Awareness Foundation

By Ketty Sarouphim-McGill

Self-esteem is defined as a person’s own global evaluation of oneself. In other words, the concept refers to our own views of how we perceive ourselves. Related terms include self-concept, self-worth, self-image and self-efficacy beliefs. It is noteworthy to mention that self-esteem reflects a personal perception rather than reality. That is, a person might be popular or attractive yet perceives himself/herself as the opposite.

Self-esteem is constructed from perceptions of feedback from parents, teachers, significant others and peers. Thus, children who are neglected, belittled or abused have low self-esteem whereas those who are cared for, nurtured and loved develop high self-esteem. At present, research shows that a moderate level of self-esteem is beneficial and promotes healthy development. Very high levels of self-esteem may indicate arrogance and reflect narcissism (an unwarranted sense of superiority over others), and low self-esteem can be a sign of pathological inferiority and insecurity. Narcissistic adolescents usually have higher levels of aggression, especially when they feel their self-esteem is threatened, as in criticism and being shamed. Along the same lines, psychologists make a distinction between earned self-esteem (success due to effort) and global self-esteem (a sense of pride developed because of an inflated ego due to empty praise). Studies have shown that success leads to earned self-esteem, but high global self-esteem does not lead to success. Therefore, teachers and parents should provide children with opportunities to succeed, as in teaching them study and problem-solving skills rather than give them empty praise. Programs that bolster a child’s ego without focusing on personal agency and effort lead to arrogance rather than healthy levels of self-esteem.

Typically, self-esteem drops during adolescence, as individuals are struggling with body image and identity formation. This drop is more pronounced in girls than in boys as females are more affected by social media and peer influence, especially with regards to their physical appearance. The consequences of low self-esteem can be devastating with long-term negative consequences. Thus, children with low self-esteem might develop disruptive and violent behavior as well a decline in their academic achievement. Adolescents with low self-esteem suffer from depression, eating disorders, and loneliness, and might resort to substance abuse, juvenile delinquency and all sorts of maladaptive behavior. Specifically, young girls with low self-esteem might believe that they are not worthy of being loved or females who think that they are undeserving of a committed relationship might become promiscuous and exchange sex for love.

What promotes a healthy level of self-esteem?
Parents who have high levels of self-esteem themselves and are accepting and loving of their children, as well as involved in their child’s life promote healthy levels of self-esteem. The child interprets the care as a sign of his or her importance and worthiness and consequently develops a positive self-image.
Parents who enforce clear and defined limits. Children need boundaries and structure; they become more independent and creative in such environments than in laissez-faire and permissive situations. Limits provide children with a gauge that they use to judge the appropriateness of their own behavior.
Parents who show respect for their children’s rights and opinion but also enforce restrictions on their children’s behavior promote self-esteem as well. In this case, children share in making decisions although within limits, which makes them feel that they matter.

In sum, self-esteem is the result of our own competencies, attributes, and behaviors, but also the support we receive from immediate family, teachers, and friends. To develop healthy levels of self-esteem in youth, multiple factors need to be at play. As such, the following are practical strategies for parents and teachers:

1. Identifying causes. It is important to know which specific domain is causing the adolescent’s low self-esteem and focus on fixing it rather than try to work on global encouragement and empty praise.
2. Support. Assistance from peers, teachers, and family in the form of positive affirmations is of major significance. People important to the adolescent can provide encouragement to affirm self-esteem. Coaches, counselors, and peers’ social approval are important as well.
3. Achievement. Nothing can raise one’s self-esteem like personal success. Teaching adolescents social skills to make friends or study skills to increase their chances of academic success are effective strategies.
4. Coping. Managing rather than running away from difficulties provides positive feedback about one’s strength (self-efficacy) as this develops in the young individual feelings of pride. When one avoids dealing with problems and hardships, self-perceptions of failure ensue. Thus, fostering personal strength and teaching adolescents coping strategies promote healthy levels of self-esteem.

In conclusion, parents play an important role in raising the self-esteem of their children. By showing them love, and instilling in them sound values and principles, parents protect their children not only in childhood but throughout life. With regards to Christian parents, this task is even more important but also more manageable. After all, God’s love is at the center of our faith. How can one not feel worthy when we understand the depth of God’s love to us? That is the message that can save adolescents from falling into the trap of low-self-esteem and its negative consequences.

Dr. Ketty Sarouphim-McGill is Associate Professor of Psychology and Education at the Lebanese American University (LAU), Department of Social and Education Sciences. Dr. Sarouphim–McGill has a Ph.D. degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Arizona and has been teaching at LAU since 1997. The focus of her research is on measuring intelligence and identifying gifted students. She has presented her work at international conferences and has published several articles in international academic journals and books. Dr. Sarouphim-McGill has had many TV appearances in which she has discussed various topics such as the sound use of reward and punishment, prevention and treatment of problem behaviour in children and effective parenting techniques. She has also given several workshops to teachers and parents on a variety of topics, such as preventing aggression in children, dealing with difficult children and adolescents, and motivating students to learn.