How to build self-esteem in your special needs child

[Tania's note: We are welcoming Hayley from today as an SNJ co-writer as well as a columnist and we hope all our columnists will be starting to contribute through the week in the months to come.]

Since my days as a teacher, and my amateur forays into psychology as an OU student, I have been fascinated and struck by just how vital, yet fragile, confidence and self esteem is for all of us. When I became a Mum, this became even more important and I vowed to help our daughters value themselves in any way I could. As Natalia, who has Down's syndrome, blossoms, I can see just what a necessary tool confidence is when facing additional hurdles in life, whether they are health issues or social challenges.

I was more than proud when the editor of medical journal Advances in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities approached me to write a piece from a parent's perspective. I had a free reign but the topic of self-esteem sprang to mind. The article below is republished with kind permission form Emerald Insight Publishing.

From the journal

NATTY AND I had just finished our bedtime story routine and were having a chat about our day while enjoying a hug as she relaxed in her bed, wearing her favourite spotty pyjamas. “I love Mummy, I love Daddy, I love Mia, I love Natty”, she declared proudly.

And in that moment, I knew what self-esteem really meant and that hers was thankfully overflowing. I feel relieved, for I am well aware of the importance of self-confidence and also how easily it can slip from anyone, particularly from a child with a learning disability. My task now is to maintain and develop our girls’ feeling of worth throughout their lives despite occasions when I’m sure it will be tested.

Self-esteem is what leaves us feeling content with ourselves, makes us like ourselves even and take pride in what we do everyday. It makes us feel worthwhile and know that we contribute to the community around us. It allows us to feel valued and loved by those we know, and equips us to embark on and develop new relationships. Self-esteem gives us the confidence to try our hand at new activities and stick at them when we stumble. High self-esteem also allows us to accept who we are, with all our limitations and weaknesses and ask for help when necessary, simply because we can learn to focus on our strengths and what makes us unique. Without it life will always feel like an uphill struggle.

Lack of self-esteem: We all know individuals who are reluctant to take part, who hold back, even loudly proclaim that the activity at hand is ridiculous, that they don’t care about joining in. Sadly a sign that they don’t want to participate because they fear failure if they do so. Extreme cases of low self-esteem can result in depression, loneliness, loss of friendships and work. It is no coincidence that a high percentage of prisoners lack the magic booster too.

So how do we develop high self esteem in our children, the individuals with learning disabilities in our lives and indeed ourselves if it is such an essential ingredient?



You probably felt frightened and bewildered when you first entered the world of learning disability, and for many there will be a time of readjustment, even mourning for the baby you thought you were expecting. But it’s important to learn to accept your child for who they are and not try to make them someone or something they are not. That only leads to frustrated parents and unhappy children who feel they can never live up to expectations. There will be challenges along your journey, but you will learn and grow together in dealing with them.

Show your child that they are loved just as they are. This means not comparing them to peers or siblings but having realistic goals for them, based on their strengths and abilities.


A secure bond between parent/carer and child is essential. It’s the glue that keeps families together and makes children feel safe. When life doesn’t go to plan they can come back to feel reassured and safe. Sometimes bonding is hard in the early days, particularly if your child has health problems that are causing you stress and worry. So it’s vital to see them as your wonderful, unique child and not a case study or medical conundrum.

Enjoy your time together

Play, hug, tickle, giggle, share a book, go out and meet friends if you can, even if there are days when you want to shut the world off completely. It’s easy to think a better parent is one who does more learning activities with their child, but actually allowing time for fun: shared art, games, messy play, enjoying a film or TV programme cooking are all equally important.

Adopt a positive outlook

Positivity is catching, as is negativity. Don’t air your frustrations about service providers or your child’s numerous appointments, gripes with doctors or financial worries in front of them. This will cause them to feel like an inconvenience or source of stress for you. Save any niggles for an online chat or phone call to a friend when your child is asleep.

It goes without saying not to talk negatively or sarcastically to or about your child as that will erode self-esteem like acid rain.


Let your child know you value their successes, however small they may seem. It sounds obvious but make sure you tell them you are proud of them, that you love them. Try paying them a different compliment each day too, about something they have done or a character trait you want to encourage, or even something they have chosen to wear. So simple, but so effective.

Natty has clearly taken on board what we say to her, for when she looks in a mirror she smiles and says, “ I’m pretty, and so funny!” She also tells her sister and friends that she is proud of them and always compliments them. Sometimes the compliments make us giggle, such as “Mummy, I love your eyebrows.” Why, thank you Natty.

Showcase artwork and photographs around the house, a visual reminder that they are at the forefront of your mind and that you value them. We bought a selection of empty A4 frames that we hung in the kitchen to slot artwork and certificates into to make them look even more special.

Natty was sensitive to failure when younger, so ‘errorless learning’ was something we always watched out for, setting achievable, realistic goals that stretched her to develop, but which we knew she could attain. Sometimes we guided her arm to find the correct puzzle piece, or used our eyes to show where it was, still letting her feel the sense of pride when she found the solution herself. Now we teach her that its fine to fail sometimes and that taking part and having fun is what it’s all about. Trying again is part of life after all. We knew we had achieved this goal when she jogged down the 100m track during school Sports Day with the biggest smile on her face, waving at the crowd as they waved back. Yes she crossed the line last, but she got the biggest cheer and had a smile to match. That confident little lady was happy that she had won an audience and was less worried about the order in which competitors crossed the line.

Positive role models

The clothing modeling Natty has done has given her a huge boost too. For her it is part of every day life and she wouldn’t even consider for a moment how cutting edge it was when she began on that road. It wouldn’t be for every child, but for a natural show-off it has been such fun, and the message it sends out to other children with disabilities who see themselves reflected within the pages of clothing catalogues, or a holiday brochure or attraction advertisement is vital. For without role models in every area of life, in which we see ourselves reflected, how can we feel a truly valued member of that community. I work toward a day when disabilities are reflected in art, literature, sport, the workplace, advertising and the media. In fact every conceivable facet of life.

Life Skills

You can never start to teach life skills too early. I think I started earlier with Natty than her older sister because it was at the forefront of my mind that this was vital for her independence. If your child can learn to have a go, ask for help, brush off making mistakes, they will have a solid grounding in the emotional skills they need for life. We worked on dressing, washing, sorting laundry, making beds, putting away clean cutlery, watering plants, feeding chickens, posting letters, paying for groceries, healthy eating habits and physical activity all from a very young age. Having set chores also makes your child feel included and an essential member of the family.

Making choices is an important part of this and it is so easy for individuals with a disability to have all choices removed from them. How easy is it to simple give someone a snack, put on an outfit or read a book that you have chosen. But it only takes a minute more to present a choice of 2 or 3 items and wait for them to point, look at or say which they would prefer. Making choices is a form of conversation and means you have control within that area or your life, where you might otherwise be feeling powerless and frustrated, always the subject of help.

Risk Taking

It’s easy to over-protect, but risk taking is part of what makes us human. Allow your child to make choices, take very calculated risks, try new friendships, get dirty, eat a dusting of sand, get a bruise or two. I bet you did all that when you were young, and more. Natty enjoys horse-riding although watching her trot round makes my stomach churn. She insists on going on every zip-wire we ever encounter and it takes all my might not to run alongside her with my arms open, but I try my best to hide my fear and allow her the freedom.

She is also ready to swim without floatation devices, but it took a neighbour to almost order me to let go of her in the water. It’s hard, and often as parents we are well outside our comfort zone, but our children will always surprise us if we give them the space to do explore.

“It’s important to remember that being able to take risks, manage risks and unpredictable situations is part of human development.
Children may develop at differing rates and maturity may be delayed for some, however taking balanced risks is part of growing up and healthy development.
All children and young people should be supported to take reasonable and calculated risks as this will help them to develop skills that they will need as they mature into young adults.”

Sharon Paley

When Natty was tiny she sustained a little bump to her head when trying to pull herself up to standing against a brick wall. The doctor I nervously took her to see chuckled kindly, “This is what I like to see,” he said “a child having a go and getting into scrapes like any other.” Rather that a poor Mum, he had noted this down as a positive.

Social skills

Making friendships and forging relationships are another part of risk taking and what really make life worth living. Give your child a set of skills they need to make friends. You could try teaching them a set phrase, such as “Can I be your friend?” that they can use in the playground. Take photos of them playing with friends and tell them what a gentle and kind friend they are. It’s important to then stand back and allow friendships to flourish without an adult interrupting. You can stand nearby, without being part of the interactions. It’s important that this happens at school too, as it’s very easy for a Teaching Assistant to crowd a child with a Learning Disability. Simple steps can be taken to make it appear as if he or she is helping other children in the group and to step back during free time and monitor from a distance.

Don’t be afraid to invite classmates over to play, and accept every birthday party invitation your child gets. These occasions really matter, and as inclusion is a 2-way street all children have an immense amount to gain from strong friendships.

I think it's important to remember that we don’t always get it right as carers and parents, but if our intentions are good then we are moving in the right direction and we can be rest assured that we have done our very best for our children.

Hayley Newman
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  1. You have hit the nail on the head here, well, several nails actually! What resonated particularly with me is the risk taking and the mother letting go; I can list several examples where my over protective mothering of my special needs child actually held her back, but fortunately I realised my mistake before it was too late. Its as much a learning curve for mum as for child. And yes, its very hard letting go!

  2. I am an overprotective mother as our son has only 1/2 a heart and is on warfarin which makes him bleed 2.5 times more than other children which combined with adhd, autism and oppositional defiance disorder makes him impulsive and compulsive in his actions and he would unfettered always ramp things up to be life threatening and dangerous to himself or others. He argues constantly about everything and if praised will destroy the object of our praise (if a painting or model). Would love suggestions to help find more positive things to do and say together which are still safe!

  3. Love the article Hayley! Thanks for taking the time to write it and for letting people like me read it! I love kids in general, but I have an extra soft spot in my heart for special needs kids. They are just so incredible, aren’t they? Look forward to finding you on Facebook!

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