MYSELF "
04/20/2009:
"My 14 yrs old son bullys his 9 yrs old brother every day and every minute he has an opportunity. I am constantly demanding he stop his behavior but my pleadings have been without response. My nine year old son crys and now is becoming aggresive. I sometimes want to cry and feel helpless. I talk to my oldest son and tell him he is harming his brother, that he is lowering his self esteem. If he does'nt stop he will demage his brother to a great extent. Before he knows it his little brother will not be little any more and he will become aggresive toward him. Now I have my 11 yr old daughter bullying him as well. "
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