[My primary source for this post is The Construction of the Self, 1999 by Susan Harter]
The young child becomes able to recognize her own reflection in a mirror at about the same time that she begins saying things like “that’s mine” or look at me” or “my name is Anna.” Also at around the same time, the child begins using language to represent parental rules and expectations and her ability to meet them. By about age 3 1/2 the child becomes able to construct a verbal self-narrative that includes both self-evaluations (“I am a good girl”) and remembered events (“Mommy yelled at me yesterday”). Self-description enables the child to develop a stable sense of self, but it also drives a wedge between self as lived and self as verbally represented, which can be distorted to conform to others’ expectations and to one’s own fantasies.
In general, young children feel pretty good about themselves. As they develop they get better at doing things that matter to them. They tend to confound actual with desired competency, leading them to overestimate themselves. Beginning in middle childhood, the perceived gap between actual and ideal self widens. Increasingly they compare themselves with their peers, and this source of evaluation comes to compete with (though not to usurp) parental evaluations. In adolescence children become increasingly introspective and morbidly preoccupied with what others think of her. The adolescent realizes that she presents herself differently, and is evaluated by others differently, as she passes from one social context to another. By observing and internalizing multiple perspectives on the self, the adolescent simultaneously develops a more accurate understanding of her strengths and weaknesses at the same time as she develops higher standards for herself. Self-concept becomes unstable, self-contradictory, multiple: “Which one is the real me?” By late adolescence self-esteem tends to go back up, as the individual exercises greater autonomy, chooses to elicit social support from those who hold her in high regard, and becomes more adept at balancing multiple social roles.
Children evaluate themselves largely in terms of competencies valued by themselves and significant others (parents, close friends, peer group). In Western cultures those valued competencies are, in order: physical appearance, scholastic competence, social acceptance, behavioral conduct, and athletic competence. Perception of one’s competency in these domains is more important than the person’s actual competency.
More physically attractive infants get more positive attention from adults. In middle childhood kids generally think they look pretty good. The importance of appearance to self-worth increases through adolescence. Boys don’t tend to change their ratings of their own attractiveness as they get older; girls, on the other hand, show a continual deterioration throughout adolescence in their own perceived attractiveness. Girls also regard physical attractiveness as more important than do boys. Not surprisingly, girls’ perceived self-worth deteriorates through the adolescent years. This is especially true for stereotypically feminine girls; self-estem among more androgynous girls is less closely related to physical appearance and doesn’t decline significantly over adolescence.
Kids with higher levels of approval and support from significant others have higher self-worth. Through evaluations of changes over time, child development researchers have constructed a causal model for predicting adolescent self-worth and mood:
- Physical appearance, likability by peers, and athletic competence lead to peer approval and support.
- Scholastic competence and behavioral conduct lead to parental approval and support.
- Approval and support from peers and parents lead to self-worth, hopefulness, and cheerfulness.
Depression and anger are associated with low self-worth. Adolescent depression tends to be caused by the same factors that cause low self-worth: dissatisfaction with one’s physical appearance, competence, or social interactions. Rejection from and conflict with peers is a primary source of depression, anger, and low self-worth. Parental conflict and rejection is much less strongly associated with adolescent anger and depression.