Excerpt: What Self Esteem Is and Isn’t

From the book A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Child and Adolescent Psychology, coauthored with child psychiatrist, Jack C. Westman.

For several years now, critics of our educational system and parenting culture have been saying that American children and adolescents have too high an opinion of themselves. Actually, if you understand the source and definition of true self esteem, based on the self respect that emanates from external reality—not internal fantasies fed by well intentioned parents showering their kids with unearned praise—the latest research shows that our kids are sorely lacking in self esteem. The same studies reveal this to be an issue with special significance for tweens and their parents.

That’s because, when measured by psychological researchers, self-esteem is highest in preschool and lowest at the start of junior high school. Why? One view says the transition from elementary to high school is when children fall from a secure social position to a new unfamiliar one, and find themselves at the “bottom of the pecking order.” Parents can help their tweens navigate this difficult transition by understanding the source of authentic self esteem.

In a study of 2,000 low- to middle-income children living in the greater Detroit area, 25 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds had negative self-esteem. Their negative views of themselves showed up on all three scales measured: academic competence, social acceptance, and global self-worth. On each scale, 5 to 10 percent more girls than boys displayed negative self-esteem.

Understanding Authentic Self Esteem

Self-esteem and self-respect may appear to be synonyms, but as child psychiatrist Jack Westman points out in our new book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Child & Adolescent Psychology, they are not. A child’s self-esteem, Westman explains, can be low or high based on a fantasy he holds about himself, whereas self-respect is based on reality. You can have high self-esteem, and still be a selfish, inconsiderate person.

Kids who have been “spoiled,” whose parents consistently tell them that they are smarter, more creative, athletically gifted, and all around superior to others, can have high self-esteem. But this form of self esteem crashes when they are frustrated or don’t get the sort of approval they have come to expect.

In contrast, self-respect is having a good evaluation or judgment of yourself and having that view validated by realistic accomplishments and experiences with other people. Self-respect gives rise to authentic high self-esteem. This internal feeling is based on external reality.

Because these two words have been conflated in general use, we’ll refer to self respect (as we’ve defined it here) as self esteem but please understand that we are referring to the authentic meaning of this over-used, misunderstood term.

Why Does Self Esteem Matter?

Authentic self-esteem in children is important for a child’s emotional, social, and—now the research makes clear—also for her intellectual development. Sources of self-esteem include the following:

  • A child’s innate temperament helps shape her self-esteem. Easy, friendly temperament children tend to develop more self-esteem than children with difficult, inhibited temperaments.
  • When parents are willing to discuss household rules and discipline with them, their children’s self-esteem rises. A child then internalizes the message that she is important enough for her opinions to be heard.
  • Parents’ consistent warmth, affection, and involvement with their children builds self-esteem. A hug sends the simple message: “You are important to me.”
  • Self-esteem also comes from the peer comparisons a child makes and approval or rejection she experiences from peers.
  • Self-esteem comes from a child’s emerging “belief system” which can be seen as an accumulation of all of the preceding.

For more on the emotional-social, cognitive and moral development of children from zero to age 18, with all the latest science made clear and practical for parents, get the just released Complete Idiot’s Guide to Child & Adolescent Psychology, coauthored by child psychiatrist and national family advocate Jack C. Westman, M.D. and Victoria Costello, who blogs at http://www.mentalhealthmomblog.com

One response to “Excerpt: What Self Esteem Is and Isn’t

  1. Ya learn something new evredyay. It’s true I guess!

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