When children have low self-esteem, many adults try to build them up with supportive words of encouragement. A recent study confirms this by finding that adults tend to give kids with low confidence more inflated praise. But the study also finds that these children may actually shy away from new challenges in the wake of such excessive applause.

Findings of the study, which will be published in the journal Psychological Science, were conducted at Ohio State University by lead author Eddie Brummelman, a visiting scholar from Utrecht University in The Netherlands.

He notes that although previous studies have examined how praise influences children, this recent study is the first to analyze the impact of inflated praise.

“Inflated praise can backfire with those kids who seem to need it the most – kids with low self-esteem,” says Brummelman.

For the purposes of his study, he defines inflated praise as small changes in compliments given to children, which often means adding just one extra word. For example, rather than saying “you’re good at this,” inflated praise would be: “you’re incredibly good at this.”

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Giving children with low self-esteem excessive praise may actually do more harm than good, the study shows.

Brummelman and his colleagues conducted three studies in total, involving children and adults or parents.

In one study, the researchers found that children who were identified as having low self-esteem received twice as much inflated praise from adults, compared with children who had high self-esteem.

Another study involved 114 parents – 88% of whom were mothers – who supervised their children taking 12 timed math exams in their home. Though the researchers were not present, each session was recorded with a camera.

The parents scored how well their children performed on the tests after they were complete, and the researchers reviewed the recordings.

They found that the parents praised their children on average about six times during the session, 25% of which was inflated praise. Additionally, the researchers observed that parents gave more inflated praise to the children who had low self-esteem.

Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State, says:

Parents seemed to think that the children with low self-esteem needed to get extra praise to make them feel better.

It’s understandable why adults would do that, but we found in another experiment that this inflated praise can backfire in these children.”

In the third study, a total of 240 children were asked to draw a famous painting titled Wild Roses by van Gogh. These children then received either inflated, non-inflated praise or none at all via a note from someone who they were told was a professional painter.

After receiving this feedback, the children were then asked to draw other pictures, but this time they had a choice. They could choose either:

  • To draw easy pictures that they were told would not teach them much, or
  • To draw difficult pictures that they were told might yield mistakes, but that they would learn a lot.

The researchers found that the children with low self-esteem who received inflated praise were more likely to choose the easier pictures, whereas the children with high self-esteem who received inflated praise were more likely to choose the difficult pictures.

“If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well,” says Brummelman, “they may think they always need to do incredibly well.”

He adds that these children “may worry about meeting those high standards and decide not to take on any new challenges.”

The researchers say their findings suggest that parents and adults may need to temper their instinct to give children with low self-esteem inflated praise.

Bushman adds:

It goes against what many people may believe would be most helpful. But it really isn’t helpful to give inflated praise to children who already feel bad about themselves.”

In other psychology news, Medical News Today recently reported on a large study in teenage twins, which suggested that differences in exam grades have more to do with genes than family environments.