The Growth of Self-Esteem in Young People

Saturday, February 25th, 2006 by Dr Keith J. White

It was not long after a two-week trip to Germany, Switzerland and Holland that I was talking with the mother of one of the young people who came with us.  She was, so she told me, surprised to the point of shock by the extraordinary development of what she called “confidence” in her daughter following the short time we spent together.  She and others have used the same word since and it is only more recently that I have realised that what she meant is very close to “self-esteem”.  So what was the evidence for this substantive change, and why might it have come about?  What were the conditions for this growth of confidence or self-esteem?

The teenage girl, whom I will call Pauline, is one of four siblings.  She has an older brother and two younger sisters.  Her brother is a high achiever academically and socially.  He is doing A-levels with a view to going to university, and has gained promotion in the Air Training Corps.  In the summer of 2005 he was part of the British team that went to Singapore to make the final and successful bid to the IOC for the 2012 Olympics.  His title on this trip was that of “youth ambassador”.  The younger sister who is closest to Pauline in age is also gifted and popular.  She is doing well at school and is a long-distance runner who has already clocked up three mini-marathons.  (We can leave the youngest sister out of this, as usually happens with the “baby” of any family!)

And so Pauline has grown up sandwiched between two impressive siblings, and it is well known that this can be a recipe for chronic low self-esteem.  (The work of Alfred Adler in this area is perhaps the seminal material.  Years ago I applied it to understanding the life of Ian Fleming, and it helped to make sense of his whole life and the creation of James Bond.)  In other families Pauline could well have been seen as impressive, albeit not a star.  But in this situation she was constantly overshadowed by her closest siblings. 

Then came the European trip.  She was asked to join the Mill Grove family because it was her turn.  (Her brother had come with us to North Wales a year or so before).  She leapt at the opportunity to come, and throughout the fortnight was evidently happy and fulfilled whether tobogganing on the Swiss slopes, swimming, rambling on the wanderwegs, painting, shopping, sightseeing, and being part of a lively group of seven travelling long distances in our Previa, picnicking, helping with meals and tasks in our Swiss farmhouse, writing up and illustrating our diary, or perhaps most significantly, enjoying the hospitality of our Swiss, German and Dutch family friends.

Everywhere we went we, and therefore she, were given warm welcomes to the point of lavishness.  It was obvious that people were delighted to see us, and they went out of their way to show it.  As leader of the group I realised that we were all enjoying our time together immensely, but I can’t say that I was thinking particularly of Pauline until we got home and her mother made her observations.  Sharing with others I realised that all who knew her had noticed a significant change in her confidence and sense of worth.

How did it show itself?  A sense of “presence” when you were with her.  The ability to look you in the eye more often.  Confidence to talk about what she was doing, and to share with others her interests.  Considerable improvement in her piano playing, and a willingness to ask for help and advice.  The confidence to advise her “star” sister on what to say at her baptismal service.  If I were to try to sum up the net effect of the changes I would say something like “centring”. 

She seemed in just a couple of weeks to have discovered a large measure of her personal identity.  Rather than live in the shadow of others, it was as if she had become aware that she was “solid” or real enough to be casting her own shadows.  It was not a change of character: that would have been a great pity for she is stable, happy, contented and companionable.  It was the recognition that others had noticed and appreciated her, not for particular achievements or products, but because of who she was.

That’s the best I can do to describe what evidence there is for the change her mother had observed.  So what about the reasons for it?  What, as I would like to put it, were the favourable conditions (environment) in which this development thrived?  As it happens, a friend of Pauline’s family was on the phone a few days ago and asked me exactly the same question, but he applied it to the whole family. 

The way he put it was this:  “It is obvious that all the children have gained in confidence as a result of being part of the extended family of Mill Grove over the past four or five years.  They come to you one evening a week, some Bank Holidays, and for two or three weeks in the summer.  Most of their lives they are not with you.  How come such a small amount of time and contact can have such a positive effect?”

And this is how I replied.  “There is no doubt that all the children have benefited from this regular contact with our family.  Everyone, including the four children, looks forward to the times we have together, and there is a sense of well-being and fulfilment.  So what might be happening?  First (when replying to questions for which I am unprepared I usually lapse into such listing), each of the children (including, of course, Pauline) knows that our welcome and acceptance is unconditional.  They can do nothing to deserve it more, and nothing to render it null and void.  Once a week they know that we are looking forward to seeing them.  We drive to their house, knowing that sometimes one or another of them may well have competing priorities that call them to be elsewhere.  But we always come.  This regularity speaks of commitment and acceptance.

“Second (I was now getting into full swing), the children all have places at our meal tables where they belong.  They are treated and accepted as members (“cousins” is probably the best word or analogy) of our family by us, but possibly more importantly by our extended family and friends. (I have always believed that this is an under-rated and vital element of the success of foster care placements).  We, and our extended family, value them and have come to love them.  We celebrate their birthdays, and they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on these special days.

“Third, we were careful to support and affirm their (lone parent) mother.  We encouraged her to write and share her poetry, and to continue with post-graduate studies, to celebrate the achievements of her children, accepting that she had been the crucial factor in their growth and development.  We have done this all the time, but often in the presence of one or more of the children.  She recently bought a second-hand piano and so the children play in their own home as well as in ours.

“Fourth (I was beginning to  realise that, even if there were more reasons, the time was coming to end what was increasingly sounding to me like a sermon or lecture) I have come to realise that even single or isolated “strokes” of children can have a disproportionate effect on their well-being. I have noticed that if you go out, say to the forest or to London with a child, years later she may well talk of it as if it were something “we used to do”.  The continuous past tense is very indicative of the way children recast their childhood in their memories.  (Marcel Proust may well have done the same.)  Last week was half-term and I went with the four children to London, especially to the Science and Natural History Museums, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear in a few years’ time that this was something “we used to do at half term together”!  You never know when a word, a phrase, an event or occasion will enter the child’s being for good (in both senses of the word).”

At this point I was called away from the phone by another child, and so, perhaps providentially, I was unable to complete my discourse.  But hopefully I have been able to convey the general direction of my thinking.  It is a profoundly encouraging line of argument because it is something that does not require a great deal of funding or resources: it is what grandparents do when they are close enough to their grandchildren. It respects and builds on attachment theory, rather than assuming that alternative treatment programmes are the key to such change.  And it doesn’t require trained professionals to do it!

Oh, I almost forgot: some years ago two others who lived at Mill Grove as children and were now looking back at their childhood experiences with me said almost the same thing.  “You probably don’t realise it,” they said, “but one of the most important things you did for us was to give us confidence.”  Strange that I hadn’t made the link until now, and even stranger that there was a factor common to both groups of siblings that I hadn’t thought of.  They were part of families from West Africa, and we had accepted them into our (British/multi-ethnic/mixed race?) family.  I wonder if that is worth pursuing another time?

For now we are beginning to look forward to a summer holiday together.  And we have been looking at photos and video films of Christmas and last year’s holidays spent with each other.  Memory and anticipation are such important elements of self-esteem.  They help to form disparate events and feelings into some sort of narrative or story: biography you might say.  And without a personal story there can be no sense of identity, worth or self-esteem.

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