5 Ways to Nurture Your Child's Self-Worth

Your child’s sense of self-worth will be impacted by many things throughout life that you can't control. However, you can control what you say and do. Dr. Nanika Coor explains how to prioritize love and acceptance, in moments of connection and conflict. 

Nanika Coor, Psy. D.
6-minute read
Episode #638
The Quick And Dirty

Develop your child's sense of self-worth in these five ways: 

  1. Learn about your child by watching them play. 
  2. Let your child enjoy their own agency and mastery. 
  3. Have "special time" with your child. 
  4. Support your child's expression of emotion. 
  5. Accept your child's authentic self. 

Today we're talking about the origins of your child’s self-worth, and the everyday ways you can make a regular practice of showing your child how important they are to you. Just because you experience love for your child - it doesn’t mean that your child feels loved. So it’s important that you show your child that you love them, because they see and experience themselves through your eyes.

Radical acceptance of your child means that you are responsive to the child you have - with all of their unique strengths and weaknesses - and to the hand you’ve been dealt.

One of the simplest - though not always the easiest - ways to nurture your child’s sense of self worth is to accept your child just as they are in any given moment. Radical acceptance of your child means that you are responsive to the child you have - with all of their unique strengths and weaknesses - and to the hand you’ve been dealt. Because this requires letting go of who you fear they’ll turn out to be, who you wish they were now, and your regret around who they’ve been in the past, many parents find this incredibly difficult. It's critical for parents to work their way through grief and mourning to be able to come to this place of acceptance.

When you’re able to stay present with and responsive to the child standing in front of you, whoever they are, they understand that they’re valuable to you and that your connection is always solid - in moments of joy and when they’re struggling.

Here are 5 ways to nurture your child’s self-worth:

Tip #1: Observe your child at play

In the rushing around parents do each day, we can forget the value of slowing down and attuning to the present moment. The first way you can show your children your love and acceptance is by engaging in what child development specialist Magda Gerber, called “wants nothing quality time.”  This is a time of connection with your child when you’re not requesting anything of them. You’re spending time with them without any agenda of your own. You don’t need to entertain and they don’t need to perform.

For five to 10 minutes each day, put your tasks and technology aside and observe your child while they play independently. You might even ask them if they mind if you watch them play for a while - some kids will really light up at this. Don’t involve yourself in their play unless they invite you in, your only task is to focus only on your child, and observe them with interest and curiosity. What is your child drawn to? What’s the theme of their play? How do they use their body and their creativity? What do they struggle with? What do they seem proud of?

Tip #2: Support your child’s sense of mastery

Resist the urge to correct, teach, and interrupt your child in an effort to do things the “right way" or “as soon as possible.” Allow them to use toys and their imagination creatively. Allow them to pronounce words however they need to as they are learning to talk, read, and write. Allow them to struggle a bit before rushing in to solve problems for them, don’t let them become distressed, of course, and certainly help if they’re asking for help. But if they haven’t asked for help, offer words of encouragement first before intervening - you might be surprised what they are capable of doing on their own.

There’s such a sense of self-pride and satisfaction for them when they can show you what they’ve accomplished all by themselves! Provide an enriching environment and diverse experiences, allowing them to opt in or out at a level they feel comfortable with. Magda Gerber’s quote “Readiness is when they do it,” reminds us to follow our child’s lead, meet them where they are and meet the needs they have right now. When they are ready for the next thing, they’ll do the next thing.

Tip #3: Make special time a habit

Take a few minutes each day to see the world through your child’s eyes by engaging in special time. This involves setting a timer for a set amount of time (anywhere between three and 60 minutes) where you play whatever your child wants to play or do whatever your older child or teen wants to do. You set the time limit and you say when and where and what the parameters are, if any. Your child gets to decide on the activity. They get to call all of the shots.

Really pour your delight into their proverbial “cup” during this time, and demonstrate the kind of enthusiastic flexibility, cooperation, and openness you hope they’ll show you on a daily basis. This is a protected time when you commit to not allowing yourself to be distracted or interrupted. So know your limits, and proactively put in place what you’ll need for you to be able to put 100% of your undivided attention on your child. When the timer goes off, hold the limit that special time has ended - even if they become very upset. If this happens, you have yet another opportunity to show your child that you accept them - messiness and all.

Tip #4: Hold space for your child’s big emotions

When your child is really struggling with big feelings, you can stay calm, show your child that their feelings matter to you, and that they won’t have to go through them alone. You can show your confidence that their overwhelm will eventually end and that they will survive the experience of anger, sadness, frustration, or fear. Each upset child is different - some will want physical closeness, some will want space or solitude. Some children will calm when met with warm eye contact, gentle words, and a soft touch and for some children this will escalate the situation. Adjust to what your specific child needs to find their way back to equilibrium.

Calm Your Nervous System to Calm Your Child

Tip #5: Allow your child to be themselves

When your child feels they can openly express their whole authentic, unique, and messy self with you - their safe person - they feel accepted and loved. Reflect on instances in your childhood when you were “encouraged” to do or be something that ultimately was in the service of meeting your adults’ needs rather than your own. Remember how you felt.

Now think about how you feel when your child does (or doesn’t do) something that triggers in you a desire to change who they are or what they’re doing. Unless it’s a matter of health, safety, or respect for people, property, family values, or personal boundaries - can you challenge yourself to accept what’s happening? Can you allow yourself time to observe with curiosity and without judgement before intervening? Can you think of ways to change the situation where both your needs and your child’s needs get met?

Accepting a child just as they are is one of the hardest things to do, and also one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

Your child’s sense of self-worth will be impacted by so many people and experiences throughout their life that you will have no control over. However, you do have control over your own behavior. Accepting a child just as they are is one of the hardest things to do, and also one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

So watch them play, meet them where they are, and support their sense of agency. Make special time a part of your regular routine and hold your child’s big feelings with warmth, confidence, and compassion in the ways that they uniquely need. Last but never least, nurture your child’s self-worth by letting them be their whole authentic self!

Thanks so much for listening!

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Nanika Coor, Psy. D.

Dr. Nanika Coor is a New York-based clinical psychologist and respectful parenting therapist. She helps overwhelmed parents hear a kinder inner voice and experience more mutually-respectful interactions with their children. Find out more about her work at www.brooklynparenttherapy.com.

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Coor to answer on Project Parenthood? Leave her a message at (646) 926-3243 or send an email to parenthood@quickanddirtytips.com