Self-esteem is how we value ourselves. Another word for it is self-worth.
It implies how valuable we feel, overall and in our particular attributes/skills. How valuable something is depends on the standards it is being measured upon.
It is a learned and mostly subconscious belief system.
Belief systems are like icebergs, in that they have a visible part (conscious) but most of it remains under water (operates subconsciously). Belief systems or schemas are regulated (altered) by life experiences (events and our interpretation of them).
Adults can improve their self esteem by accumulating experiences that support better self-worth. Those experiences don’t need to be necessarily achievements or victories, rather a confirmation or attunement to the values we chose to stand for. In other words, adults can raise their self esteem not only by “winning” but fundamentally by experiencing integrity ( of lifestyle and of character): “This is what I stand for in life and it is more important than external recognition”.
Healthy and true self esteem combines this internal moral compass along with openness to external feedback. However children rely mostly on external feedback from their primal affective circle (parents, family, teachers, close peers, caregivers…) as they are still forming their beliefs and their self worth.
Childhood is the time when we start developing our schemes about that the world is about (belief systems). It is the time where self esteem begins to be build (around 5 years of age generally). Self esteem is one of the best predictors of adult happiness, success, positive relationships and wellbeing. Many of society’s problems can be tracked down to unhealthy, immature self esteem: both extremes of low and over-inflated self esteem (narcissism) usually display toxic behaviours towards oneself and others in an attempt to overcompensate for a negative self image.
The big picture of enabling self-esteem is about finding ways to promote the following three areas in the child’s life:
It's about supporting children in building meaningful and positive relationships with diverse people (that create a sense of belonging). Most important one being the parents or primary care givers making it clear to the child that he/she is loved unconditionally, that beyond specific behaviours the child is accepted and loved for who he/she is naturally.
Guiding our children to embrace learning and gradually develop mastery with tasks. The child has a basic need of realising they can accomplish many things (and not all) if they persevere and put effort, and that failure is often necessary stepping stone. Its important that we give feedback to children based on their attitude/apporach to the task more than on whether he/she succeeds/fails.
Encourage them to make decisions that reflect their personal values and that allow them to learn that their actions have consequences, this gives them a sense of empowerment (essential for self worth). It is very important children have rules and boundaries (to learn they can’t always do what they want) however if they don’t feel empowered they will tend to rebel/confront and if that doesn’t work they will internalise their negativity into low or over-inflated self esteem.
If we want to promote our children self esteem we need to examine how we behave, children learn the most by observing significant others. They register your attitude and behavior more than what you express verbally. Therefore we have to think about modelling self esteem if we want our children to have self esteem.
How do you manage frustration? failure? do you know when to persevere and when to give up? how to do appreciate others? how do you show affection? how do you treat others ( those you love, those more advanced or less than you in whatever hierarchy of values you have)? how do you handle conflict? how do you feel when you are just different form what seems to be social norm? how do you respond to others differences? etc...
These questions and more are things we can reflect upon and embody if we want our children to develop self esteem, children need loving role models and if they don’t find them they will seek role models that might not have their best interest at heart.
I want to stress the point that healthy self esteem makes success more likely in any endeavour but that this external success is not the end goal of self esteem: it is acceptance and integration of who we are, what we are trying to do in our lives and what do we stand for. It is realising were we belong and how we can be valuable to others. In other words self esteem represents a subtle yet more powerful level of success. The person who develops healthy self esteem is the person who is able to lift others self esteem genuinely.