Anne Gribble May 8 2019

How to Address the Two Key Elements of Self Esteem in Young Kids

In this article, Concordia Shanghai early childhood teacher and parent educator Anne Gribble shares effective ways to help your child build healthy social skills and a positive sense of self.  

Every human needs food, water, and shelter to survive physically. Likewise, every human has two basic emotional needs that must be met as well: the need to be an individual, and the need to be social. When these two emotional needs are well met, a person can say with conviction:

early-childhood-building-self-esteem“I am capable.” and “I belong.”

One who believes these two statements about him/herself has high self-esteem. These two statements represent two sides of a person, both sides of which must be developed: the “ME” and the “WE” – the individual and the sense of belonging to a group—the psychology and the sociology—the independent and the dependent. Though they may seem like polar opposites, both are  essential.

At any one time in a person’s life, he/she may be working harder on one part than the other. For example, newborns work almost exclusively on connection or belonging or the “WE”, developing trust that those around him/her will meet basic needs. Two-year-olds start working on the “ME”, or individual rights and competence. We've all heard a toddler say, “ME DO IT!” 

Throughout life, emphasis flips back and forth.

  • A clingy three-year-old = “WE”
  • Bold, out of bounds four-year-old = “ME”
  • Rebellious teen or midlife adult = “ME” and “WE”
  • Newlyweds = “WE”, but there may be a struggle to keep their “ME” identity.

early-childhood-self-esteem-and-behaviorA healthy balance requires both. One without the other feels frightening and incomplete. Without either, one feels worthless, resulting in low self-esteem.

Self Esteem and Behavior

Self-esteem directly affects behavior. How one feels about oneself often determines how one behaves. A child who misbehaves often may be trying to say, for a variety of reasons, “I don’t feel capable. I don’t feel like I belong. I don’t feel loved.”

Self-esteem also affects academic performance, the ability to relate well to others, and even one’s emotional stability in times of crisis.

NOTE: Children who feel good about themselves generally behave well. (And they are HAPPY! and have FRIENDS!)

Feedback children get from positive behavior often reinforces how they see themselves: as good, worthwhile, needed and capable.

There are other reasons why children may misbehave: medical problems, developmental stages, tension in the home, difficult temperament, learning disability, ADHD, or trauma by abuse (nature and nurture). However, often those reasons are intertwined with a child’s sense of worth – that is something we, as parents, can help support.




I am capable.

I am an individual.

I am independent.








I belong. 

I am loved.

I am part of a group.


How do we support our children?

The “ME”: If they can do something…let them do it! 

We can start by encouraging children to do simple things like: hang up their coat, open their snack box, pick out their clothes, go down the slide, walk instead of being carried. We can allow them to dress themselves, feed themselves, carry their own backpack. They could fill their water bottle, get up onto the chair on their own, pick up their toys. They can help do simple tasks around the home, such as set the table, help cook in the kitchen, gather items when shopping, help clean up, and soothe themselves to sleep—alone. All these things will help children become independent!

The “WE”: Let them know they are part of the group.

*Say to them in casual ways, “What would we do without you in our family? Who would get the napkins each meal?” Tell them directly to their face, “I love you so much. I am so glad you are in our family.” Comment about their school class, “You have such a nice class – you are so lucky to be part of the X class.” Encourage and support them to become a part of the neighborhood, church family, extended family, Girl/Boy Scouts, sports team, music group…There is so much value in being a part of a group that needs and appreciates them. 


Anne Gribble is an Early Childhood Educator, Parent Educator at Concordia International School Shanghai