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Navigating The PreSchool Years While Engendering Self-Esteem In Children

Updated on September 27, 2014

The Preschool Mindset

During the preschool years an over-inflated sense of self-esteem and personal ability is both normal and healthy. Such an attitude is needed in order to engage in task mastery. Harsh criticism from parents or other care-givers can lead to low self-esteem as early as age three and result in children easily giving up when faced with adversity. This criticism can also lead to self-deprecating thoughts and emotions.

Likewise, setting attainable goals for children, scaffolding their efforts, and acknowledging their growing competency, can foster a sense of self-worth that will remain with them. If children emerge from the preschool years with positive experiences that have reinforced their sense of worth they will have reached Erikson’s stage of, “industry.” For example a child who has been warmly encouraged in the early use of language will be much more likely to be in this stage than a child that has been constantly corrected and criticized.

If self-worth is lacking they may lapse into the attitude of, “inferiority.” This is defined by pervasive pessimism and feelings of inadequacy. Because of negative messages received from parents, peers, teachers, and other caregivers their developing self-concept might be badly flawed. Children look to others for information about themselves in their developing use of, “perspective taking,” during the early school years. (That is intuiting other’s opinions of them.) The process of social comparison leads to an “ideal-self,” toward which the child would like to aspire. If their perceived, “real self” is overly incongruent with the, “ideal self, “then despondency can result.

The increasing comparisons and evaluations between self and others that takes place in school is a strong formative element on the concept of self. For example good grades on spelling tests begin to inform the child of their abilities in relation to their age-mates and the self-assessment, “I am a good speller,” emerges.

Culture can have a major impact on self-esteem, particularly in the case of young girls’ assessments of their physical appearance. Western media tending to skew reality toward impossible standards is harmful in many cases.

Parenting style also plays a very large role. Over-protective parents foster a feeling of personal incompetency in their children while over-indulgent parents set children up for an inability to deal with failure. The best approach is consistent, authoritative parenting that lets children know they are unconditionally valued while setting appropriate expectations. A positive example of this would be allowing the child to participate in an organized sport while praising their effort over their performance.

Parents who issue reasonable expectations, in a way that the child does not feel that being loved is contingent on success, tend to raise children who understand that increased efforts lead to success (mastery-oriented attributions) rather than believing that failure is a reflection of their own inadequacy (learned helplessness).

Aggression in Children

The three forms that hostile aggression takes in children are physical, verbal and relational. Physical aggression can be directed at the self, another, or towards property. Verbal aggression towards others takes the form of threatening or excessive teasing. Relation aggression is achieved through manipulation and social schemes such as gossip and group exclusion.

Firstly, the inclination of boys toward physical violence while girls are mainly verbally and relationally violent, by comparison, is attributed to gender-typing and a growing awareness of what types of behavior are attributed more commonly to either sex.

Volatile fighting between spouses at home is one major contributing factor towards childhood aggression. A hostile environment in which parenting is inconsistent and overly-harsh also plays a contributing role. These become environments that provoke anxiety in young children. When children are able to act out until a parent gives into their demands the result is poor impulse control. Because impulsive and angry discipline is often retaliatory and later scaled back the child is sent a very unclear message. Aggression becomes a means to cope with the world outside of the home that is perceived as more threatening by the child than it actually is.

Research suggests that aggressive children are more prone to viewing violent TV and that TV and video games have an effect even on non-aggressive children, though it is less pronounced.

Violent media also has a jading effect on children. They come to see the world as violent through constant exposure to violence on TV and in video games. They come to reconcile their behavior, at least to some extent, with the message that violence successfully solves problems in real life as it too often does in media.

Summing Up

Children not only need discipline at these ages, they want it and will actively act out if they are not receiving it. Boundaries and rules give a sense of expectation to a child that results in a sense of personal security.

Discipline should be consistent, to your best effort, free of in the moment emotion, and corrective without shaming the child. Many actions that we take in disciplining children lead to anxiety, fear, and shame. This cannot be avoided entirely but it can be minimized. Notice the good behavior and praise it. Let your child know that they are unique and capable. Be creative and experimental in your parenting methods. Most of all let enjoy them and let them know that your love for them is unconditional and will always be so.


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