“Where Does Self-Esteem Come From?”

By: Karen Nickl, PhD

At playgrounds across America you can hear parents yelling lots of careful instructions like “just one at a time…not too far…slow down…come back.” Equally important are another set like, “try one more…reach a little higher…go a little faster…you’re OK.” Healthy children and their parents are in a fluid dance between these two opposing messages– “come here and let me protect you” and “get out and grow.”


It is common for parents of special needs kids to become rigid in the cautious part of the message. For you and your child the world has been fraught with failure and pain and you may have become locked in the protective mode. In your effort to spare your child’s self-esteem you have sheltered them from the very experiences that will help them grow.

I recently heard of a mother who asked her teenage son to clean his room. When the mother went to check his room to check on the progress, she found her son had removed all his sports trophies from the shelves and arranged them into two piles on his bed. He explained that the larger pile contained all the trophies he had received because of participation only–consolation prizes, and he was throwing those away. The smaller pile contained the ones he had actually earned through his own hard work and team efforts. Those he intended to keep. This boy innately knew something about self-esteem. It is not awarded. It can only be earned by what we have put effort towards, what we have accomplished for ourselves. When children stretch and struggle and come out the other side they naturally expand their capabilities and can feel a sense of accomplishment that no one can take from them.


While your child is in residential care you can learn to step out of your familiar role of protector and allow your child to become strong and confident despite their learning challenges or differences. The SUCCESS program is designed to create competencies in your child that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Here are some things you can do to enhance resiliency and confidence in your child.

  1. Track and follow their efforts in SUCCESS. Know the SUCCESS goals that your child is working on and ask about them.
  2. Allow failure to happen. Failure is inevitable. Don’t over dramatize it. Your child must learn the skills to console themselves and rise up after failure.
  3. Model resiliency by sharing your challenges appropriately in family therapy. Allow your child to see how you handle setbacks.
  4. Make therapy a priority. Be open to the things your therapist wants you to change.
  5. Resist the urge to rescue your teen from the negative consequences of their behavior.
  6. Resist the urge to advocate for special leniencies and privileges for your child.


In a recent group therapy session, I asked the students, “What is your greatest achievement or thing that you put your very best efforts towards?” Several students spoke passionately about their wilderness therapy experiences. Some others spoke about an item in the SUCCESS program that they had finally achieved after months of effort. Other’s spoke about repairing a terrible relationship with one of their parents. Another related that for the first time they were getting good grades. Each student that spoke knew that they had overcome barriers to do something that they had previously NEVER been able to do. The students who shared spoke boldly with confidence in their voices and happiness on their faces. I glanced around the group and realized that some students had nothing to say. There was nothing that they had put their best efforts towards, nothing that they could consider a great achievement. They lacked the esteem that comes from accomplishing something and they knew it.

In her book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” Dr. Wendy Mogel said, “It is our job to prepare our children for the road, not prepare the road for our children.” Everyone at Maple Lake Academy is working to prepare your child for future achievement and self-esteem on the road. We hope you will join us in this effort.