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Considered an important component of emotional health, self-esteem encompasses both self-confidence and self-acceptance.

Psychologists who write about self-esteem generally discuss it in terms of two key components: the feeling of being loved and accepted by others and a sense of competence and mastery in performing tasks and solving problems independently.

Much research has been conducted in the area of developing self-esteem in children. Martin Seligman claims that in order for children to feel good about themselves, they must feel that they are able to do things well. He claims that trying to shield children from feelings of sadness, frustration, and anxiety when they fail robs them of the motivation to persist in difficult tasks until they succeed. It is precisely such success in the face of difficulties that can truly make them feel good about themselves. Seligman believes that this attempt to cushion children against unpleasant emotions is in large part responsible for an increase in the prevalence of depression since the 1950s, an increase that he associates with a conditioned sense of helplessness.

Self-esteem comes from different sources for children at different stages of development. The development of self-esteem in young children is heavily influenced by parental attitudes and behavior. Supportive parental behavior, including the encouragement and praise of mastery, as well as the child's internalization of the parents' own attitudes toward success and failure, are the most powerful factors in the development of self-esteem in early childhood. Later, older children's experiences outside the home—in school and with peers—become increasingly important in determining their self-esteem. Schools can influence their students' self-esteem through the attitudes they foster toward competition and diversity and their recognition of achievement in academics, sports, and the arts. By middle childhood, friendships have assumed a pivotal role in a child's life. Studies have shown that school-age youngsters spend more time with their friends than they spend doing homework, watching television, or playing alone. In addition, the amount of time they interact with their parents is greatly reduced from when they were younger. At this stage, social acceptance by a child's peer group plays a major role in developing and maintaining self-esteem.

The physical and emotional changes that take place in adolescence, especially early adolescence, present new challenges to a child's self-esteem. Boys whose growth spurt comes late compare themselves with peers who have matured early and seem more athletic, masculine, and confident. In contrast, early physical maturation can be embarrassing for girls, who feel gawky and self-conscious in their newly developed bodies. Fitting in with their peers becomes more important than ever to their self-esteem, and, in later adolescence, relationships with the opposite sex can become a major source of confidence or insecurity.

Further Reading

Seligman, Martin E.P. The Optimistic Child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie