Early Childhood Emotional and Social Development: Identity and Self-Esteem
Angela Oswalt, MSW
During early childhood, children start to develop a "self-concept," the attributes, abilities, attitudes and values that they believe define them. By age 3, (between 18 and 30 months), children have developed their Categorical Self, which is concrete way of viewing themselves in "this or that" labels. For example, young children label themselves in terms of age "child or adult", gender "boy or girl", physical characteristics "short or tall", and value, "good or bad." The labels are used to explain children's self-concept in very concrete, observable terms. For example, Seth may describe himself this way: "I'm 4. I have blue eyes. I'm shorter than Mommy. I can help Grandma set the table!" When asked, young children can also describe their self-concept in simple emotional and attitude descriptions. Seth may go on to say, "Today, I'm happy. I like to play with Amy." However, preschoolers typically do not link their separate self-descriptions into an integrated self-portrait. In addition, many 3-5 year olds are not aware that a person can have opposing characteristics. For example, they don't yet recognize that a person can be both "good" and "bad".
As long-term memory develops, children also gain the Remembered Self. The Remembered Self incorporates memories (and information recounted by adults about personal events) that become part of an individual's life story (sometimes referred to as autobiographical memory). In addition, young children develop an Inner Self, private thoughts, feelings, and desires that nobody else knows about unless a child chooses to share this information.
Because early self-concepts are based on easily defined and observed variables, and because many young children are given lots of encouragement, Preoperational children often have relatively high self-esteem (a judgment about one's worth). Young children are also generally optimistic that they have the ability to learn a new skill, succeed, and finish a task if they keep trying, a belief called "Achievement-Related Attribution", or sometimes "self-efficacy". Self-esteem comes from several sources, such as school ability, athletic ability, friendships, relationships with caregivers, and other helping and playing tasks.
As with emotional development, both internal and external variables can affect young children's self-concept. For example, a child's temperament can affect how they view themselves and their ability to successfully complete tasks. Children with easy temperaments are typically willing to try things repeatedly and are better able to handle frustrations and challenges. In contrast, children with more difficult temperaments may become more easily frustrated and discouraged by challenges or changes in the situation.
Children who can better cope with frustrations and challenges are more likely to think of themselves as successful, valuable, and good, which will lead to a higher self-esteem. In contrast, children who become easily frustrated and discouraged, often quit or need extra assistance to complete a task. These children may have lower self-esteem if they start to believe that they can't be successful and aren't valuable.
External factors, such as messages from other people, also color how children view themselves. Young children with parents, caregivers, and teachers providing them with positive feedback about their abilities and attempts to succeed (even if they aren't successful the first time) usually have higher self-esteem. On the contrary, when parents, caregivers, or teachers are regularly negative or punitive toward children's attempts to succeed, or regularly ignore or downplay those achievements, young children will have a poor self-image and a lower self-esteem.
Peers also have an impact on young children's self-concept. Young children who have playmates and classmates that are usually nice and apt to include the child in activities will develop a positive self-image. However, a young child who is regularly left out, teased, or bullied by same-age or older peers can develop low self-esteem.
As mentioned repeatedly throughout this document, each child is unique, and he or she may respond to different environments in different ways. Some young children are naturally emotionally "resilient" in certain situations. Resilient children experience or witness something seemingly negative or harmful, without experiencing damage to their self-esteem or emotional development. Resilience not only enables such individuals to withstand life stress, but quite often these children became high achievers. This ability also helps resilient children to maintain good health and to resist mental and physical illnesses. For example, many young children who are severely physically and/or emotionally bullied perform poorly in school, become aggressive or withdrawn, or depressed or anxious. Resilient children experience that same bullying and show no signs or symptoms that the experience has negatively impacted them.
Another more complex but highly important part of a child's self-identity is formed by their cultural identity. While ideas about ancestry and how their family's culture fits into the larger society are too abstract for most young people to understand, it's never too early to teach children about cultural and religious traditions. Including young people in important meals, celebrations, religious services, etc, and explaining what's going on in simple terms is very important in passing on a sense of that child's cultural background. Ideas such as, "My family goes to the synagogue on Saturdays," or "Grandma's traditional soul food is yummy," become part of the child's self-concept. As time goes by and children's capacities to understand what it means when someone says "I am Jewish", or "I am an African American," these experiences will continue to add to and to enrich their self-concept.