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 are 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.

Prevent Child Sexual Assault—be part of the solution

I learned this past weekend that a victim of child sexual assault has to tell at least 7 adults before he/she is believed. Why?  Because people can’t process the message and don’t want to believe.  A healthy brain isn’t wired to think in these terms especially in relation to a child.   An adult will attempt to reinterpret what the child is saying in a way that makes it less damaging/threatening for them to process. The child very quickly sees that the adult just doesn’t get it and moves on until he/she encounters another adult they feel safe enough with to tell.  This was both shocking and terrifying for me to learn.  As adults, please don’t be the problem, be part of the solution.  If a child tries to engage you in a conversation that you can tell they are both physically and emotionally struggling through, please stop and listen.

It seems that predators target kids with lower-self esteem the most and prey on those who lack strong identity and/or have a weaker social network.  Most disturbing for me was to learn that these predators can actually walk into a chat room, play ground, mall, etc., and can target these kids instantly, almost like radar.  We must protect.

Teach your kids to be aware of adult strangers that seem too interested in them too soon.

Dr. Michele Borba’s Reality Check is a great blog that provides tips, warning signs and workshops for parents and kids.

TeenScreen- A New Tool in Teen Suicide Prevention

Teen suicide is a serious matter.  We are bombarded in the news lately with stories and video of  teen bullying (cyber and other) as well as other forms of teen harassment.  Teens are feeling overwhelmed more than ever and I don’t blame them. It’s seems the stakes are getting higher as we are see an increase of teen suicides.  Many articles have told us that teens don’t tell their parents about the bullying that occurs (via Facebook, text, blogs, etc.) because they fear that their parents will take away their electronic devices such as phones and computers.  Clearly, the message that teens should talk to their parents about these issues isn’t fully solving the problem. We need other tools/options as well.

Teens need to be aware that other sources of information, help and support are out there.  Last weekend,  I went to a fund-raiser for Family Services of Marin and learned of a new tool in the prevention of teen suicide.  It’s called “TeenScreen” and was developed by Columbia University.  It’s the first screening of its kind that seems to identity the warning signals as all stage of distress, gives practical feedback/advice and has reduced teen suicide rates.  By administering this simple screening to teens, they can identify those on the “check list” as being in danger. Teens who have been given the screening were surprised to see just how accurate the readings were and some teens didn’t even realize that the issues they struggle with on a daily basis were “not common” and could lead to negative behaviours.  This is an amazing tool that’s inexpensive, practical and can easily be implemented by schools.

To learn more, go to:

TeenScreen National Center for Mental Health Checkups | Teen Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.