According to researchers, most children enter school with a good sense of self-esteem (at least as defined by psychologists) and yet leave high school with a poor sense of self-esteem. What happens in those years between starting school and finishing school?
If we are to define self-esteem as "having feelings of worth or value," then people with adequate levels of self-esteem should display a sense of realistic confidence in their abilities and performance. People with low levels of self-esteem would be expected to display feelings of inadequacy, a fear of failure, a sense of being unworthy, and perhaps depression.
It is estimated that 25-35% of children have Learning Disabilities. At least 5% have Attention Disorders. All too many times during the course of their academic careers these children are labeled by teachers (or parents) as being "lazy," or "stupid." Remarks of this type are typically interpreted by the child as, "You're no good," and the self-esteem levels drop.
At least 50% of children will experience the divorce of their parents prior to turning 18 years old. Most children, for whatever reasons too complicated to go into here, will tend to place at least a portion of the blame for the parent's divorce on themselves. Since the parents are typically placed on a pedestal in the eyes of the child, the blame for the divorce cannot be placed on the parents and must be placed elsewhere, most commonly on themselves. This also significantly impacts children's self-esteem levels.
There are other important challenges to maintaining reasonable self-esteem, such as merely being "average" in a world that worships only the good looking, the good athletes, and the well-to-do.
Can too much Self-Esteem be bad for you?
Let me say here and now that inappropriately high levels of self-esteem may be worse that low levels. Levels of self-esteem that are too high lead kids to believe that they are more important than anyone else, and that they should never be frustrated by work or challenges in life. It leads young people to believe that they should always have their way. Inflated levels of self-esteem ultimately discourages children and teens from learning how to work hard, and sometimesl leads into criminal behavior. Anti-social and criminal behavior is fueled by the criminal believing that his wants and needs are more important than the needs, wants, or rights of others.
Inflated levels of self-esteem also are directly at odds with the development of one's spirituality and relationship with God. After all, who needs to develop a relationship with God when he believes that he is more important, or intelligent, or more powerful than God? People are cheated in every important aspect of their lives, emotionally, socially, and spiritually, when their sense of self-esteem is inflated.
So how can we instill appropriate levels of self-esteem in our children? Briefly, here are five key thoughts . . .
First, change the way that you look at this area of life from "self-esteem" to "self-confidence." There is a difference as wide as the sea. To "esteem" someone, including one's self, involves feelings of "reverence" or "awe" or "honor" or "glory." Words have meaning. Let's not get carried away with trying to make our kids feel good about themselves by starting to ascribe to them positions of honor normally reserved for Presidents and Kings, and perhaps for God. The majority of our society's problems are caused by people thinking that they are more important than anyone else in the world. This is not something that we really want to encourage in our children, or in ourselves.
Instead we do want to encourage self-confidence. This attribute becomes especially powerful and beautiful when paired with the virtue of self-control. Raise your children to have these two character traits, and you will have wonderful and successful children.
Douglas Cowan, Psy.D., is a family therapist who has been working with ADHD children and their families since 1986. He is the clinical director of the ADHD Information Library's family of seven web sites, including http://www.newideas.net, helping over 350,000 parents and teachers learn more about ADHD each year. Dr. Cowan also serves on the Medical Advisory Board of VAXA International of Tampa, FL., is President of the Board of Directors for KAXL 88.3 FM in central California, and is President of NewIdeas.net Incorporated.