How Our Self-Esteem Is Easily Distorted As A Child

The Self-Esteem of children and teens is very vulnerable to distorted perceptions of value to parents, friends and family. Negative impressions are not always accurate. They tend to stay with us throughout our life, even when our experiences along the way do not mesh with the early memories. Most often we don’t realize those negative experiences are not really a part of who we are. They are early memories that a child or teen was not able to accurately interpret. Therefore it becomes a part of our picture early on of who we are and how others will see us. It is not until we are an adult that we are able to re-evaluate our true self-esteem. And then only if we are conscious and open to who we are becoming and how we feel about ourselves,

Examples of Distortions

Example #1:
There is a young man in high school who excels in football. It is his senior year and he has had an amazing year of success! It’s his last game and once again it was an awesome performance by him on the field. Unfortunately, as life happens sometimes, he fumbled the ball on the very last play of his high school career. Rather than to focus on his impressive football legacy in high school, his father chooses to focus on his last play that ended in a fumble. The young man is likely learning that: 1. He will never be good enough for his father. 2. People don’t care how well you do along the way….it is the end result that stays with people. 3. Once again he let his father down.
Here is the self-esteem distortion: It is about his father, not the young football player. The father is likely envious of the son and needs to “level the playing field” as they say. He fears his son may surpass him one day in terms of being successful in the world. Or perhaps this is what the father’s father did with him…he was told by his father that you can always do better! So this father believes that he is doing his son a favor to prepare him for the difficult tests or cruelties of the world.
Example #2:
There is a young female teenager who is trying on dresses for a dance coming up. Her mother tells her “Oh that dress is not very flattering on you. It makes you look fat”. The young lady, who really liked the dress, sadly puts it back on the rack. The mother picks out another dress she believes is “more flattering” for her daughter. The daughter feels like she will not look pretty enougand no one will want to dance with hers. She also feels she has once again disappointed her mother and cannot seem to please her by just being herself. Or maybe she feels it doesn’t matter what she likes… matters more what pleases her mother.
Here is the self-esteem distortion: It is once again about the mother – not the daughter. It may be that the mother was told as a child she was too fat or not pretty enough. It is also likely that this is what the mother’s mother did to her in growing up. Also, it is not uncommon for a mother to compete with the daughter, or the father to compete with his son. Parents whose self-esteem is not fully in place sometimes fear their children will surpass them in life and they will think even less of themselves than before.
Example #3:
As a more personal example, when I was about five years of age I remember badgering my father to take me on an errand with him. I use the word “badgering” because my father really wasn’t used to being around us kids.  He worked six days a week in a family business. Most of the time I would see him just before my bedtime. His only day off was Sunday when the family store was closed. I could tell he wasn’t crazy about taking me along. I’m sure he just wanted to run his errand and get back to the house to watch his Victory at Sea TV show and listen to his ball games on the radio. I’m sure he just wanted some down time of his own. He was going to a plant nursery to pick up something. I didn’t care where we were going. I just wanted to spend time with him.

We arrived at the nursery and I remember that it was on a slope made of small white pebbles. At five years of age this was very cool to me. When my father was talking to a nursery assistant I remember wandering off to explore more of the slope. Probably only about 15 minutes had passed when I suddenly looked around me and there was no father of mine in sight! I remember feeling terrified! I didn’t know where we were or where my home was from the nursery. As I started running down the tiny white slope, realizing he had left without me, I remember distinctly thinking “how does a dad forget his little girl? I must not be special enough to remember.” I caught sight of him approaching his car door when I started screaming “Daddy Daddy! Wait for me!” When I caught up to him I’m sure he felt even worse than I did.
Here is the self-esteem distortion: 1. He was not used to having me around and being responsible for me. 2. He just wanted to do his task and get back home to relax on his one day off from work. 3. I intellectually knew he loved me, even if we didn’t spend much time together. But he still forgot me, or at least almost did. What if I wasn’t yelling out “Daddy” over and over again? Would he really have left me (abandoned me in a little girl’s mind) at the nursery? In my five year old mind I remember thinking “If I am not special enough for my own father then what will others think of me?”

This article is not about how parents mess up their children. It is to point out that we do not have the part of the brain which is called the prefrontal cortex developed fully until approximately 25 years of age. That is the part of the brain that allows us to see the perspective of someone else, other than our own. So the football player cannot recognize the motivations and/or background of his father. The daughter cannot recognize that her mother really only had her best interests at heart, even if she did not express it well. And I did not realize that although I have always been very important to my father, he had a lot more than me on his mind that day.

Action Plan: Take a specific negative experience from your childhood. Re-evaluate it through your adult mind. What were the possible motivations or beliefs of the other people involved? How would you see it through their eyes? Does it really fit who you are today? Is it different from how your best friends know you? Have you asked them?

Next Time: How Our Self-Esteem Is A Magnet

About Susan Saint-Welch

Susan Saint-Welch LMFT has counseled couples and individuals for many years on issues such as dating, marriage, family drama, coping with difficult times, improving self-image and living the life you love. She provides psychotherapy for clients in California and Dating, Couples and Life Coaching for clients outside California through secure video conferencing. She has published numerous articles regarding these issues on her website, on and on

Comments are closed.