How Self-Esteem Develops (Ages 0-14, Stages of Self-Esteem Development)

Your environment does not create your self-esteem but your self-esteem is not wholly your idea either.

Your self-esteem is the valuation you have of how much you deserve based on how lovable and capable you perceive yourself to be. Your current self-esteem was developed from childhood.

Psychologists tell us that a person’s sense of self starts to form in childhood and crystallizes in adolescence. Whatever sense of self they carry from that point on, goes on to become the major sense of self they will carry throughout life, except an event occurs that drastically combats those deep-rooted beliefs that form their sense of self.

Overview of How Self-Esteem Develops In Childhood

As a child, you were born with no sense of self, no sense of right or wrong, and no sense of worthiness. You only do what your instinctual drive motivates you to do. But with the responses you get from your parents or your environment, you begin to have a sense of what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. 

Because the brain of an infant is underdeveloped, you begin to follow that pattern of black or white, right or wrong. You don’t reason to find out why it is right or wrong, the surrounding situations where it is right or wrong, and so on. 

For example, a six-month-old child who gets spanked for bedwetting cannot understand that what is wrong is peeing on the bed. The signal he gets is that he got spanked for peeing. Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic theory explains that not handling the instinctual drive of children before they are 14 years old well will make them “fixated” and lead to neurotic anxieties in the future. Low self-esteem can be said to be one of the neurotic anxieties. 

Now, because you see in just black or white, right or wrong, you take that same faulty sense of judgment into the formation of your sense of self. So, instead of saying a thing you did is either right or wrong, you begin to say you are either right or wrong.

Every time you hear a no from your parents, without an explanatory/affirming environment, a belief of “I don’t deserve to receive anything” grows.

(This does not mean children should be given everything they want. Instead, for every no they get, they should be assisted to see why that no does not mean they are undeserving but that there are some other reasons. It should be done because they can’t come up with that explanation by themselves). 

The belief grows even stronger when you go out and see other peers getting the same thing you were denied. It crystallizes the fact that it is you who don’t deserve that thing. 

Another example: if you wake up early in the morning and pick up your toys and your mum spanks you because she thinks it is too early to play with toys, while she’s trying to give you a sense of responsibility, you think this way… 

I saw Johnny playing with toys when I visited his home yesterday. I see every kid on the television play with their toys whenever they want. This means I am not to get what everyone else is getting. They must be better than I am.

The more experiences that make you reach this conclusion you have, the more you will develop low self-esteem. Also, the more experiences that make you reach a conclusion of being deserving, lovable, and important you have, the more you will develop high self-esteem.

We can see that our self-esteem does not solely develop based on what happens in the environment but on our interpretation of what happens. If exactly the same experiences that gave you low self-esteem happen but you are assisted to get a better interpretation of it, you will develop high self-esteem.

For instance, you were made to see that your parents were irresponsible for not providing for your needs and not that you don’t deserve to be cared for.

3 Stages of Self-Esteem Development

I studied the Erik Erikson Stages of Development and compared it with how I’ve noticed self-esteem develop in children and I have come to conclude that there are 3 Stages of Self-Esteem Development. The three stages of self-esteem are Care and love (0-3 years old), Abilities  (3-6 years old), and Social comparisons (6-14 years old). For each of these stages, different metrics are used by the child to perceive their sense of worth.

Stage 1: Care and Love (0-3 years old)

At this stage, the way the child can perceive how worthy he is is through the level of attention and care he receives from the environment, especially his parents. According to Erik Erikson’s theory, if the infant’s care is consistent, predictable, and dependable, he or she will develop a sense of trust that will extend to other relationships, and they will feel safe even when they are threatened. 

Mistrust, distrust, and worry can grow if these criteria aren’t met regularly. If the care has been unequal, unexpected, and untrustworthy, the infant may acquire a sense of mistrust, suspicion, and fear. In this situation, the infant will lose faith in the world around them and in THEIR POWER to influence events.

Stage 2: Abilities (3-6 years old)

At this stage, the child forms their sense of worth from the things they can do, their ability to take up tasks, and some level of autonomy. The child’s key trait during this period is that he or she interacts with other youngsters daily at school. 

Play is crucial during this time because it helps children to improve their social skills by initiating activities. Children plan activities, make up games, and lead group activities. When given the chance, children develop a sense of initiative and confidence in their ability to lead others and make decisions.

If children are encouraged and supported in their greater independence, they will grow more confident and comfortable in their ability to survive in the world. On the other hand, children who are mocked, overly regulated, or denied the chance to assert themselves acquire a sense of inadequacy in their ability to survive, and may become too reliant on others, suffer from low self-esteem, and feel shame or doubt in their abilities.

Stage 3: Social Comparisons (6-12)

At this stage, children perceive their sense of worth by comparing themselves with other children in the environment. They still take pride in their abilities and autonomy but this time they begin to compare how those abilities match up with their peers.

At this age, the child’s peer group assumes greater significance and becomes the child’s primary source of self-esteem. The kid now feels pressured to fit in by demonstrating specific talents that society appreciates, and they begin to take pride in their accomplishments. 

When children are complimented and rewarded for taking initiative, they become more productive (competent) and optimistic about their ability to achieve their goals. If they receive feedback that they don’t match up or fit in, they will begin to feel inferior, doubt their abilities, and so will not reach their full potential. If a child is unable to develop a skill that they believe society requires, they may feel inadequate.

Redeveloping Your Self-Esteem

Now it is obvious that your self-esteem is made up of the beliefs you hold about yourself, like I pointed out earlier, those beliefs that make up your sense of self cannot be changed except when an event that drastically combats them happens.

However, you should not wait for such an event to happen. You can initiate combat against your beliefs. If you have low self-esteem, you should take this Three Step Low Self-Esteem Treatment Plan That Can Work For Anyone.

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