Self-Esteem: The Early Years – Building the Foundation


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Self-esteem. We know what it can do for us, but what exactly is it? In simple terms, self-esteem contains both a descriptive and an evaluative component. The first part refers to how a person describes themselves or how they respond to the question, “Who am I?”. The second part of the word ‘esteem’ is an evaluative component, which answers the question, “How do I judge the worth of who I am?”. Often, the most crucial determinant of that answer will be how primary caregivers model and deal with their self-critic.

Healthy self-esteem is characterized by an awareness and acceptance of one’s unique self with a firm conviction in one’s values and where the expression of feelings and behaviours are congruent with those beliefs. Life’s challenges and failures are viewed as a means to learn and grow, with the self-assurance to say “no” in times of pressure. Healthy self-esteem provides you with the ability to form warm, connected relationships where you are valued for who you are and not for what you achieve. It is clear that when you have high self-esteem, you feel happy and at peace.

It is no wonder that parents feel pressure to develop this unquantifiable quality in their offspring, but the intangibility of self-esteem can often leave them mystified as to how to cultivate and nurture it. However, there is an abundance of research that tells us that self-esteem is learned; it can be taught and strengthened through practice and so the good news is that parents have the power to plant the seeds that will lead to this outcome.

The first seeds of healthy self-esteem are planted the moment you become a parent. The type of bond you develop with your child is critical to his or her healthy development. This is the time when your child’s first sense of worthiness begins and, counterintuitively, it starts by being accepted and valued by others.

When parents create a warm and responsive environment, where an infant’s cries are consistently met with coos, (her) his hunger satiated with milk or food and (her) his smiles and giggles mirrored by an attuned parent, the message that (s)he is deeply and unconditionally loved and valued is conveyed.  This sets the foundation for healthy self-esteem.

Here are four strategies to help build a foundation of healthy self-esteem in the early years:

  • Provide a safe and secure environment– A strong sense of safety and security is a critical component in the foundation of healthy self-esteem. By providing reassurance, comfort, and a safe home base, your child will begin to develop the confidence they need to start exploring the world.
  • Routine: Going hand-in-hand with security is routine. Establishing a regular routine with your child helps them to feel safe, and more confident.  Having a solid routine for regular events, such as bedtime and bath time, allows them to know what to expect, what is coming next, and provides a sense of predictability and control.
  • Develop problem solving abilities: Rather than doing things for your child, help them to complete tasks on their own.  By gradually introducing activities that challenge them just enough without becoming overwhelming, you help your child develop a sense of mastery and accomplishment.
  • Practice makes perfect: It is essential to be patient and allow your child to do things over and over again.  It requires a lot of practice to develop a new skill, and when they finally succeed, your child will feel a sense of pride and satisfaction

As your child grows and enters toddlerhood, it is essential to build upon this foundation and continue to create an open, warm, nurturing environment where they feel safe, secure and valued for their unique self.



“Self Esteem.” Self Esteem | Canadian Mental Health Association, Canadian Mental Health Association,


Written by: Lindi Ross, M.Ed  Montreal Therapy Centre