The question was: “Is the concept of ‘self-esteem’ a psychologically useful one?”
My answer was: “I don’t know about the utility of that concept in research psychology (first put into use by psychologist William James in the early 20th century), but in applied psychology where I practice, with parents and adolescents, the concept can be serviceable indeed.
A working definition I use, some examples of the power of self-esteem, and caution for parents, all follow.
DEFINITION OF SELF-ESTEEM
One possible definition of self-esteem is treating it as two words compounded into one. Separate them, and the meaning of the larger term becomes clear. Self is a descriptive concept: by what specific characteristics do I identify who I am? Esteem is an evaluative concept: by what criteria do I judge the worth of who I am? Self-esteem has to do with how a person describes and evaluates her or his definition of self.
Self-esteem creates a very powerful mindset that not only can filter life experience (“How I perceive what is happening to me”), but can also motivate behavior (“What I want to do for myself.”) As a filter, low or negative self-esteem can take the blame for mistreatment (“I deserve the bad I get!”), and as a motivator it can limit what one wants to achieve (“For someone like me, just getting by is good enough.”) As a filter, high or positive self-esteem can reject mistreatment (“No one should be allowed to do that to me!”), and as a motivator can propose goals that actualize dreams (“I am worth doing the best I can!”)
I believe a helpful goal of parents when it comes to influencing the growth of adolescent self-esteem is to encourage the young person to define themselves broadly and evaluate themselves kindly.
A too narrow definition can be costly when only one pillar of self-esteem has been meaningfully developed. Thus the young athlete, for whom excelling in the sport totally self-defines that young person, becomes bereft when serious injury ends a promising athletic career. Now the adolescent has no other pillars of self-esteem to rely on and so feels at an incapacitating loss. Or consider the perfectionist adolescent who has no tolerance for mistakes and gets furious at themselves when one inevitably occurs, Berating and punishing themselves in harshest terms makes recovery that much more difficult to accomplish.
Better to define one’s 'self’ broadly and evaluate one’s ‘self’ kindly.
Of course, self-esteem is not a constant, but can rise and fall with the ups and downs of life, particularly during the transformative years of adolescence. For a young person to accomplish the twin goals of adolescence, acquiring a fitting identity and functional independence at journey’s end, life changes and challenges to self-esteem must be faced each stage of the adolescent way. She or he must continually redefine who they are and constantly re-evaluate how they are doing in the process.
At each challenging adolescent stage—when separating from childhood (9-13), when forming a family of friends(13-15), when acting more grown up (15-18), and when stepping off more on one's own (18-23), it’s easy for a young person to get discouraged, narrow self-definition (pull back) and negatively self-evaluate (punish), both of which make positive self-perception and resourceful motivation harder, not easier, to maintain.
Thus parents should continually monitor their adolescent’s self-esteem. Is it sufficiently broadly based? Is it more positive than critical? Getting stuck in a narrow definition and hurtful evaluation can be dangerous. At worst, in cases of depression, addiction, self-harming, or victimization, self-definition can whither to inadequately little and self-evaluation can be cruelly empty of positive worth.
On their side, parents need to beware the self-esteem trap that is set for them. Parenting is a high investment activity. They give an enormous amount of time, energy, resources, and caring to support and nurture a child’s growing up. It is often a self-sacrificial activity where parents are setting their needs and wants aside for the sake of the beloved child. With so much parental giving inevitably comes some expectation of return—for example, that the child reflect well and on parents and turn out well for them at the end, however they define “well.”
Here is where parents can attach significant self-esteem to how the child acts and performs to affirm all the efforts that they make. “I partly define myself as parent of my child’ and I partly judge myself by how my child grows.”
In certain high aspiration and competitive parenting sub-cultures, there is a very common, very loaded question that adults can ask: “How is your child doing?” Wonders the parent questioned: “Compared to what and compared to who?” A parent whose self-esteem rests on the shoulders of their adolescent can really feel put on the performance spot."The better or worse my teenager does compared with peers, the better or worse I feel about myself." Best not to contaminate your parenting with social competition.
Appreciate the vulnerability of the parental position. If they define themselves too much as parent at the expense of other personal definition, that can be one side of the problem. “Parenting is all I do and am, and sometimes that feels not enough!” And if they buy into the equation, parent = child, they can run into the self-evaluation side of the problem.
The equation can be interpreted to suggest that performance of the child is a measure of performance by the adult: “How my child is doing shows how I am doing as a parent.” This is why parents don't declare, "We're proud of how you did" when the young person does well. Rather than congratulating themselves in this way, they place the credit where it belongs and simply say, "Good for you!"
Of course, unlike little children, adolescents can be hard on parental self-esteem. Typically, children who are still in the age of looking up to parents, tend to be more supportive of parental self-esteem with honest admiration and appreciation. Contrast this to more unappreciative adolescents who can be inclined to look down on the job parents do with criticism and complaints. "I don't get a lot of compliments from my teenager. Mostly I am taken for granted."
To maintain healthy self-esteem, parents need to define themselves broadly and evaluate themselves kindly.
To prevent a self-esteem crash, parents of adolescents can benefit from having other meaningful definitions outside of the parenting role. Also, when riding the ups and downs of their teenager's growth, to maintain adequate perspective they might remember this. Good parents have good children who will sometimes make bad choices in the normal trial and error process of adolescent growth. A bad choice doesn’t mean the teenager is bad or that the parenting is bad. It simply means that a bad choice or choices have occurred. Now there is new learning to be gained and hopefully better choices to be found, both of which can strengthen self-esteem.
Finally, for both adolescent and parental self-esteem, it generally works better to credit effort more than outcome because the first is under one’s control, while the second is often not. So the parent explains: "Even though you and I can't always achieve what we want, we can always feel good about ourselves for continuing to try."
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: How to Tell When Your Child's Adolescence has Begun