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Causes of Low Self Esteem in Kids

Why Some Children Suffer from Low Self Esteem

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Updated June 18, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Preteen girl hugging knees, looking away in thought
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Young children tend to have relatively high measures of self esteem, but with the onset of the tween years, low self esteem may become more of an issue. There are a number of interrelated reasons why low self esteem begins to appear during pre-adolescence.

Low Self Esteem From Comparisons With Others

Somewhere between six and 11 years of age, children begin to actively compare themselves to their peers. This newfound social comparison occurs for both cognitive and social reasons. Psychologist Erik Erikson believed that self-comparison sets the stage for the greatest struggle faced by kids this age. Their major conflict, he believed, centers on developing a sense of industry, or a feeling of competence, while avoiding a sense of inferiority.

Low Self Esteem Due to Feeling Incompetent

As Erikson noted, some children come to realize that their efforts are not as good as those of their peers and begin to feel inferior. Notably, though, feeling incompetent does not universally lead to low self esteem. If a child's poor performance occurs in a domain he doesn't value, such as athletics, his self esteem is unlikely to be affected. If, however, he's incompetent in an area he finds important, such as academics, he is at risk of developing low self esteem.

Increasing Performance Pressure Can Trigger Low Self Esteem

Performance pressure also increases during the tween years. During early and middle childhood, parents and teachers tend to commend any effort, large or small, poor or excellent. As adolescence approaches, however, adults come to expect more from kids; effort still matters, but performance starts to matter even more. As a result, tweens not only make their own comparisons between themselves and their peers, but they also witness adults making these same comparisons.

Low Self Esteem From Perceived Inapproval of Others

As parents' and teachers' performance expectations increase, tweens begin to perceive disappointment from these adults. Whether the child's self esteem is affected depends on which adult(s) are disapproving of their efforts. If the inapproval comes from someone the child does not like - say an unrespected teacher - the child is unlikely to take the judgment to heart and self esteem will remain high. If, however, the child believes that a beloved parent or trusted coach is disappointed in them, low self esteem may result. It's clear, then, that parents can play a key role in helping kids maintain healthy self esteem.

Sources:

Harter, Susan. Developmental and Individual Difference Perspectives on Self-Esteem. In Handbook of Personality Development by Mroczek and Little (Eds.), pages 311-334. 2006. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

McAdams, Dan, & Olson, Bradley. Personality Development: Continuity and Change Over the Life Course. Annual Review of Psychology. 2010. 61: 517-542.

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