Self-esteem; something we talk about and something we hear about - but what exactly is it?
Is it a case of us having enough self-esteem or is it something that exists within us, that needs some reorganising/re-scaffolding?
I have written this blog to accompany my FREE Self-Esteem Mirror Activity that you can do with your children; if you haven’t got it yet - click here!
There is no denying the evidence that childhood adverse life experiences impact our self-esteem. When children don’t have a safe and secure attachment, they are vulnerable to the outside world and relationships, in a way that children who have grown up with physical, emotional and psychological safety, do not. Whilst working in a Women’s Aid Refuge, the impact of such life experiences and ruptures in relationships with parents and/or caretakers, contributed to challenges such as of anxiety, low concentration, difficulties making and keeping friendships, risk taking behaviours and self-harm.
In my free self-esteem activity for children, I use a mirror to encourage parents and children to discuss the area of self-esteem because one way self-esteem can be described, is our overall view of self, such as our appearance, our abilities and our beliefs. How we view ourselves, how we view our role in relationship to others and in context of the world has a huge influence on our ability to stand alone and navigate the social and real world. If you have read my blog on resilience, you may start to see some resemblance in this blog as you continue to read, and see how these marry well.
As humans, we need and rely on interactions with others to stay well. We use these interactions to establish meaning and an understanding on how the world works, how we survive it and how we get our needs met. More commonly familiar is the need for babies to have access to safe interaction and attachments in order for their brains to continue developing, as babies brains do not have their completed set of neural pathways when born; it is through this interaction that brain development is completed. Though adolescents and adults have well developed brains, our brains continue to be trimmed and updated, in such a way you can mould Plasticine, for the duration of our life. It is fair to say then, a concept such as self-esteem is a fluid one, a concept that changes, is impacted by life events and one that can be updated (sigh of relief).
Self-Esteem in Younger Children
Very young children rely heavily on non-verbal messages due to their limited language. Non-verbal messages that contribute to positive self-esteem are ones that communicate safety, acceptance, stability and clarity/are unambiguous. Recall how we use our interactions to make sense of the world? Non-verbal cues such as smiling, stroking and being held close allow the child to feel emotionally, psychically and psychologically accepted, OK, held (in the space and relationship) and frees up energy for exploring their environment without the survival instinct being triggered.
As they get older, they often use absolutes to describe themselves - there’s little grey area thinking and a lot of black and white; their perceptions of self are also often unrealistically positive though this is not a negative thing as it actually has a positive impact on their resilience.
The love, nurture and acceptance we offer our children in their younger years is eventually, through the stages of development, integrated to become their own beliefs about themselves. Much of this remains unconscious but it also develops their internal dialogue; the way they/we speak to ourselves in our heads.
Self-Esteem in Teenagers
Teenage years can be a relatively easy developmental process for some, but more often than not, it creates a degree of internal crisis as their well tested ways of being, thinking and feeling become no longer adequate in accommodating their new demands and relationship dynamics. There are both internal and external changes for adolescents; the physical, emotional and psychological changes during these years can definitely bring periods of uncertainty and vulnerability, whilst their social world also starts to change. Teens will often be excited by their increased freedom in life and their families though in my experience, many teenagers also struggle with the loss of their childhood, the specialness and closeness that they may still see their younger siblings receiving. My experience of this loss has come from working therapeutically with many teenagers over my career but it’s not something I would say they are consciously aware of; instead it’s likely that this loss and grief comes out in challenging and perhaps confusing behaviours that actually invite the opposite from you i.e. rebelling or hostility.
During their transition from child to young adult, adolescents are developing a new self, tackling self motivation, independence and responsibilities; think of it like a reinvention, which is why their tried and tested ways of being, no longer work, and the internal crisis begins. The difficult thing is, they still need relationships and their emphasis on them intensifies. Their relationships can create a lot if internal and external conflict as their friends are also going through their own reinvention, everyone trying to figure out the best way to live in their new world and how to get their needs met. Black and white thinking is still around here, so their interpretation of their social struggles can be quite negative and have a significant impact on their self-esteem i.e. a teenager is more likely to think their friend hates them as opposed to see how their friend feels safer (emotionally) being friends with the mean girl, which unfortunately to the friend, means being mean to others in order to sustain and function within that relationship.
If teenagers are struggling with the adjustment, some will access external means to create a sense of calm and control but this can be quite risky i.e. using drugs and alcohol or engaging in sexual activities before they are ready. It’s a really difficult time for parents too, it may be helpful to consider your teen’s behaviours and choices as being reflective of their efforts to find their new way, as opposed to the other negative ways we, and perhaps our own parents considered them.
Keep up with the openness, non-judgemental communication and unambiguous boundaries that we mentioned earlier - it’s exactly what they need whilst they feel like everything else is changing.
Why Self-Esteem is Important.
I’m sure you’ve already realised that self-esteem is important, but sometimes it’s good to have some listed outcomes to reinforce our thinking, here’s what positive self-esteem equips your children with:
Better at making informed choices as they have confidence in their own thinking ability
Flexible approach to life - when people like control in their life, it is often a defence to vulnerability. Not feeling vulnerable means they’re more likely to be open to trying new activities and new ways of doing things
Enjoy life - internal freedom and acceptance frees energy to live fully
Able to cope better with changes - if they feel loved and accepted for their whole self, they’re more likely to access support and not feel pressured to ‘get over it’, allowing themselves the time they need to fully adjust
Develop their own strengths and weaknesses - instead of being worried about others’ perceptions
Develop equal, healthy relationships - where neither party feels responsible for the other but have a mutual consideration instead
Attract genuine liking - less likely to rely on helping others or discounting themselves to fit in as they have an inner confidence