Self-esteem refers to a person's subjective evaluation of their own worth: put simply, it is how good a person feels about him or herself. During the 1970's and 80's the fostering of self-esteem was seen to be of great benefit in and of itself. Teachers and parents were encouraged to offer every child unconditional praise and to refrain from any criticism or 'negativity' which might damage a child's self-esteem. A lack of self-esteem was blamed for all kinds of problems, and high self-esteem was regarded as almost synonymous with good functioning and mental health.
Recently, however, this view of self-esteem as the panacea for all psychological ills has begun to be questioned. For example, a major review of the self-esteem literature found that many of the expected negative consequences of low self-esteem were not supported by the research (Mecca & Smelser, 1989). Evidence also began to accrue of the potentially harmful effects of excessively high self-esteem, for example an association between inflated self-esteem and violence. Researchers also began to find children and adolescents whose self-esteem was inflated beyond their actual achievements and abilities. These children had been raised on a diet of unconditional praise dissociated from real accomplishment, with the result that they felt good about themselves, but for no reason other than that they had repeatedly been told how unique, valuable and exceptional they were.
Critics of the self-esteem movement have pointed out that a high opinion of one's own importance and worth is actually a characteristic of antisocial personality types, who are capable of committing all kinds of offences against others without it dinting their own high opinion of themselves. Self-esteem proponents have responded by arguing that there is a distinction between true, or 'authentic' self-esteem and false, or 'inauthentic', self-esteem. According to this view, people such as sociopaths who exhibit a delusionally high self-regard in fact have a cripplingly low self-esteem, which they conceal beneath a veneer of strutting bravado. However, this argument makes the whole concept of self-esteem very difficult to test and, some have suggested, meaningless.
These criticisms have led to a reappraisal of the concept of self-esteem and its role in mental health.
Resiliency is not based on a high self-esteem that is disconnected from one's behaviour and achievements. Whilst resilient children view themselves as lovable and worthy of respect and care, this self-esteem is grounded in values of respect for others, a desire to contribute, and experiences of mastery and competence. Rather than viewing self-esteem as a necessary precondition for success, researchers are increasingly viewing it as the natural outcome of experiences of competence and contribution. By achieving important goals, and through being involved in meaningful contribution to their family, school and community, children develop a healthy sense of competence and self-regard.
Rather than emphasising the importance of liking oneself and bombarding children with messages of personal 'specialness', the resiliency approach suggests emphasising goal-setting, problem-solving, achievement and participation in altruistic activities. The self-esteem that develops from this approach is grounded in a prosocial value system, a realistic sense of oneself and one's capacities, and an awareness of personal responsibility.
A narcissistic, unrealistic self-esteem does not convey resilience because it is unsupported by reality. This inflated self-esteem either needs to be aggressively defended against threats because of its inherent fragility - leading to antisocial behaviour - or it is likely to be deflated by life's hard knocks, resulting in disillusionment and depression.
Despite the caution against an excessive focus on self-esteem for its own sake, it is important to mental health for children to like themselves and view themselves as loveable and worthy of respect. The following are some tips for promoting healthy self-esteem in young people:
The concept of self-efficacy is closely related to self-esteem, but whereas self-esteem refers to a global evaluation of the self, self-efficacy refers to a belief in one's ability to effect a specific outcome. Self-efficacy is domain-specific. That is to say, a person may possess self-efficacy in one area (for example, the ability to make new friends), but not in another (e.g., the ability to fix a broken fence).
Whilst it is unrealistic to expect all children to develop high levels of competence in all areas, in order to be resilient, it is important for children to develop a healthy degree of self-efficacy in several key domains, such as the academic, the social and the physical. As with self-esteem, healthy self-efficacy develops out of actual achievements, not out of merely being told, "you are good at X!" or "you can achieve anything!" Children need to be encouraged to persist in the face of difficulties in order to attain goals that are personally meaningful. They will quickly perceive that platitudes to the effect that they can achieve whatever they want are meaningless in the absence of any actual, concrete accomplishments.
Self-efficacy is closely related to the concept of "locus of control", which refers to a tendency to believe that current and future events are either within or outside of one's personal control. People with an internal locus of control believe that they have the power to effect the major events in their lives, whereas people with an external locus of control believe that they are largely at the whim of external forces. An external locus of control in adulthood has been associated with depression and anxiety.
Of course, the truth is that the younger a child is, the more he or she is at the mercy of forces outside of his or her control, and indeed any minor is relatively powerless to make changes to his or her life compared to an adult. However, through learning problem-solving skills and having the experience of being able to make personally meaningful changes in one's life as a child or adolescent, the groundwork is laid for a healthy sense of empowerment as an adult. Adults can help children develop an internal locus of control by listening seriously to children's views and wishes, and allowing them to participate in decision-making, whether at home or school. Rigid, authoritarian styles of discipline tend to teach children to follow orders and systems blindly, rather than making active, empowered choices in their lives.
It is clear that self-esteem, self-efficacy and locus of control as they have been defined here are closely related to optimism. Like self-esteem and self-efficacy, resilient optimism is not a polyannaish belief that everything will be OK regardless of what one does; it is a proactive, positive stance towards life supported by actual competencies and problem-solving skills that have been tested in real life and provide a genuine set of resources for coping with whatever adversity life may bring.
Read the optimism page for more information.
Alvord, M. & Grados, J. (2005). 'Enhancing Resilience in Children: A Proactive Approach'. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 36(3). pp. 238-245.
Baumeister, R.F., Boden, J.M. & Smart, L. (1996) 'Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem.' Psychological Review. 103: 1. pp 5-33.
Mecca, A. & Smelser, N. (1989). The Social Importance of Self-Esteem. Berkeley: University of California Press.