The Psychology Behind Self-Esteem

When understanding self-esteem, we have to first look at the psychology behind this concept. For this to happen, we must dive into developmental theory, which helps us design a conceptual framework for self-esteem.

For me, Erik Erikson’s (1963) Theory of Psychosocial Development does just that. He chronicled eight phases of human life exploring how physical changes and environment were linked to the development of self and identity.  He proposed the following stages of psychosocial development as occurring during one’s lifespan.

(a) Trust versus Mistrust

(b) Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt

(c) Initiative versus Guilt

(d) Industry versus Inferiority

(e) Identity versus Role Confusion

(f) Intimacy versus Isolation

(g) Generativity versus Stagnation

(h) Wisdom versus Despair

When looking at self-esteem, we must look at  the 4th stage of psychosocial development, which Erikson referred to as Industry vs. Inferiority as well as his 5th stage of psychosocial development he termed Identity vs. Role Confusion.

So….stage 4 begins at around age six.  This is the point in their life where your children enter school and learn the appropriate norms within a classroom.  They seek out approval from their peers and well as their teachers.  At this stage, children seek success in the form of good grades, mastering classroom directions and obedience.  Girls usually flourish during this stage academically and often develop a strong sense of self. However, during the later years of stage 4, (about age twelve) is when things get complicated.  At this age, many girls begin puberty and they start to develop more sophisticated views of themselves and the opposite sex. A shift in the way they see themselves and how they relate to one another begins to occur. This leads up to the complexities of stage 5.

Gradually, around the age of thirteen children enter stage five of development. According to Erikson, this is the critical period of development where unfortunately self-esteem declines for most adolescents, especially girls. Your child is now knee-deep in puberty, positioned halfway between childhood and adulthood and confused by the changing way they look, feel and think.  At this point, they are primarily concerned with fitting in with their peers and so they start to move away from mom and dad, stretching their independence. They want to make their own decisions at home. They start questioning the world as well as themselves all the while trying to discover a true sense of self.  In order for healthy self-esteem to grow, it’s important that this independence be permitted (obviously, within reason) and the journey encouraged by mom and dad.

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