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Self-esteem in children

How self-esteem and its various definitions affects all aspects of a child's life -- especially in kids with learning difficulties.

By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.

It's not uncommon for children with learning difficulties to be burdened with feelings of low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. There are various definitions of self-esteem, some of which have been negative, equating self-esteem with kids being self-centered and lacking self-discipline. In this article, Dr. Robert Brooks addresses the questions: How do you define self-esteem, and how important is it?

I believe self-esteem plays a major role in all aspects of a child's life, having an appreciable impact on learning, school performance, and peer relationships. Given the failure situations many children with learning and attention difficulties have experienced, these youngsters are especially vulnerable to low self-esteem. A lack of self-confidence is often associated with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that serve to intensify a child's sense of failure and loss of dignity.

Engaging in the "Blame Game"

When I was a psychology graduate student in the mid- to late-l960s, there was limited understanding of youngsters with learning and attention difficulties. These children and adolescents were frequently anointed with such labels as "lazy" and "unmotivated" and exhorted by adults to "try harder." I constantly heard the refrain, "They could do the work if they really wanted to." (Unfortunately, 35 years later we still hear some of these same comments.)

In addition, given the relative isolationism of mental health professionals from the field of education, learning difficulties were typically understood as resulting from emotional problems. Consequently, the primary recommendation was for individual psychotherapy with the belief that once the emotional blocks were removed, the child's learning problems would disappear. When many youngsters did not respond to this treatment approach, when they continued to struggle with learning, it was very easy to refer to them and their parents as "resistant," in essence, blaming them for the apparent treatment failure.

To be empathic: understanding the importance of self-esteem

As I saw more children with learning problems in therapy, I began to wonder: "Are these children truly resistant? Don't they want to improve? Are they unmotivated to change? Or is my understanding of their difficulties somewhat limited and, thus, the interventions I am using not in keeping with what they need?"

I recognized that to answer these questions I had to become more empathic. I had to place myself in the shoes of children with learning problems and see the world through their eyes. In my efforts to grasp this world, I used data from psychological tests, direct interviews, and questionnaires. I asked them to describe what it was like to have a learning disability. I also engaged these children in writing stories about their lives and their learning struggles.

While some youth with learning problems maintained a relatively positive self-image, what impressed me was that the vast majority had suffered assaults to their self-esteem as a consequence of their learning failures. Many of these children not only demonstrated anxiety and a lack of confidence, but they also harbored doubts about whether their situation would ever improve. Thus, a loss of hope dominated their lives. These themes of low self-esteem and hopelessness were captured in the following first-hand accounts:

"I was born to quit and God made me that way."

"It (learning problem) makes me feel terrible. It makes me realize there is a barrier that stops me from having a happy and successful future."

"Sometimes I feel unrespected, unconfident, lower than other people. I also feel I could never do half the stuff I want to do and that makes me feel frustrated."

Caitlin, a seven-year-old I saw in therapy, was beset by reading and attention struggles. She created a story, with my assistance, about a dog named Fidget. It was soon apparent that Fidget was a representation of Caitlin; the dog was described as having difficulty learning to read and concentrating on her work. The themes of low self-worth and a sense of hopelessness were poignantly captured in Caitlin's second paragraph which read, "Fidget told herself that she would get over this problem someday, but she wondered if she really would. She was worried that when she grew up and her own puppies asked her something, she would not know the answer and they would wonder why their mother was not very smart."

Caitlin's words reflected not only her low self-esteem but also a fear expressed by many children with cognitive and learning problems, namely, that the situation will not improve. In essence, many of these children have lost one of the most precious gifts we possess — hope. It became increasingly apparent to me that if I were to improve the lives of children with learning problems, I had to reflect upon how to enhance their self-esteem.

Robert Brooks, Ph.D. is on the Faculty at Harvard Medical School and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Comments from readers

"To Whom This May Concern, I was happy to find this site while studying Edu. Psy. Theory & Practice. I plan to use the articles about self esteem w/ my daughter and my EC class in the future. Thank you for posting. "