Considered an important component of emotional health, self-esteem encompasses both self-confidence and self-acceptance. It is the way individuals perceive themselves and their self-value.
Self-esteem is the way individuals think and feel about themselves and how well they do things that are important to them. In children, self-esteem is shaped by what they think and feel about themselves. Their self-esteem is highest when they see themselves as approximating their "ideal" self, the person they would like to be. Children who have high self-esteem have an easier time handling conflicts, resisting negative pressures, and making friends. They laugh and smile more and have a generally optimistic view of the world and their life.
Children with low self-esteem have a difficult time dealing with problems, are overly self-critical, and can become passive, withdrawn, and depressed. They may hesitate to try new things, may speak negatively about themselves, are easily frustrated, and often see temporary problems as permanent conditions. They are pessimistic about themselves and their life.
Self-esteem comes from different sources for children at different stages of development. The development of self-esteem in young children is heavily influenced by parental attitudes and behavior. Supportive parental behavior, including encouragement and praise for accomplishments, as well as the child's internalization of the parents' own attitudes toward success and failure, are the most powerful factors in the development of self-esteem in early childhood. As children get older their experiences outside the home, in school, and with peers, become increasingly important in determining their self-esteem.
Schools can influence their students' self-esteem through the attitudes they foster toward competition and diversity and their recognition of achievement in academics, sports, and the arts. By middle childhood, friendships have assumed a pivotal role in a child's life. Studies have shown that school-age youngsters spend more time with their friends than they spend doing homework, watching television, or playing alone. In addition, the amount of time in which they interact with their parents is greatly reduced from when they were younger. At this stage, social acceptance by a child's peer group plays a major role in developing and maintaining self-esteem.
The physical and emotional changes that take place in adolescence, especially early adolescence, present new challenges to a child's self-esteem. Boys whose growth spurt comes late compare themselves with peers who have matured early and seem more athletic, masculine, and confident. In contrast, early physical maturation can be embarrassing for girls, who may feel gawky and self-conscious in their newly developed bodies. Both boys and girls expend inordinate amounts of time and energy on personal grooming, spending long periods of time in the bathroom trying to achieve a certain kind of look. Fitting in with their peers becomes more important than ever to their self-esteem, and, in later adolescence, relationships with the opposite sex (or sometimes the same sex) can become a major source of confidence or insecurity. Up to a certain point, adolescents need to gain a sense of competence by making and learning from their own mistakes and by being held accountable for their own actions.
Peer acceptance and relationships are important to children's social and emotional development and to their development of self-esteem. Peer acceptance, especially friendships, provides a wide range of learning and development opportunities for children. These include companionship, recreation, social skills, participating in group problem solving, and managing competition and conflict. They also allow for self-exploration, emotional growth, and moral and ethical development.
There are several factors that influence self-esteem. These include the following:
- Age: Self-esteem tends to grow steadily until middle school when the transition of moving from the familiar environment of elementary school to a new setting confronts children with new demands. Self-esteem either continues to grow after this period or begins to decrease.
- Gender: Girls tend to be more susceptible to having low self-esteem than boys, perhaps because of increased social pressure that emphasizes appearance more than intelligence or athletic ability.
- Socioeconomic status: Researchers have found that children from higher-income families usually have a better sense of self-esteem in the mid- to late-adolescence years.
- Body image: Especially true for teens but also important for younger children, body image is evaluated within the context of media images from television, movies, and advertising that often portray girls as thin, beautiful, and with perfect complexion. Boys are portrayed as muscular, very good looking, and tall. Girls who are overweight and boys who are thin or short often have low self-esteem because they compare themselves against these cultural and narrow standards.
Infants start building self-esteem as soon as they are born. Their self-esteem is first built by having their basic needs met, including the need for love, comfort, and closeness. They gradually learn that they are loved as the people who care for them consistently treat them gently, kindly, comfort them when they cry, and show them attention. How their parents or primary caregivers treat them sets the stage for later development of self-esteem. Parents who give their babies love and attention teach the infants that they are important, safe, and secure.
During toddlerhood, children still have not developed a clear understanding of self-esteem or self-identity. Each time they learn a new skill they add to their sense of their ability and their comprehension of who they are. Toddlers learn about themselves by learning what they look like, what they can do, and where they belong. They find it difficult to share since they are just starting to learn who they are and what is theirs.
Toddlers see themselves through the eyes of their parents, family, or primary caregivers. If their parents show them love and treat them as special, toddlers will develop self-esteem. Toddlers who feel unloved find it more difficult to develop a sense of self-worth.
By the age of three, children have a clearer understanding of who they are and how they fit into the world they know. They have begun learning about their bodies and that, within limits, they are able to think and make decisions on their own. They can handle time away from their parents or primary caregivers because they feel safe on their own or with other children and adults. They develop their self-esteem in mostly physical ways, by comparing their appearance to that of other children, such as height, size, agility, and abilities.
Preschoolers learn self-esteem in stages through developing their senses of trust, independence, and initiative. During this age, parents can help foster the child's self-esteem by teaching problem-solving skills, involving them in tasks that give them a sense of accomplishment, asking for and listening to their opinions, and introducing them to social settings, especially with their peers. Young children learn self-esteem through what they can do and what their parents think of them.
A critical point in a child's development of self-esteem occurs when they start school. Many children's self-esteem falls when they have to cope with adults and peers in a new situation with rules that may be new and strange. In the early school-age years, self-esteem is about how well children manage learning tasks in school and how they perform in sports. It also depends on their physical appearance and characteristics and their ability to make friends with other children their own age.
Stresses at home, such as parents arguing a lot, and problems at school, such as difficult lessons, being bullied, or not having friends, can have a negative impact on a child's self-esteem. Children with overly developed self-esteem may tend to be bullies, while children with lower self-esteem may become the victims of bullies. Parents can help children develop an inner sense of self-control, which comes from having experience in making decisions.
Teenagers' self-esteem is often affected by the physical and hormonal changes they experience, especially during puberty. Teens undergo major changes in their lives and their self-esteem can often become fragile. They are usually extremely concerned about how they look and how they are perceived and accepted by their peers. Teens who set goals in their lives have higher self-esteem than those who do not. High self-esteem is also directly related to teens who have a very supportive family.
Body image is a major component in teenagers' self-esteem, and they are very concerned about how their peers see them. Teens who have high self-esteem like the way they look and accept themselves the way they are. Teens with low self-esteem usually have a poor body image and think they are too fat, not pretty enough, or not muscular enough. There are some physical features that teens cannot change, but accepting themselves as they are without undue self-criticism is challenging. If there are characteristics that cause low self-esteem but can be changed, teens may be able to set reasonable goals for making change. For example, if teens think they are overweight, they should first verify their perception with a healthcare provider. If they are actually overweight, they can set goals to lose weight by eating nutritiously and exercising regularly.
The "Teens Health" section of the Web site Kids Health (available online at <www.kidshealth.org>) offers the following advice for teens to improve self-esteem: "When you hear negative comments coming from within, tell yourself to stop. Your inner critic can be retrained. Try exercises like giving yourself three compliments every day. While you're at it, every evening list three things in your day that really gave you pleasure. It can be anything from the way the sun felt on your face, the sound of your favorite band, or the way someone laughed at your jokes. By focusing on the good things you do and the positive aspects of your life, you can change how you feel about yourself."
Parents can enhance teenagers' self-esteem by asking for their help or advice and listening to their opinions.
Numerous studies have linked low self-esteem to a wide range of problems, including poor school achievement, criminal and violent behavior; being the victim of bullying; teenage pregnancy; smoking and the use of alcohol and other drugs; dropping out of school; depression; and thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and suicide. Also, children and teens who have low self-esteem have more physical health problems than those with higher self-esteem.
Every child and teen has low self-esteem at some time in his or her life. Criticism from parents or others can make children with low self-esteem feel worse. Children can also develop low self-esteem if parents or others press them to reach unrealistic goals. Parents should be concerned when a child's low self-esteem interferes with his or her daily activities or causes depression. Some common signs of low-self esteem in children and teens are as follows:
- feeling they must always please other people
- general feelings of not liking themselves
- feelings of unhappiness most of the time
- feeling that their problems are not normal and that they to blame for their problems
- needing constant validation or approval
- not making friends easily or having no friends
- needing to prove that they are better than others
When to call the doctor
Sometimes a lack of self-esteem is too much for a child to handle alone. Parents may need to seek professional psychological help for children suffering from low self-esteem when the child is depressed or shows an inability to create friendships. Help may also be needed for adolescents whose lack of self-esteem is expressed in negative behaviors, such as criminal activities, gang affiliation, smoking, and alcohol and other drug dependency. If the child talks about or threatens suicide, professional help should be sought immediately.
Koenig, Larry. Smart Discipline: Fast, Lasting Solutions for Your Peace of Mind and Your Child's Self-Esteem. New York: HarperResource, 2002.
Loomans, Diana, and Julia Loomans. 100 Ways to Build Self-Esteem and Teach Values. Tiburon, CA: H. J. Kramer, 2003.
Moorman, Chick. Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language that Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility. New York: Fireside, 2003.
Owens, Karen. Raising Your Child's Inner Self-Esteem: The Authoritative Guide from Infancy through the Teen Years. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003.
Cottle, Thomas J. "Getting beyond Self-Esteem." Childhood Education 80 (Mid-Summer 2004): 269–271.
|SOURCE: McKesson Health Solutions, http://www.med.umich.edu/1libr/pa/pa-esteemup_pep.htm, 2004.|
|1. Be a role model for high self-esteem. If you have a positive attitude, chances are your children will have one too.|
|2. Have realistic expectations. Unreasonable goals will set your child up for feelings of failure.|
|3. Respect your child's individuality. Their accomplishments should be praised even if they are not in your area of interest, or if their level of academic success, for instance, is generally lower than a sibling's.|
|4. Praise your child's efforts, even if they are ultimately unsuccessful. Making a great effort should be rewarded, even he or she did not come in "first."|
|5. Be careful when correcting your child's behavior. Constructive criticism is much more useful than pinning your child with a label like "lazy" or "stupid."|
Dunton, Genevieve Fridlund, et al. "Physical Self-Concept in Adolescent Girls: Behavioral and Physiological Correlates." Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 74 (September 2003): 360–65.
Hoffmann, John P., et al. "Onset of Major Depressive Disorder among Adolescents." Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 42 (February 2003): 217–24.
Marmot, Michael. "Self-Esteem and Health: Autonomy, Self-Esteem, and Health are Linked Together." British Medical Journal 327 (September 13, 2003): 574–75.
Votta, Elizabeth, and Ian G. Manion. "Factors in the Psychological Adjustment of Homeless Adolescent Males: The Role of Coping Style." 42 (July 2003): 778–85.
Walsh, Nancy. "Some Teens Prone to Hopelessness Depression." Clinical Psychiatry News 31 (June 2003): 41.
National Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016. Web site: <www.aacap.org>.
National Association for Self-Esteem. PO Box 597, Fulton, MD 20759. Web site: <www.self-esteem-nase.org>.
"How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?" TeensHealth, April 2001. Available online at <www.kidshealth.org/teen/question/emotions/self_esteem.html> (accessed November 14, 2004).
"Self-Esteem." ParentLink, 2004. Available online at <www.parentlink.act.gov.au/parentguides/parentg_selfesteem.htm> (accessed November 14, 2004).
"Self-Esteem in Children." North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension, 2004. Available online at <www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/human/pubs/fcsw_506.pdf> (accessed November 14, 2004).
Ken R. Wells
Peer acceptance—The degree to which a child or adolescent is socially accepted by peers, usually of about the same age; the level of peer popularity.
Primary caregiver—A person who is responsible for the primary care and upbringing of a child.
Puberty—The point in development when the ability to reproduce begins. The gonads begin to function and secondary sexual characteristics begin to appear.
Self-identity—The awareness that an individual has of being unique.