In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked
with people for almost twenty-five years. By far, the single
most central element, the one thing that pervades almost every
other issue is self-esteem. It touches everything–sex and
relationships, work problems, anxiety, depression, addictions;
you name it. This is Part I of a four-part series in which the
subject of self-esteem is explored, particularly in the context of
“visiting” divorced parents. This emotional and physical climate
challenges the natural development of self-esteem–it is hard to
parent children through this even if the family is intact!
The development of self-esteem is examined through the author’s
system and theory of self-esteem. There are four primary elements
of self-esteem. In my system, I call them “Powers” because when we
develop any one of them, we become more personally powerful.
The Four Powers of Self-Esteem are: Worth, Competence, Ego-Strength
Self-esteem is an epiphenomenon; that is, it grows out of a
collection of many, many smaller experiences, which I call phenomena.
These coalesce, and the general theme or average of these experiences
generates something of a psychological derivative, which we call
self-esteem. Self-esteem emerges as a function of the amassing of
zillions of messages, accrued over time.
The first or foundation concept of self-esteem is basic worth.
This is the First Power in my system. It stems from our families of
origin. Normally, we start out life being wanted and being important.
Healthy child experiences include being loved, paid attention to, fed,
having our diapers changed, and generally, being nurtured. In an ideal
setting, this occurs in the context of a family, ideally consisting of a
mother and father, possibly siblings and pets.
We all know this “Leave It To Beaver” family configuration does not
always, nor even usually happen in the real world. In addition, to be
honest, even if it did, there is no guarantee that self-esteem would be
any better in the end. However, what happens to the child’s developing
self-esteem when the ideal family experience becomes something else?
Basic worth is the deepest sense we have of ourselves when it comes
to self-esteem. We get most of our “default” self-esteem values from
our parents, who presumably help us along by maintaining an intact family
and by getting along. In addition, presumably, when parents split up,
there is probably much more conflict. In really bad scenarios, this
spills over into the parent’s interaction with the child. It sends an
extra negative message to the child, who interprets the “vibe” or perhaps
the message itself if the child is old enough, as something negative about
the child. It probably is not the case that the child is faulty, but
because very young children are essentially narcissistic, any phenomenon
in their environment will be interpreted as a message about them.
This is more true when the child is very young, less so as the child
When parental conflicts boil over into the child’s psychological
sphere, the child will think not that the parents have a problem; but
rather, that the child has one. The first message the child likely
derives from this is that the child is defective, not the warring
parents. Of course, this is not the case, so parents have to exercise
caution not to contaminate the child with their (negative in this case)
tone, because the child will “inculcate” the tone into its
self-representational scheme. In plain language, the child’s sense
of self will be dinged.
This process, as the reader might intuit, is not rational.
It is associational; that is, the child is in this place and space, and
such and such an experience occurs in that same space and place, so the
inner experience of the child gets associated with the outer experience
that occupies the same space and place. Narcissism and immaturity
bind the two together and makes it personal; therefore, negative outer
experiences become negative inner ones and the child’s sense of self
“takes a hit.” This is very difficult for parents to understand,
because it is not logical. Remember, children don’t really “get”
logic until around age eight or later (more like nine) and usually eleven
years or older for real, emerging abstract ability. It is unrealistic
of parents to expect kids will think otherwise at these ages, because
children are not hardwired this way.
This brings up two things that parents might consider when trying to
parent. One, don’t fight in front of the kids. The single biggest
problem kids have with parents is parental conflict. During a divorce,
this intensifies. Parental conflict raises anxiety and five-fold
increases the likelihood of the child acting out, usually with anxiety
and/or aggression. If parents must fight, move the argument out of the
room, preferably out of the house as some walls are thin and some kid’s
ears are big. Preferably, parents should “get over it” before returning
to interact with the children. Kids are not dumb, and even though the
parents may not be yelling, the kids sense the tone, volume, and overall
non-verbal aspects of communication far more than parents realize.
Two, don’t expect kids to understand what is going on with the parents.
Even older kids either do not “get” that either, or maybe they simply do
not want to be involved. If kids want to take the risk and ask the parents
questions about what is going on, they will (although most kids prefer to
try to duck the conflict). If you as the parent want to answer questions
from the child about what is going, be cautious and answer only what was
asked at the level of the question. Answer only in terms the child can
understand. Make sure the child knows this has nothing to do with the
Failing to avoid contaminating the child with conflict-laden
information or failing to recognize the narcissistic tendency to take in
experience and immediately apply it to the child’s sense of self, and
failing to present information to the child at the child’s own level, all
contribute to negative self-introjects; that is, negative messages about
self, taken in as if they are really a part of self. This is the stuff
of the First Power, which is primary, deep and central. If parents want
to create a powerful First Power (Basic Worth), the above are clear things