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with low self-esteem have a difficult time dealing with problems, are overly self-critical, and can become passive, withdrawn, and depressed.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.
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.