What Is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is the general opinion a person has about himself or herself. Having high but realistic self-esteem is essential to good mental health.

A person’s childhood experiences generally shape his or her self-esteem. Parents, teachers, and childhood friends all have a powerful impact on how self-esteem develops.

Self-esteem is frequently discussed in the context of childhood development, but adults also need to have and maintain healthy self-esteem.

A child’s experiences shape his or her self-esteem. A child needs to be treated with love, respect, and kindness to develop positive self-esteem. If a child is treated poorly, is overly teased, or is made to feel less worthy than other people, that child’s self-esteem can suffer long-term damage.

Children place a large amount of importance on how other perceive them, particularly during their teen years.

Encouraging Healthy Self-Esteem in Children

Research shows that a child’s self-esteem tends to be lowest in the sixth grade (Rhodes, et al., 2004). Ways of enhancing children’s self-esteem include:

  • Praise them when they do well. Don’t react to children only when they do something wrong.
  • Ask them for their opinions. They want to feel as though they have something to offer when it comes to making important decisions.
  • Let them participate in positive things that interest them. Let them become an expert in the things they are passionate about (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013).
  • Girls often have lower self-esteem than boys, so it may be important for parents to offer them extra attention during their formative years (American Psychological Association, 2013).

Children who grow up with adults who have psychological problems, as well as children who lack resources for basic needs, are more prone to self-esteem problems. Children with physical disabilities or other challenges may also struggle with self-esteem issues.

Adults with low self-esteem need constant affirmation such as work successes or compliments from friends. Even then, boosts to their self-esteem are usually short-lived.

Developing Healthy Self-Esteem as an Adult

Adults with low self-esteem can help themselves by remembering a few tips:

  • Don’t be your own worst enemy. Try to avoid too much self-criticism or assuming the worst.
  • Stick to the facts about setbacks. People with low self-esteem often jump to overly negative conclusions.
  • Give yourself credit and accept compliments. If someone praises you, acknowledge the remark and feel good about it. Don’t take being humble to the point of not believing in your strengths.
  • Forgive yourself when you make a mistake—it’s part of being human. Also understand that some things are beyond your control.
  • Reach out to others for help when you need it.

While it is normal to experience periods of low-esteem from time to time, prolonged low self-esteem can impair a person’s quality of life. It can lead to larger problems, such as depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and a feeling of hopelessness.

Poor self-esteem can lead to mental disorders in children and adults. Worse, it can lead to suicidal thinking (Kleirnan, E. et al., 2013).

Seek emergency medical care if you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Many tests are used to determine a child’s level of self-esteem. These tests can offer insight into a child’s actions and can help a professional treat problems.

Parents and educators can watch for the following indicators of low self-esteem in children:

  • a reluctance to try new things
  • blaming others for failures
  • cheating
  • anger and despair
  • a reluctance to accept praise
  • a tendency to overcompensate
  • acting out or experimenting with drugs

In adults, the following signs may indicate low self-esteem:

  • obsessing on negative thoughts
  • a lack of motivation
  • not accepting credit for successes

If low self-esteem is interfering with a person’s quality of life, therapy may be advised. Therapy can revolve around self-talk, or learning to better understand what’s rational or not in a patient’s thinking. Cognitive behavior therapy helps a person better understand their beliefs and take steps improve their outlook.

Psychologists using cognitive behavioral therapy report patient successes in 20 sessions or less. Results tend to be lasting because patients learn new coping mechanisms (Core Physicians, 2010).