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Self-Esteem in Children

Teaching the value of valuing one's self

By Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)Published 3 years ago 3 min read
Photo by samer daboul from Pexels

Self-esteem refers to “the evaluative aspect of one’s self concept; judgments and opinions about the relative worth of one’s different characteristics” (Lefrancois, 2001, p. 425). It is a broad and comprehensive evaluation which is not specific to a particular skill or segmented mastery level, but rather represents the all-encompassing and deep-seated judgment an individual makes about his/her core value and worth. As such, it is a powerful force in the psyche of the individual.

High self-esteem occurs when an individual’s overall assessment of him/herself is generally positive. Researchers studying the enhancement of self-esteem in children have determined the importance of addressing the causes of self-esteem unique to the individual child (Santrock, 2002). These factors can vary in importance and significance from one child to another and represent the domains within which success is necessary for the child to feel competent and assured in an overall sense. As such, they represent the composite factors of the child’s self-esteem.

The factors that contribute to high self-esteem are often, although not always, the characteristics and abilities that are esteemed, reinforced and encouraged in society and/or the reference group that the child looks to for direction. An attractive physical appearance can contribute to high self-esteem if a child is reinforced for this characteristic and thus comes to value it as a positive part of him/herself. Conversely, the same physical attractiveness could detract from healthy self-esteem if it is overemphasized to the detriment of other characteristics important to the child or if it is responsible for unwanted attention or expectations (i.e., the unhappy child star or beauty queen). A sense of mastery over the perceived challenges presented in the environment – home, school, playground, etc. – is an essential element of high self-esteem.

Children with low self-esteem typically display a range of obvious telltale behaviors. They can be overly fearful, withdrawn, and depressive or conversely overly aggressive, disruptive in home and school and bullying. Both extremes of behavior point to a maladjustment which has a component of low self-esteem. Poor performance in school, rebellion towards parents and teachers, acting out, poor peer social relationships, extreme neediness and isolation are all behavioral indicators of which caregivers should be aware.

Photo by Daniel Jurin from Pexels

Low self-esteem can have many interrelated causes. Referring to the ecological theory of Urie Brofenbrenner, one can image the many complex interactive forces that combine to produce a child’s experience of the world (Brofenbrenner, 2000; Brofenbrenner & Morris, 1998). In each of these situations, the child draws conclusions and makes judgments about his/her place in the context. These judgments work to form his/her view of the world and of him/herself. Often the causes and the resulting behaviors fall into a vicious cycle of reinforcement. For example, a child withdraws because of fear and anxiety over poor performance in school. By avoiding the experience, the child does not get the opportunity to practice and develop the skill. This results in the child falling further behind and becoming even more intimidated by the task.

In general, unconditional positive regard and acceptance of the individual child are the most powerful esteem enhancers. Children must be given developmentally appropriate tasks that they have the ability to master, and then the psychological and emotional freedom to explore and even make mistakes in order to learn mastery in a non-threatening manner. They must be given opportunities for success and permission to fail in order to learn acceptance of themselves and the human condition. These ways of interacting with children give them the freedom to confidently develop their unique individuality.


Brofenbrenner, U. (2000). Ecological theory. In A. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychology. Washington, DC & New York, NY: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press.

Brofenbrenner, U. & Morris, P. (1998). The ecology of developmental processes. In W. Damon (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (5th ed., Vol. 1). New York, NY: Wiley.

Lefrancois, G. R. (2001). Of children: An introduction to child and adolescent development, 9e. Belmoont, CA: Wadsworth.

Santrock, J. W. (2002). Life-span development, 8e. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.


About the Creator

Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)

Writer, psychologist and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, human and animal rights, and industrial/organizational psychology

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