Self-Esteem: Can Kids Have Too Much?
New research suggests more may not be better when it comes to children and self-esteem.
Back in the 1990s, "self-esteem" was a potent buzzword in parenting and
educator circles. High self-esteem, the thinking went, led to high achievement
in both school and relationships. And low self-esteem was thought to lead to
problems such as substance abuse, teen pregnancy, crime, and poor scholastic
Today, most parents are familiar with -- if not downright devoted to -- the
idea that children need high self-esteem. But has the combination of too much
self-esteem and "over-parenting" led to a generation of youth whose sense of
entitlement far outweighs their actual abilities -- never mind their
Some child development experts are beginning to think so. "The commonsense
understanding of self-esteem has been obscured by its over-application," says
Allan Josephson, MD, chairman of the Family Committee of the American
Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Self-esteem certainly is
important. But we've developed this misguided notion that parents should
continually reward and praise their children. That doesn't work either."
The potential links between high self-esteem and high achievement seem
intuitive enough. But some new analyses suggest the opposite: that high
self-esteem can lead to problems, including narcissism, bullying, increased
drug and alcohol use, and more teenage sex, not less. By the same token, low
self-esteem doesn't lead to as many risky behaviors as previously thought.
Moreover, notes Josephson, it's become clear that while a lack of nurturing
can lead to low self-esteem, too much nurturing can also create problems.
That's because overvalued children depend on outside praise to feel good -- and
when that parental praise is lacking, such as when the child heads off to
college, low self-esteem can come crashing in because there's no strong
internal sense of worth.
Josephson points out that both overvalued and undervalued children may adapt
by putting their own needs first. The overvalued child truly believes he's
superior to others, and the undervalued child figures if he doesn't get what he
needs, no one else will help him get those things either. Both groups may act
Healthy "self-esteem comes from having parents who are physically and
emotionally available," emphasizes Josephson, "and who set appropriate limits
on their [children's] behavior, and then help them develop autonomy. It should
be a by-product of a healthy relationship with a child, not the goal."
Kids & Self-Esteem: Finding a Happy Medium
Josephson suggests parents try the following to strike a healthy
- Help your children master the tasks associated with, and only with, each
developmental stage, from infancy through young adulthood.
- Teach young children to control their impulses and respect the rights of
- Reward and applaud true accomplishments; praising every little thing may
lead to a constant need for praise.
- Set limits and stick to them, explaining why a specific action or behavior
has a specific consequence.
- Help teens develop autonomy; do not coddle or overprotect them. You'll do
it at their expense.