Self-esteem is a big subject with differing methods of study and overlapping concepts

  • One can study children directly, or extrapolate backwards in time from adult accounts
  • Effectance Motivation (White, 1959)
  • Mastery, competence
  • Resilience

How do “protective factors” such as social support insulate the self-esteem of some people who would normally be crushed by poverty, abuse, and other childhood trauma grow up to become successful?*

Self-efficacy (Bandura, 1980)
Social-cognitive theory

Learning anything new can injure kids’ self-esteem

  • All learning from birth on has the potential to damage self-esteem, to create a narcissistic injury
  • Self-esteem begins developing in earliest mother-infant interaction.
  • “Good enough mother” feeds, soothes, changes, cuddles, and sings to infant competently enough so that infant develops a confidence that his needs will be met without too much delay(Winnicott)

Some roots of self-esteem

  • In the psychosocial stage of Basic Trust at 0 to 2 years well-cared-for babies and toddlers develop a confident expectation in collaborative relationships with others (Eriksen)
  • An unrealistic belief in perfect control over mother develops, a belief which is given up only slowly and over time, sometimes involving a blankie or transitional object (Winnicott), via tolerable frustrations (Kohut)*

Roots of self-esteem: the evolution of grandiosity

  • In early childhood, kids constantly seek out parents’ approval and admiration (Kohut, 1972)
  • In a healthy family, parents mirror the child’s grandiose self, which the child then relinquishes slowly on the basis of experience
  • In later childhood, healthy parents allow themselves to be idealized by the child. Idealization is optimally also given up slowly over time on the basis of experience

Kids need self-esteem to navigate many emotional challenges

  • Developmental Lines (Anna Freud, 1965)
  • From dependency to emotional self-reliance and adult relationships
  • From egocentricity to companionship
  • From the body to the toy and from play to work
  • Toward body independence
  • From suckling to rational eating
  • From wetting and soiling to bladder and bowel control
  • From irresponsibility to responsibility in body management

Emotional competence requires coping, adjustment, and adaptation

The regulation of self-esteem
Superego or conscience (Freud,1923)
Stands over and watches the ego, the self (Ich and Uber Ich). Superego contains the standards and ideals against which the self is measured, or ego ideal.

  • People get depressed when they fail to live up to their own expectations, when they fall short of some inner ideal (Bibring)*
  • When the ideal-self discrepancy is too great, shame results

The other way to study kids’ self- esteem

  • Research conducted directly on kids themselves

Self-esteem: research findings on its importance in kids’ lives

“Self-esteem has a significant role in social development, predicting children’s and adolescents’ social skills and adjustment (Barber, Olsen, & Shagle, 1994; Pettit, Laird, Dodge, Bates, & Criss, 2001), emotional functioning (Lei, Swartz, Dodge, & McBride-Chang, 2003), and likelihood of victimization by peers (Egan & Perry, 1998).

Research findings: what leads to high self-esteem in kids?

  • High self-esteem rests largely on (a) perceptions of support from relationship partners, especially one’s parents, and (b) perceptions of competence in valued domains (e.g., sports, intimate friendships). (Ojanen & Perry, 2008) (Harter, 1998)

Research findings: self-esteem and bullying

  • “Children who experience higher rates of peer victimization consider themselves to be less academically competent. This link was independent of global self-esteem and depressed affect.
  • “Self-esteem explained a significant part of the link between victimization and self-efficacy. However, perceived academic self-efficacy among victimized students could only be partly attributed to general negative self-evaluations” (Thijs & Verkuyten, 2008)

Research: Self-esteem in adolescents: boys versus girls

  • “Perceived maternal affection predicts gains in self-esteem for girls, whereas perceived psychological control predicts reduced self-esteem for boys
  •  “affiliation and communion with others are more important to self-evaluation for girls than for boys, whereas autonomy and agency are more important for boys than for girls” (Ojanen & Perry, 2007).

Mothers’ self-fulfilling prophecies about their kids’ academic competence

“The traditional pattern of mothers’ perceptions acting as self-fulfilling prophecies in foreshadowing children’s functioning was evident among mothers who saw academic competence as relatively fixed…the self-fulfilling prophecies were absent among mothers who did not see academic competence as being fixed.

“Mothers’ perceptions and theories predicted over time not only children’s grades and perceptions of their competence as in prior research, but also their attributions and mastery orientation…mothers’ theories foreshadowed children’s affective functioning (i.e., self-esteem and depressive symptoms) as well (Pomerantz & Dong, 2006).

Research: self-esteem and sports

  • Shy kids and aggressive kids report higher self-esteem after participating in a group sport for 1 year. Shyness = social anxiety plus inhibition and withdrawal. Shy kids are more anxious, lonely, have more negative feelings, lower physical ability, less assertive. Mastery contributes to self-esteem; shy kids especially need triumphs to feel good about themselves. However, kids are less likely to participate in sports in middle childhood (Findlay & Kaplan, 2008).

What problems might kids with poor self-esteem develop in adult life?

  • The main psychological disorders of our time are narcissistic disturbances (Kohut1959, 1972, 1977, 1983)

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

  • “Intense ambitiousness, feelings of inferiority, overdependence on external admiration. Constantly searching for brilliance, wealth, power, beauty. No empathy for others. Chronic uncertainty and dissatisfaction with life. Exploitativeness and ruthlessness towards others. Chronic, intense entitlement and selfishness” (Egan & Kernberg, 1984)

Child Case

  • Matt, 8 years old: treated peers like slaves and teacher like a colleague; searched for and exploited weaknesses in others; everyone hated him; mediocre grades despite superior intelligence; parents intensely attached to him, saw him as a magnificent child; believed he was the president, executive vice-president, and editor-in-chief of a publishing firm; denied that the analyst had any importance to him” (Egan & Kernberg, 1984)

Adult Case

  • A music critic in his 40s who felt like a disappointment to his parents. As a kid, he played catch with father, who constantly threw the footballs too far for him to catch. As the balls sailed over his head, he felt ashamed and humiliated. He could never show his tears to his father, afraid of disappointing him.
  • Father was self-absorbed, too caught up in how far he could throw the ball, or expecting too much from his son

Empathic misattunement by caregivers leads to feelings of shame

  • •Avoid shaming. Shame is the enemy of self-esteem. It is caused by lack of empathic attunement to the child’s need to feel good about his accomplishments and to idealize his parents
  • •Empathy means putting yourself in your child’s shoes to discover how it feels to be her.

Misconceptions about empathy

  • It’s the same as being nice
  • It means you always have to agree with your child
  • If you try to empathically understand why your child misbehaves, you have to let them do whatever they want
  • Doesn’t what I want count too?

Parent how to’s; parents intuitively know some of what to do

  • •Reward effort and completion instead of outcome
  • •Help kids set more accurate standards and be more realistic in evaluating themselves
  • •Give praise frequently and honestly without overdoing it
  • (KidsHealth online)

Empathy is mental/emotional work, for parent and therapist alike

  • Small child in therapy session tells therapist he wants to see mommy in waiting room. To get at what the child is feeling that makes him want to leave my office, I interpret to him: “You’re afraid something is going to happen to your mom or you if you’re not together?”
  • He may not feel safe with me yet, since I am still a relative stranger. Does he have separation anxiety?

Why do parents sometimes fail to understand their kids self-esteem needs?

  • Some parents treat their kids as extensions of themselves, not as independent beings. A mother brings her 12 year-old son to therapy so I can fix him, make him perform in school. But what does he want? How does he feel? He perceives that his mother has never cared about him; in his mind the solution is to escape a mother who never cared about him and go live with father in another state.

What is healthy self-esteem?

  • A healthy balance between emotional investment in oneself and in others (Freud)
  • A superego that is not too harsh or critical (Strachey, 1934)
  • An independent true self–someone who does not feel taken over and controlled by others (Winnicott)

Parenting: the hardest job in the world

And the funniest job in the world (sometimes)?

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