How Children’s Self-Esteem is Torn Apart

Low self-esteem creates underachievers by blunting children’s joy of learning.

“There’s a dangerous undercurrent to this country, something sunless… Beneath the veneer of pikelets and lolly scrambles, there is something in this country not altogether nice,” wrote Katherine Mansfield Award winner, Janis Freegard in her story, Mill.

And this I learned in a little country school, where children came from well-off families and I thought my teaching job would be easy. But beneath outward appearances of wealth and close-knit community, there was something not ‘altogether nice’.

When the playground erupted into yelling and screaming (again) one morning, I had a long talk with the children. After admitting that they were “sick” of the bullying and fighting, I guided them to explore the good and bad aspects within themselves by acting out what came into their minds, using music to help connect them to their feelings.

When they acted out the ‘bad’ stuff they all punched into the air and then into cushions, sending a haze of dust into the room. With the dust still swirling after the music ended, the children breathlessly reported releasing much bottled up anger while beating up a sibling.

With a look of great satisfaction, one young boy recounted how he cut off his sister’s head with an axe after cutting off other parts of her body. His older sister said that beating up pillows to music was a much better way of releasing anger than actually beating up her brother, but added, “I will always hate him.”

I quickly learned that despite the puffed up pride the children often brought to school after hunting expeditions, they lacked a healthy self-esteem and showed little or no respect or caring for each other. You might say, “Well, that is just the way kids are,” and I will reply that after years of experience teaching children in three countries, that children brought up with love and respect and a feeling of being valued by their parents, act in a caring, empathetic manner, and treat others with respect.

Exploring beneath the veneer of freshly baked muffins and fluffy pavlovas to find out why such low self-esteem existed, I asked the children to each draw a gingerbread-man-shape, cut it out, and label it ‘ME’. We talked about the things that made them feel ‘bad’ and, for each situation that affected them, to tear a piece off their paper ‘ME’.

The usual things came up about name calling, others being ‘mean’ (including past teachers), being rudely shouted at and teased, and others refusing to share toys or deliberately excluding them from a game.

By this stage everyone had torn off significant parts of their paper ‘ME’. One boy said how he hated his father giving him a hiding for doing something wrong, and tore more off. But at the very end, when the same boy said how bad he felt about his parents’ fighting, the others unanimously agreed and simultaneously tore in two the last piece of their paper ‘ME’.

After years of teaching and working with the underlying causes of children’s problems, I have come to understand that a healthy self-esteem is one of the most important learning aids a child can have at school. High self-esteem is what enables us to carry on despite encountering obstacles, to learn something positive from failures and mistakes, and to throw our heart over the most difficult hurdles and follow it. And all it costs is time and love (including respect) from which is gained the feeling of being valued.

Without a healthy self-esteem, children can struggle with feelings of inadequacy, feeling ‘bad’ and ‘never being able to do anything right’. Self-talk becomes negative and sends them on a downward spiral to become defensive, reactive, sullen and withdrawn at the slightest hint of criticism. Punishment over mistakes is too often turned into the negative self-talk “I am a mistake.” Failure can be distorted to become “I am a failure.” Finally, it can lead to self-hate.

Negative thinking and self-talk erects a wall which makes it difficult for children to learn, and equally difficult (and sometimes impossible) to teach them. If a child fails to develop self-respect and a healthy self-esteem during their first few years of life, attempts to attain it later become a long, uphill journey strewn with many obstacles and difficulties. An inability to change a situation can cause endless frustration or learned helplessness. All too often this is outwardly expressed in suicide or violent acts against others.

Many fall by the wayside when, despite their best efforts to become the ‘perfect’ child and student that adults want and expect them to be – often without help and guidance – they return to the negative default setting with which they were programmed during their most formative and impressionable years.

In a 2006 Florida State University study, it was predicted that eleven-year-old boys who had a low self-esteem and mixed with peers who approved of drug and alcohol use, would be drug dependent by the age of twenty.

John Taylor, one of the professors who conducted the study, said, “It’s a fundamental need to have a good sense of self. Without it, people may become pathologically unhappy with themselves, and that can lead to some very serious problems.”

Unfortunately many young people turn to drugs and alcohol to hide the pain of feeling that they will never ‘measure up’ no matter what they do.

As I learned from my students, low self-esteem was not only about parents fighting, other children being mean or calling them names, or even sibling hatred; it was also about not performing well in school. But when I dig a little deeper and refer to my clients’ counseling files, more disturbing contributing factors to low self-esteem emerge, including:

  • an insecure early attachment to the primary care-giver,
  • parents too preoccupied to give the quality time their children need,
  • not listening to children or otherwise ignoring their needs – including poor communication and disinterest in their activities,
  • emotional and physical neglect,
  • abandonment,
  • poverty,
  • marriage/relationship breakdown and divorce,
  • having unrealistic expectations according to their developmental stage,
  • being unhappy about a child born the ‘wrong’ sex, or not wanting the child at all,
  • domestic violence where a child experiences no sense of safety at home and fears what will happen next,
  • an unstable home environment due to drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, a mother’s abusive boyfriends,
  • mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and
  • a parent’s cold indifference towards the child.

How then, can we expect children to grow up with self-respect and therefore ‘respect for their parents, teachers, and the law’ (and people within our communities) if we show little or no respect for them, or worse, rip apart their self-esteem as if it was made of paper?

Self-esteem can be further eroded at school when children are force fed a boring curriculum or get snow-balled with unrealistic authoritarian demands about how they learn it.

To this day I still have not forgotten the anger of a vice-principal when the children did not sing to their usual standard at assembly one Monday morning. If she had stopped to ponder, just for a moment, what might have happened over the weekend to take their hearts out of singing, I wonder if she would have punished them all at morning interval by demanding they sing with ‘heart’ in their voices before they could go out to play.

We wonder why children fail at school, grow up to become drug addicts and alcoholics, refuse to work, commit suicide, end up with mental health problems, become obese or teenage mums or violent criminals or a myriad of other negative things that cause us to shake our heads and say, “What is going wrong with them?”

Well, I would suggest that if we are serious about ‘fixing’ what is ‘wrong’ with them, we each look “beneath the veneer of pikelets and lolly scrambles” at what is “not altogether nice” in our homes and schools, and begin fixing the problems there. Some new recipes to develop healthy self-esteems (and therefore a healthy and happy society) are urgently needed.


Sociologists Find Low Self-esteem at 11 Predicts Drug Dependency At 20

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