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The Development of Self-esteem in Early Life

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Social Development
  3. Cognitive Development
  4. Affective Development
  5. Cultural Development
  6. Conclusion


The concept of self is continuously evolving, and is shaped and reshaped through experience. It is an important milestone that must be achieved as it establishes a sense of competence and identity. Previous research has suggested the extent to which self-esteem and development are interrelated, with a low sense of self-esteem being linked to high-risk behaviours and social problems (Baby, 2012). This further signifies the importance of achieving this milestone as a failure to do so has negative effects in later life. Ideas of self-esteem and identity will be explored using theories of Erikson, Vygotsky, Ainsworth and Bronfenbrenner in terms of social, cognitive, emotional and cultural development.

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Social Development

Social development plays an evidently important role in the construction of one’s self-esteem and identity as it shapes an understanding of the world through everyday experience (Thompson, 2001). Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development (1968) consists of eight sequential stages; each of which presents an obstacle that must be overcome in order for a functioning personality to persist. In Erikson’s second stage of psychosocial crisis, autonomy versus shame and doubt, children become more curious about their surroundings and begin to explore. The newfound sense of independence combined with encouragement from caregivers begins to build a child’s sense of self as well as confidence. The need for gaining approval from peers continues into Erikson’s fourth stage of psychosocial crisis, industry versus inferiority; in which, children feel the urge to act in accordance with societal standards, by achieving this, they are overcome with a sense of accomplishment. If peers react positively to a behaviour, children feel more confident and industrious, whereas criticism can result in the child doubting his or her abilities, thus preventing them from reaching their full potential. Additionally, in Erikson’s fifth stage, identity versus role confusion, focus is placed on furthering the development of identity and self. The transition from childhood to adolescence occurs in this stage, presenting challenges of its own. Individuals begin to ponder the roles they will fulfil in society and act in ways that comply with values to avoid feeling like an outcast. Failure to establish a sense of identity leads to role confusion, making the individual feel unsure about their place in society, resulting in feelings of unhappiness. Individuals who are unsuccessful in establishing a sense of self experience poor self-esteem and may experience social problems such as violence, high-risk behaviours and substance abuse as well as mental disorders such as depression.

Cognitive Development

A decline in self-esteem is prevalent when children reach adolescence as they begin to develop cognitively. Children begin to evaluate themselves in a more realistic manner and begin to understand their academic competence, social skills and other personal characteristics (Robins & Trzesniewski, 2005) as a result. According to Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Development Theory (Vygotsky, 1978), cognitive development occurs within a child’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), which refers to an individual being unable to solve a problem independently, but is able to solve it with guidance from a more competent peer. The assistance provided is known as scaffolding, which consists of prompts to encourage the learner in an interactive setting. This technique has proven effective in encouraging individuals and building their confidence as seen in classroom settings across Australia and New Zealand, especially in cases where some members of the group are more competent than others. Palinscar, Brown and Armbruster (1984) utilised scaffolding in the form of reciprocal learning to improve comprehension skills in children who are experiencing difficulty in this domain. Initially, teachers would provide highly structured feedback and explicit modelling (Palinscar et al., 1984) and progressively, students were encouraged to take on more responsibility when completing activities. The program was found to be very successful in improving comprehension skills, largely due to scaffolding instruction (Stone, 1998). Children who were apart of this program would have felt more confident in themselves as they were able to overcome difficulties in comprehension and therefore feel more at par with their peers in terms of their academic abilities. The use of zone of proximal development along with scaffolding in educational settings allows children to feel more empowered and confident as a result, allowing for the successful achievement of this milestone in terms of cognitive development.

Affective Development

Establishing a positive parental relationship is imperative as it is the first of many crises faced in life. Its occurrence is seen in Erikson’s first stage, trust versus mistrust, where an attachment is formed between parent and child. This relationship may be detrimental to the way in which the child interacts with others throughout their lifespan. Furthermore, Ainsworth’s Attachment styles (1978b) demonstrates the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. The initial three attachment styles that were explored included secure, anxious-resistant and anxious-avoidant, but a fourth category being disorganised-disoriented was later introduced by her assistant (Main & Solomon, 1986). Secure attachment patterns are viewed to be the most ideal as children are able to explore their surroundings knowing that a caregiver will be there for them when experiencing distress. On the contrary, anxious-resistant patterns consist of children refusing to be comforted by caregivers and in anxious-avoidant patterns, children seem to lack involvement with their caregiver and display avoidance behaviours (Hoffnung, 2019). In the final category, disorganised-disoriented, a significant amount of insecurity is observed and children show confused, contradictory and unresponsive behaviours. Jakobsen, Horwood and Fergusson (2012) examined the magnitude of the impact parent-child attachment has on the development of anxiety and depression in later life. It was found that a positive parent-child relationship in adolescence buffered the effects of childhood anxiety on the development of anxiety and depression in adulthood. An insecure parent-child attachment style, however, was found to be a catalyst for internalising disorders as well as psychopathology (Jakobsen et al., 2012). The lack of a secure attachment style between parents and children can be seen to have adverse effects on the child whilst growing up and elicits avoidance behaviours, which affects their ability to socialise with others. As a result of this, children are more susceptible to experience depression and anxiety disorders, which ultimately takes a toll on one’s self-esteem.

Cultural Development

Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory (1989) suggests that an individual’s development is influenced by contextual factors such as culture and social influences interacting with personal qualities. The first level of Bronfenbrenner’s theory is the microsystem, which is the child’s immediate environment. Interactions in this level tend to involve personal relationships with family members, caregivers and peers and relationships that are more positive contribute to improving the child’s development. Positive interactions between children and their immediate environment inevitably leads to the child developing a better sense of self. The influence of culture, beliefs and values is seen in Bronfenbrenner’s fourth level, macrosystem, in which such factors provide a framework for arranging one’s life (Hoffnung, 2019). Phinney (1991) examined literature surrounding the question of the relationship between ethnic identity and psychological wellbeing in members belonging to minority groups. It was observed that individuals who had a high ethnic identity tend to have a positive evaluation of the group and feel comfortable with their membership whereas those who had a low ethnic identity showed little interest in participating in the group and had a negative evaluation of membership. Individuals who belong to a group that is subject to discrimination, prejudice and negative evaluation contributes to low self-esteem as it leads them to have a negative perception about membership based on the image portrayed in society. In other cases, individuals may feel a sense of group membership but disregard the stereotypes associated with it as they consider such labels to be inapplicable to them, therefore distancing themselves from such judgements and having a non-existent effect on self-esteem. Further research conducted by Brown, Deng and Oakes (2007) found that individualistic cultures tend to have a more positive appraisal of self in comparison to collectivistic cultures such as those in East Asia due to giving importance to social order and how they fit into community. Thus an individual’s perceived ethnic identity or culture has a significant influence on self-esteem, dependent the differing values held in society and by those belonging to the group.

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The development of self-esteem begins at a young age and is one of the first crises faced by individuals. Erikson’s psychosocial development theory presents the obstacle of cementing one’s identity in society by achieving a sense of industry, which is furthered in Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development. In addition to this, Ainsworth’s theory of attachment styles illustrates the effects various types of attachment have on self-esteem. Finally, Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory demonstrates the influence of personal characteristics and contextual factors such as culture have on self-esteem. Failure to successfully accomplish this milestone presents the opportunity for the occurrence of mental and social issues in later life, which may lead to implications with development and an individual’s participation and contribution to society.

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Self-Esteem: How It is Built and Different Influencing Factors. (2022, December 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 6, 2023, from
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