- From ages 4 to 8, children experience a loss of self-esteem as they realize their real self is different from their ideal self.
- Self-esteem begins increasing very quickly starting at age 15, perhaps because of adolescents’ increasingly greater personal autonomy.
- Self-esteem appears to increase quickly in young adulthood (up to age 30), and more gradually until middle adulthood (up to age 60).
- After peaking somewhere between 60 and 70 years, begins dropping—quite quickly after age 90.
How does our self-confidence and self-esteem change from the time when we are young children to the time when we reach very old age? And why? A recent meta-analysis of a large number of longitudinal studies on self-esteem, using data from nearly 165,000 participants, has concluded that, in general, self-esteem increases up to the age 60 to 70 and then drops. The reasons for this pattern are explained in terms of changes at different stages in development.
Characteristics of the samples
The 191 longitudinal studies reviewed by Ulrich Orth and his colleagues at the University of Bern were published between 1975 and 2016. Ranging in size from 32 to 13,401 subjects, together the samples consisted of a total of 164,868 participants.
The average proportion of male participants in these samples was 47 percent. The majority of the populations (61 percent) were from the United States, and over 22 percent were from Europe. None of the samples came from South America, Central America, or Africa. Over half the populations were white.
In some of the studies examined, data were collected in three or more waves. The average age of participants at the first time interval (or the middle time interval, in studies that included several waves of data) ranged from 4 to 94 years.
The results of the meta-analysis
The authors observed a pattern of self-esteem change, one that was unaffected by ethnicity, country, or birth cohort. Below I will quickly review the findings for each developmental phase and discuss mechanisms that could potentially explain the data.
According to the findings, self-esteem increases during early and middle childhood (ages 4 to 11). Previous research, however, had suggested that from ages 4 to 8, children experience a loss of self-esteem. With cognitive-developmental changes, they become aware that, for instance, their real self is different from—and much less appealing than—their ideal self.
So how can we explain the present results? One possibility is that the conclusions of Orth et al. are wrong, as their data for this age range came from only seven samples. If, however, their findings reflect a true pattern, the likely explanation may be related to increases in mastery and autonomy that children experience as they grow.
Previous research had concluded that self-esteem reaches a low point in the early part of adolescence. Present findings, again, disagree. Though there can be variations, and some teenagers do experience a decline in self-esteem (e.g., due to hormonal changes), the pattern observed suggests that self-esteem does not change significantly during early adolescence (ages 11 to 15).
In agreement with previous work, the present study also found that self-esteem begins increasing very quickly starting at age 15, perhaps because of adolescents’ increasingly greater personal autonomy and freedom in choosing activities and relationships that are in harmony with their own personality.
Self-esteem appears to increase quickly in young adulthood (up to age 30), and more gradually until middle adulthood (up to age 60). See Figure 1.
One explanation for this pattern is related to the fact that throughout adulthood, people take on more and more complex social roles and responsibilities; development during adulthood is directed toward improvement on personality traits (emotional stability, conscientiousness, and agreeableness) associated with those social roles (e.g., as an employee, spouse, parent).
Therefore, given that improvement on these personality traits is associated with greater self-esteem, and because greater self-esteem is also related to better functioning in these social roles, people generally experience improved self-esteem throughout adulthood.
The meta-analysis showed that self-esteem, after peaking somewhere between 60 and 70 years, begins dropping—quite quickly after age 90.
If, as previously explicated, self-esteem improvement in adulthood is associated with taking on new and more complex social roles, then it follows that the loss of these roles in older age (e.g., through retirement, widowhood, etc) results in decreases in self-esteem. Furthermore, decline in health, physical ability, and cognitive function, may also negatively influence self-esteem.
Though self-esteem declines in old age, it is important to note that self-esteem peaks after age 60 and remains somewhat stable till age 70, meaning that the later decline starts from a high level of self-esteem (as can be seen from the graph). It is really after age 90 that self-esteem reaches levels that necessitate the need for psychological interventions.
Limitations and conclusion
It is important to keep in mind that, one, this meta-analysis included few non-Western populations. And, two, the findings reviewed focus on broad patterns, not individual differences. In other words, people of any age might experience very low self-esteem, whether due to personal or environmental factors.
Having said that, these results confirm people’s resilience and paint a more positive picture of aging, showing that self-esteem and self-confidence remain fairly high well until very old age. Nevertheless, the steep decline in self-esteem after age 90 is concerning; future research should investigate potential self-esteem interventions aimed specifically at this age group.
Orth, U., Erol, R. Y., & Luciano, E. C. (in press). Development of self-esteem from age 4 to 94 years: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin. doi: 10.1037/bul0000161