What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is best thought of as the esteem – or positive regard, or love – that we have for ourselves. Self-esteem is the level of appreciation that the child has for him or herself. It is often regarded as a personality trait as it remains fairly stable. It can be regarded as something internal so that, even when something happens which affects the child’s confidence – the child maintains a strong sense of self and can bounce back quickly. In contrast, when a child has low self-esteem, they may have difficulty accepting praise or realising that they are god at things or valued by others. In the case of low self-esteem, a child will fundamentally believe that there is something not quite right, or ‘good enough’ about them, so that external achievements and praise may not really make them feel better about themselves.

Some children with low self-esteem may become uncomfortable or nervous in social situations, and may be labelled ‘shy’. The problem is often made worse because adults constantly draw attention to the child’s shyness by telling them that they are shy – and making them feel very self-conscious! Shyness isn’t necessarily a symptom of self-esteem, however. A child can be comfortable with his or her own thoughts, and naturally more introverted – or a child could even be on the autistic spectrum. By identifying the ‘shyness’ as bad, though, it often becomes a problem in itself.

Why do some children have low self-esteem?

There are many reasons why children may have low self-esteem. If we assume that all children are born essentially equal, then something has to have happened in their development to challenge their sense of self, and to make them feel like they are not as good as other people. Something must have happened to make them question themselves and to end up, perhaps, fundamentally disliking themselves.

Primary care givers, and particularly mothers, have a significant impact on a child’s self- esteem from the earliest age. A child needs to develop a strong bond with their mother and to feel protected and loved. The mother can almost be seen as a mirror reflecting back how the child feels about him or herself. If that child is neglected, or physically or verbally abused by his or her mother – and other primary care providers – he or she can feel that there is something wrong with them. He may feel that he isn’t deserving of his mother’s love. She may feel that her father has rejected her because she is unlovable. He may learn that the beatings he gets when he has done something wrong because he was craving attention are deserved. Or the sexually abused child will feel that they are bad, that they played a part in the abuse and that there is something damaged and wrong with them.

School can also have a major impact on a child’s self-esteem. A child may struggle academically and feel less able than other children. They may receive the message from teachers, parents and other children that they are not good enough. Or a child may be singled out because they are overweight or ‘different’ in other ways. Name calling and being made fun of will reinforce the fact that they are ‘not right’ and are ‘different’ in a bad or unacceptable way. The divorce of parents may affect a child’s self-esteem, especially if they feel that they have played a part in the divorce or if one parent uses a child against the other parent in some way. If a child is raised in an affluent neighbourhood and feels that they are poorer than the other kids, or if they feel pressured into keeping the behaviour or an alcoholic parent a secret, they may grow up with that sense of feeling not quite as good, and different, from other children. All these – and many other factors – will have a negative impact on a child’s self-esteem.