Self-Esteem: What is it “Based” Upon?

The Secure Base

secure base shown as a baseball field
Parents often hear that high self-esteem in their children will ensure their well-being.

But how does this elusive quality of “self-esteem” develop in a person and what can parents do to foster it?

Many factors go into building a person’s self-esteem.

Studies done by John Bowlby, a British child psychiatrist, show that having a “secure base” is one of the necessary ingredients for the development of healthy self-esteem in children.

Bowlby describes this secure base as a dependable, trusting relationship between children and their parents or primary caregivers.

When parents meet their children’s needs and protect and value them, the children will have confidence in themselves and trust in their environment.

Bowlby’s studies are fascinating and show how having a secure base can affect children:

He put one group of babies in a room with their mothers. A second group of babies was put in the same room but without their mothers present.

Toys were placed throughout the room and Bowlby measured the distance that each child traveled as he or she explored the room and toys.

Those children whose mothers were in the room and who were free to wander back to their mothers to “touch base” explored and traveled more around the room.

Those children whose mothers were not in the room stayed close to where they had been placed and explored very little.


How Parents can Provide a Secure Base

Being Trustworthy is Critical

This and other studies tell us that those children whose need to be dependent is satisfied when they are young are the ones who become more independent in elementary school and beyond.

When children trust in their relationship with their parents, they are more likely to feel safe and have the confidence to venture into the world to learn new things and take some risks.

They know that if needed, they can return to the secure base and get an added boost of love, comfort, and encouragement to go out and face the world again.


Letting Children “Touch Base”

Children need to touch base no matter their age.

  • You may have seen the toddler who crawls or walks away from Mommy, returning often to touch her knee or get a hug. After receiving this boost, the toddler then feels safe to go off again and explore.

  • You may have noticed that when children get a bit older, a nod or a smile across the room often suffices to give encouragement.

  • Later, hearing your voice from another room may supply the required support.

  • When your children begin to visit playmates’ houses for either a short stay or a sleep-over, it can be helpful to talk with them about what they can do if they feel a need for your comfort.

    • Letting them know that they can call you when they are ready to come home or just to hear your voice can help foster their sense of safety.

    • Sometimes just knowing that they can call can be enough to give them the confidence to stay if they are feeling a little homesick.

    • Also, children may be more likely to go to a friend’s house or sleep over again if they know that if they get scared and need to come home, they will not be ridiculed or forced to stay.

  • Even college-age children who are away from home may need to make contact with their secure base at times when they are upset or lonely. Often a phone call and sympathetic ear are all that are needed to give the young adults the ability to deal with the difficult issues which may arise in their lives.


A Final Note

Remember to trust that your children will become independent when they are ready and that much of readiness is determined by your children’s own unique temperament traits and timetables for growth.

Providing your children a secure base from which they can explore and grow, knowing that comfort and protection are there when they need it, is a gift you can give to them.
Your children will be more likely to develop a strong sense of self-worth and ultimately become more independent if they have this foundational sense of security.


By Audrey Krisbergh, Certified Parenting Educator



For more information about self-esteem, check out the following books. Purchasing from through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Perfectionism: What's Bad about Being Too Good by Adderholdt Hearing is Believing by Elisa Medhus Self-Esteem: A Family Affair by Jean Illsley Clarke How Children Succedd: Grit, Curiousity and the Hidden Power of Character by Tough

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