All people have a mental picture of themselves, their strengths and weaknesses. This mental picture is called self-concept or self-image. It is formed through learned experiences beginning at birth. Self-esteem is the value judgement or degree of worth a person attributes to his or her self-image. Considered an important component of emotional health, self-esteem encompasses both self-confidence and self-acceptance.
The idea that self-esteem and self-image are related to how people behave insociety, perform in school, react to peer pressure, and interact with othershas received a great deal of attention from psychologists and child development experts beginning in the 1980s. There is even a National Association of Self-Esteem (NASE) dedicated to research and teaching on self-esteem issues.
Since the early 1980s, efforts have been made to incorporate activities to raise self-esteem in school curricula and into programs dealing with young people who have problems with gangs, substance abuse, and the law. Results of these programs are inconclusive and open to many different interpretations. However, high self-esteem, or liking yourself and feeling confident that you cansolve problems, is generally seen as positive. Low self-esteem, or dislikingyour self-image and feeling you have no choices and cannot influence your life, is generally seen as negative.
No one is born with a self-image. Through experiences and interactions with other people, especially family members, young children develop an internal picture of themselves and come to place a value on it. Parental attitudes and behavior heavily influence the development of self-esteem in young children. Supportive parental behavior, including expressing realistic, age-appropriateexpectations, encouraging children to try new things, praising their efforts,and refraining from comparing a child to siblings or other children are powerful factors in the development of high self-esteem in early childhood. Children are also affected by the parents' own attitudes toward success and failure and how the parents feel about themselves.
Older children's experiences outside the home, both in school and with peers,become increasingly important in determining their level of self-esteem. Schools can influence their students' self-esteem through the attitudes they foster toward competition and effort, their recognition of achievement in academics, sports, and the arts, and their acceptance of every child as a unique individual. However, overindulgence in empty compliments often has a negative effect on self-esteem. Praise and acknowledgement must be genuine and legitimate to be effective.
By middle childhood, friendships have assumed a pivotal role in a child's life. Studies show that school-age youngsters spend more time with their friendsthan they spend doing homework, watching television, or playing alone. In addition, the amount of time they interact with their parents is greatly reduced from when they were younger. Pre-teens and teenagers face many issues related to conformity and peer pressure. This age group is pulled between the desire to be seen as individuals of unique value and the desire to belong to a group where they feel secure and accepted. At this stage, social acceptance bya peer group plays a major role in developing and maintaining self-esteem.
There is little doubt that experiences at home, at school, and with peers allcan build or diminish a person's self-esteem. Psychologists and child development experts who write about self-esteem generally discuss it in terms of two key components: the feeling of being loved and accepted by others and a sense of competence and mastery in performing tasks and solving problems independently.
Many studies find links between self-esteem and school achievement. One studyfound that a child's self-concept predicted his ability to learn to read inthe first grade. Other studies indicate that high self-esteem is related to lower absenteeism and higher grades. Opinions by experts are mixed on whetherhigh self-esteem promotes high academic achievement or whether high academicachievement gives students a feeling of high self-esteem. Clearly the two arelinked, but it is not clear which comes first. Finding ways to enhance self-esteem is of special interest to educators since about 20 percent of eighth graders are at risk of not graduating from high school.
Self-esteem is also linked to delinquency and violent behavior. Many studieshave shown that adolescents with low self-esteem are more likely to become involved in delinquent behavior. Experts suggest that students with low self-esteem who experience repeated failures turn to criminal and violent behavior as a way to "get back at the system" and increase their self-esteem and theirstanding with their peers. In other cases, people may commit violence to compensate for their feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. One of the appeals of gangs is that they give the gang member a feeling of belonging, acceptance, and importance while encouraging group delinquent behavior.
Along with violence and crime, substance abuse is also linked to low self-esteem. Some studies suggest that adolescents use drugs and alcohol to compensate for low self-esteem and a feeling that they have no control over their lives, while people with high self-esteem feel that they have other choices and are less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol. Other studies suggest that girlswith low self-esteem are more likely to be sexually active without using contraceptives. Girls who do become pregnant and choose to keep their babies overwhelmingly believe that the baby will give them unconditional love and acceptance that they feel is lacking in their lives.
Other activities that appear to be related to low self-esteem are teenage thoughts about suicide and suicide attempts, failure of moral decision making, the development of eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), and the development of general health problems. Fortunately self-esteem is not fixed for life.Many studies suggest that self-esteem can be raised, and that as it improves,behaviors also change in positive ways. People who feel as if they are not accepted, are socially isolated, are failures, or have no control over their futures benefit from seeking professional counseling to help them find a way past their negative self-image and low self-esteem.
Not every expert agrees with the interpretation of self-esteem studies. One reason is that there is no completely agreed upon way to measure self-esteem.Another is that self-esteem has several components including both self-acceptance and mastery skills that contribute to society.
Some psychologists, including Martin Seligman, have critiqued the value placed on self-esteem by the mental health profession over the past 30 years. Seligman claims that in order for children to feel good about themselves, they must feel that they are able to do things well. He believes that trying to shield children from feelings of sadness, frustration, and anxiety when they failrobs them of the motivation to persist in difficult tasks until they succeed. It is precisely such success in the face of difficulties that can truly make them feel good about themselves. Seligman believes that this attempt to cushion children against unpleasant emotions is in large part responsible for anincrease in the prevalence of diagnosed depression since the 1950s, an increase that he associates with a conditioned sense of helplessness.
Like Seligman, pediatrician and child development expert T. Berry Brazelton emphasizes that children develop self-esteem through the sense of competence and mastery that comes from tackling and triumphing over challenges, even modest ones. He believes that parents can boost children's self-esteem even in infancy by giving them an active and autonomous role in casual play. As infantsand toddlers advance to self-care activities, such as beginning to feed themselves, Brazelton encourages parents to let children complete tasks for themselves, however imperfectly, rather than jumping in and providing help. For example, he suggests allowing children to pick up small bits of food at the ageof eight months even if they drop some, and letting them hold their own bottles at 12 months.
Like Seligman, Brazelton emphasizes the continuing value of leaving childrento work through problems for themselves, trying out different approaches to atask until they succeed. For children accustomed to learning by trial and error, frustration can serve as a source of motivation and energy rather than an obstacle. Brazelton also emphasizes the importance of encouraging childrenin their endeavors and providing positive reinforcement when a goal is achieved.
Various experts have noted that when parental communication is consistently delivered in a negative style it becomes internalized, and children start to practice negative "self-talk," generating their own self-reinforcing negativemessages. Belittling comparisons with siblings ("Why can't you be more like your brother?") and threats of abandonment ("If you don't stop that right now,I'm leaving you here!") are other examples of negative communication from parents that, if used consistently, are thought to lower self-esteem and diminish a child's feelings of love and acceptance.
In addition to positive verbal communication, parents also can express acceptance and affirmation by showing physical affection and being good listeners,which make children feel important and cared about as individuals.
Social critics have pointed out that it can be more difficult for children inthe United States and other modern industrialized nations to achieve a senseof competence than it was for their counterparts in earlier historical periods. Children in the past, or in modern developing countries, participated actively in the economic life of the community, helping their families by doingsome of the same jobs performed by adults. Today's children, especially in urban areas, perform little "useful" work and thus have few opportunities to master tasks that contribute to the welfare of their families and the communityas a whole. In addition, their competence at the tasks that are demanded ofthem is continually challenged by competition in school, athletics, and otherareas.