Self-esteem involves evaluations of the self that lead to positive or negative feelings about the self. These evaluations reflect how we imagine that other people view us. When kids believe that others think badly of them, they feel bad about themselves. It’s easy to spot low self-esteem in kids: If you’ve ever said things like, “My son gets so down on himself when he makes a mistake!” or “My daughter gives up before she starts! She’s afraid to try,” your child may be struggling with low self-esteem. Sometimes low self-esteem is tied to a specific area, such as when a kid believes, “I stink at math!” Other times, it’s all-encompassing, as when an older child insists, “I’m such a loser!” Children with low self-esteem see themselves as somehow inadequate or even unlovable, which can be excruciatingly painful.

All parents love their children and want only the best for them. Looking at them through the sash windows when they're playing with their friends, that much is obvious. And of course, we do everything and anything in our power to give them what we think they need to achieve success and happiness. It’s a big reason why many moms and dads have jumped on the self-esteem bandwagon, insisting their kids be given trophies (even if it’s for “showing up”), cushioning them from every bump to protect them from failure, and even urging schools to eliminate red pencils to make sure their children “feel special.”

It’s not that self-esteem isn’t important. The problem is that many times our well-meaning parenting attempts to nurture our kids’ confidence and well-being run counter to research—and can even reduce our kids’ chances for optimum well-being. And it seems our good-intentioned but misaimed parenting has backfired:

  • Researchers from Ohio State University surveyed parents and their kids during four periods over one and a half years. They found those who overvalued their children (describing them as “more special than other children” and “deserving something extra in life”) when the study began ended up with kids who later scored higher on tests of narcissism.

  • University of Michigan researchers analyzed over seventy-two studies and found that American teens’ narcissism rates increased 58 percent in thirty years while their empathy levels dropped 40 percent.

These findings are not good news if our hope is to raise confident, caring, competent kids. So what’s a parent to do? Well, you can stop wondering.

“I can’t do anything right!”

“Nobody likes me!”

“I’m the worst kid in the world!”

As parents, hearing the children we love make such viciously self-critical comments is heartbreaking. Our first instinct is to rush to contradict them. “That’s not true, honey!” we exclaim. Trying to reassure our kids, we quickly marshal example after example of their talent and specialness. Because we love our children so much, it feels intolerable and even unimaginable that they wouldn’t love them- selves. But the more we tell our self-doubting kids “You’re wonderful!” the harder they argue, “I’m terrible!” No matter how sincere and well-meaning our pep talks are, they never seem to sink in when our children are struggling with low self-esteem.

Challenges with self-esteem are very common. Almost every child—and adult—faces moments of self-doubt or periods when they feel inadequate. But for some children, the tendency to view themselves in a negative light is frequent, persistent, and even central to their identity.