All children deserve to hold themselves in high esteem – that is, to respect who they are and what they are capable of. But many children have a hard time developing their own self-concept to the level of being able to respect themselves, much less esteem themselves. It's up to you to help them.
What Is Self-Esteem?
There's a significant misunderstanding of what self-esteem is today. Too much of the rhetoric in our culture has put any use of the term 'self-esteem' in the category of 'participation ribbons' and false compliments. The truth is that those things actually destroy self-esteem, not build it. In order to build self-esteem, a child must have four things:
• Consistency, the ability to feel like previous lessons will continue to be applicable,
• Agency, the ability to make decisions that they believe matter,
• Competence, the ability to overcome challenges, and
• Associations, the ability to maintain a stable group of peasants to interact with.
Establishing Consistency means creating a regular routine and enforcing a set of rules that does not change without warning. For example: a child who gets giggles for using a vulgar biological term one day but gets punished for using the same term the next day can not establish a 'value' for that action. The most common result is that they will keep using it, trying to figure out what factor it was that got them the 'jackpot' that first time around. Often, they will simply continue to get punished more and more severely until they realize that they have failed and they will never get that positive result again. That's not the basis for good self-esteem.
Another very important element of consistency is establishing expectations. Especially for a child with special needs, it's very important that you explain to them before any new experience exactly what you expect of them – how to act and how to react. This will also give you a chance to manage their expectations, explaining to them what is about to happen and why their actions and reactions are important.
Giving Agency means teaching your special needs child that they have the right to make decisions about their lives, and sometimes about parts of the lives of others. At almost every joke at which the long-term result is not going to be negatively affected, a child should be given options (all of which should be acceptable, obviously) and allowed to choose between them. You should praise wise choices, and without it's untenable, ignore bad ones (ie allow them to make a bad choice and experience the results themselves without 'rubbing it in.')
Encouraging Competence means recognizing the areas in which your child is capable and encouraging them to test the limits of their capacity. If they are capable of dressing themselves, make a contest out of it by timing them while they do so. If they want to enter a contest, participate in a sport, or otherwise put them in a situation where failure is a real potential, do not keep them from it without it's absolutely necessary for their safety. Failure does not lead to low self-esteem – but being told you're not even allowed to try totally does.
Enabling Associations means helping your child find a group they can belong to that will continue to be there for them as time goes by. Whether it's a soccer team, the Girl Scouts, or just a few good friends who consistently come over to do homework together, having a regular set of associations is the single factor most strongly correlated with good self-esteem in any person, child or adult , special needs or not.