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How to Build Self-Esteem in Your Child (Using Nutrition!)

How to build self-esteem in your child — or a true sense of self-worth– is something I hear parents ask more and more. We all want our children to feel good about themselves. After all, a hearty and healthy self-esteem helps our kids weather the storm of growing up in a competitive, sometimes heartless world.

Although parents may try hard to boost a child’s self-esteem, sometimes they unknowingly undermine it.

Building a healthy sense of self isn’t straightforward, or simple. In fact, it’s complex. What helps one child grow confidence may not help the next child.

In this article, I’ll take a look at the things you can do to help build self-esteem in your child with a focus on nutrition, as well as the the things that make it harder for kids to be self-confident.

Nutrition is one vehicle for influencing a positive self image—let’s take a look!

Self-esteem: Tips for parents on how to build it and avoid breaking it.

Self Esteem vs Self Confidence

These terms get tossed around quite a bit, but what’s the difference?

Self-esteem is how your child values and looks at themself.

For example, I’ve had teens tell me they don’t like the way they look, or they don’t feel comfortable in their body. They don’t like their curly hair, their skin, or their shape.

If you don’t like yourself, it will be hard to have a robust self-esteem.

Self confidence, on the other hand, is the attitude your child has about their skills and abilities. Depending on what this attitude is, it can support a good self-esteem or undermine it.

It’s the difference between ‘I’m a great soccer player’ or ‘I’m awful at sports.’ You can see how this may support or detract a child’s self esteem.

Build Self-Esteem in Your Child

What seems to be true is that a myriad of positive and successful experiences help children internalize a sense of worthiness and purpose.

Let’s explore what areas of nutrition have a positive impact on a child’s self-esteem:

1. Your Feeding Style

The diplomatic feeding style, a warm and sensitive way to parent and feed children, places demands and expectations on the child using boundaries, structure and promotes autonomy with reasonable choice.

This feeding approach focuses on trust between the parent and child, helping kids to stay attuned to their body signals for eating and stopping.

It’s really the one style of feeding that capitalizes on self-awareness, trust in one’s body, and promotion of self-regulated food intake.

When kids feel capable with eating they are more confident.

Do you know what your feeding style is? Learn about food parenting and how it can help you be a better feeder.

guys sitting on a mountain top

2. Learning Skills Build Self-Esteem

Learning a skill helps all children become proficient, but it also encourages industry and purpose, an important social-emotional developmental milestone which fosters self-esteem.

Great ways to do this in the kitchen include:

  • letting your child help with food prep and cooking
  • planting and caring for a garden
  • allowing your child to pack his lunch
  • letting your child make breakfast
  • putting your child in charge of assembling an after-school snack
  • setting and clearing the table.

Not sure how to bring your child into the kitchen and cook?

Check out my Nutrition Store for kids cookbooks to spur some ideas.

Check out my podcast interview with the author of PREP: The Essential College Cookbook.

Katie outlines some simple recipes for newly graduated young adults.

3. Build Perserverence by Encouraging Your Child to Stick with It

Encouraging your child to stick with a difficult task, while demonstrating faith in his capabilities with your words may help children muster stick-to-it-ness, or perseverance.

Achieving completion or success when difficulties arise translates to self-efficacy or self-confidence — a belief in one’s abilities.

This can lead to better self-esteem.

False praise, while it might feel good to give, doesn’t do much to instill self-confidence, and may even erode it.

4. Highlight Your Child’s Internal Characteristics

Our world is externally focused—beauty is skin deep, more so today than ever before.

Many kids, due to their developmental stage, will compare themselves to peers, celebrities or other unattainable ideals.

Work hard to instill and highlight your child’s internal qualities, such as his or her loyalty to friends, his sense of justice, or their honesty.

Steer clear of focusing on how pretty your child is, or how muscular or lean they look.

Watch Out for Low Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem Busters

Keep an eye out for habits or behaviors that may undermine your child’s self-esteem.

For example, how do you speak to your child? What tone do you use when you ask your child to do something? What words do you use?

Are you critical or supportive?

1. Weight-based Teasing May Tear at Your Child’s Self Worth

My dad always said that teasing was a form of affection—and for me, it was.

But it isn’t for everyone.

In fact, it can be quite hurtful.

Teasing, especially if it is targeting a child’s body shape, size or appearance can be devastating. This can change a child’s self-perception and damage their self-esteem.

2. Criticizing Eating Choices or Habits

The trouble with criticism, particularly in the realm of eating, is that it may lead a child to internalize a negative belief about themselves.

Especially if we use labels.

“You’re a picky eater” or “you always eat too much” can be labels that hurt and limit what your child can achieve or do.

Instead of squelching their belief in themself, praise your child’s effort.

girl sitting on a stoop covering her face

3. Ignoring a Child’s Concerns or Self-Doubt

All kids have worries or concerns at one point or another. A friend and colleague, who is a therapist, says never to disregard a concern that comes up more than once.

We all waiver in our confidence—even as parents!—and often all we need to hear is, “You’re doing a great job!” to calm our concerns.

If your child has recurrent concerns or worries, especially about their body, don’t brush them off. Instead, open up a conversation (without judgment) and help your child work through them.

Ignoring may invalidate your child and his worries.

4. Self Deprecating Comments: Don’t Criticize Yourself

Self-deprecation can be a funny thing among adults, but when it comes to putting yourself down in front of your child, research says it’s not a good idea.

Even though you may “feel fat,” your child sees you as their everything.

Don’t put yourself or your own body down in front of your child—he or she may internalize and adopt those negative feelings, too.

Chart of self esteem for kids: builders and breakers

5. Pressure to be Perfect

My, don’t we all want to be perfect—in some way or another?

But, nobody is perfect.

So, piling on the pressure to get our kids to be perfect may strip them of their worthiness and confidence, or worse, spiral them into perfectionistic thinking.

This thinking can tie into disordered eating and an eating disorder.

Think about it—kids aren’t born knowing what to do, or how to behave, or eat, for that matter!

They are learning.

In the process, kids can be quite messy and make mistakes. Take those mistakes in stride and nix the pressure on your child to act like an adult.

Allow mess with eating, mistakes with cooking, and recognize that there’s plenty of time to learn and blossom into the person they are meant to be.

Tell me, how are you building self-esteem in your child?

This was originally published in April 2015 |Updated on September 27, 2023

fruit juice for toddlers and kids

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