How to Help Kids Who Feel Inferior

Mother comforting upset teenage daughter.


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Every child experiences moments where they feel inadequate, deficient, or not good enough when compared to others. Whether they score low on an exam or worry that they are not as skilled on the basketball court, it's not uncommon for kids to compare themselves unfavorably to their peers.

In fact, experiencing feelings of inadequacy from time to time is normal and sometimes could be the catalysts kids need to work harder or make improvements. But there are times when these comparisons and beliefs morph into something more significant that ultimately leads to self-deprecation and low self-worth.

When this happens, kids can become stuck in their feelings of inferiority, making it difficult for them to push forward or accomplish their goals. Ultimately, they develop what is sometimes referred to as an inferiority complex.

What Is an Inferiority Complex?

According to the American Psychological Association, an inferiority complex results when a person feels inadequate or insecure physically or psychologically. Consequently, when a person struggles with inferiority—whether real or imagined— their beliefs may be manifested through their behaviors. They may withdraw in social settings, become overwhelmingly timid, and even overcompensate through excessive competitiveness.

The term "inferiority complex" was first coined by Australian psychologist Alfred Adler and although it is not an official mental health diagnosis, it is a term that is recognized by many people. Those who struggle with feelings of inferiority often have extremely low self-esteem and embrace self-deprecating beliefs about themselves.

It's important to note that although low self-esteem can lead to an inferiority complex, the two are different even though they are sometimes used interchangeably, says Kristin Batcheck, MA, LPCC, a counselor with Directions Counseling Group in Worthington, Ohio.

Kristin Batcheck, MA, LPCC

Low self-esteem has to do with a lack of confidence in some areas—how a person thinks about their looks or their decisions. Low self-esteem also can lead to feelings of inferiority [while] inferiority involves overall deep feelings of deficiency to other people.

— Kristin Batcheck, MA, LPCC

Causes of Inferiority

There are a number of reasons why a child might struggle with inferiority. Some examples include being bullied on a consistent basis, being criticized regularly by peers or siblings, or growing up in an emotionally abusive home. For many kids, feelings of inferiority are highly situational and only occur on occasion.

But for those who struggle with the issue on a regular basis, it's likely that they feel invalidated consistently—either at home, school, or in the community. Even kids from healthy, well-adjusted families can struggle with issues of inferiority, says Batcheck.

"Feelings of inferiority also can come from being teased or bullied for being different from peers," she says. "It can also come from a void of positive input—being criticized or told they are deficient or lacking in some way. When this message is ongoing, it can lead to feeling inferior."

Signs You Child May Be Struggling With Inferiority

  • Experiencing low self-esteem
  • Struggling with deep insecurity
  • Assuming the worst
  • Withdrawing in social situations
  • Making self-deprecating comments
  • Experiencing extreme anxiety
  • Being sensitive to criticism
  • Struggling with perfectionism

How to Help Your Child

If your child is struggling with feelings of inferiority, you may be wondering what you can do to help. Here are some things you can do to help combat the negative thoughts and beliefs your child is harboring and help them improve how they see themselves.

Provide Encouragement

When kids are dealing with issues of inferiority, they have a hard time believing in themselves. Consequently, it's important that parents encourage their kids and help them see themselves in a different light.

Let them know that they are not defined by what other people say about them nor are they defined by what they believe to be true about themselves. Instead, help them see the beauty in who they are.

"Encourage, build-up, and help your child learn to value their uniqueness," says Batcheck. "Help them find healthy peers and outlets, too, like a hobby or sport they enjoy."

Being surrounded by people that believe in them and support them can help diminish their feelings of inferiority. Help them nurture and cultivate those relationships. Also, help them to see the truth in who they are as a person and why they have value.

"When a child feels inferior, they can feel different from their peers and lacking in many ways," says Rosenna Hickman, a licensed professional counselor in Columbus, Ohio who retired from private practice. "To them, it may feel like they can’t compete in a world that is stacked against them. But, that is a feeling and not necessarily true."

Help Them Identify Strengths

Some kids spend too much time focusing on the negative aspects of their life or personality instead of focusing on what is good. Help your child identify things that they are good at or where they can excel. Then, support them in those endeavors.

"Children can overcome these issues when they have support and loving direction from the caring adults in their lives," says Hickman. "Otherwise, it will be difficult and could lead to destructive life choices.

Hickman adds that while the more adverse childhood experiences kids have the more likely they are to have a lower quality of life, kids also are extremely resilient. With the right direction and support, they can improve their situation.

Set Goals Together

Having something to work toward adds meaning to a person's life. Come alongside your kids and help them identify what their goals and dreams are. Then, sit down and determine how they can work toward achieving them.

It also can be beneficial if you help your child develop a purpose that is greater than themselves. Look for opportunities to volunteer in the community or improve things for others. Doing so, allows your child to remove some of the focus off themselves and focus on something outside of their own thoughts and feelings for a while.

"Help your child learn to give back and care for others such as serving the elderly or the homeless," says Batcheck. "Pets are often a good source of unconditional love, and counseling or play therapy can be a helpful resource."

Refuse to Make Comparisons

Too many times, parents fall into the trap of comparing their kids or pitting them against one another. They may even compare their kids to other children in their lives. But comparisons can be hurtful, especially if it's in an area where they already feel insecure.

Even if you mean nothing by it, comparisons are never a good thing to engage in. Instead, of pointing out the skills or accomplishments of another in comparison to your own child, teach your child how to celebrate the successes of others while still recognizing their own worth and value.

Consider Counseling

Sometimes when kids seem stuck in their behavioral patterns or belief systems, it helps for them to have an outside person help them sort through and make sense of their feelings and emotions. As a result, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns. They can talk with your child and determine if therapy might be the best course of action for your situation.

Many times, they will make a referral to a therapist or counselor who can work with your child to find healthier ways of coping with their feelings as well as help them build their confidence and self-esteem. Never hesitate to reach out for help for your child. There is no shame in getting a little extra assistance from time to time.

"[When kids struggle with inferiority], parents would be wise to connect their children with a good counselor to work with the family and help with creating a healthier family system," says Hickman. "Recognizing there is a problem and tackling it as a family unit is a great beginning."

If your child is struggling with inferiority, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. Or, contact your healthcare provider about your concerns and ask for a referral.

A Word From Verywell

Every child feels down about themselves from time to time, especially if they are struggling in a certain area academically or athletically. But, if your child is regularly expressing feelings of low self-worth, claiming that they are not good enough, and refusing to participate in social activities, they may be struggling with inferiority.

If this is the case with your child, it's important that you talk with your healthcare provider about your concerns. They can evaluate your child and make a referral to a counselor or therapist if necessary.

In the meantime, do what you can to encourage and support your child. Help them see that their ideas and beliefs about themself are not true or factual. Provide encouragement and work with them to identify their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. In time, they will come to see that they have value and worth and their feelings of inferiority will slowly dissipate.

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  1. American Psychological Association. Inferiority complex.

  2. North American Society of Alderian Psychology. Who was Alfred Adler?

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