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Topics In Brief

All Topics In Brief

Self Esteem

by Pam Wilson

This edition of ReCAPP focuses on self esteem. This edition of Topic in Brief includes the following sections:

Definition of Self Esteem

Self esteem is a state of mind — a feeling — an internal belief system. It includes:

  • The judgments people make, and usually maintain, about themselves that express an attitude of approval or disapproval of the self (the discrepancy between the real self and the ideal self).
  • People's beliefs about their inherent worthiness and competence.
  • The extent to which people believe that they are competent in areas that have value and meaning to themselves and others.

Self esteem is a developmental phenomenon that forms and shows itself over time. It is dynamic in that it is both stable and open to change. Our basic or global sense of self esteem develops during childhood (through around age 12), is fairly stable, and impacts our perceptions and behavior. Different interacting variables contribute to the formation of global self esteem, for example, one's individual skills, interests, and talents within the context of family, economic status, community and culture.

At the same time, almost paradoxically, self esteem is an on-going developmental process that is influenced by new situations and events. Positive or confirming experiences lead to higher evaluations of self esteem, while experiences with failure or rejection lead to a decline in self esteem (Mruk, 1995).


An Overview of the Issues

Self esteem can be measured. The Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale, one of the most utilized measures of self esteem, looks at a person's global feelings of self worth or self-acceptance. In this instrument, respondents rate 10 statements (such as "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself") on a four-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree. For more information about the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale, go to:

Another popular instrument, the Coopersmith Self Esteem Inventory, looks at attitudes toward oneself in general and in specific contexts — peers, parents, school, and personal interests. Respondents state whether a set of 50 generally favorable or unfavorable aspects of a person are "like me" or "not like me." There are two forms, a school form (ages 8-15) and an adult form (ages 16 and older). For more information about the Coopersmith Self Esteem Inventory, go to:

Research on self esteem has revealed complex and interesting findings related to gender and ethnicity. In general, girls have lower self esteem than boys, and they experience a specific decline in their self esteem during adolescence.

In studies looking specifically at ethnicity and self esteem, African Americans often have equal or higher self esteem than whites. An interesting study on ethnic identity and self esteem among urban adolescents in two different schools (Rotheram-Borus, et. Al., 1996) found that Latinos and Whites had lower self esteem than Blacks; students in a more academically-oriented school had the highest self esteem; and students who rated themselves as strongly ethnically-identified had higher self esteem than those who said they were mainstream or bicultural.

In a unique qualitative study (Erkut, Sumru, et. Al 1996), girls from five ethnic classifications (Native American, African American, Anglo-European, Asian Pacific Islander, and Latino) identified specific activities that made them feel good about themselves. Participating in athletics was the most common response, followed by doing something in the arts, providing service to others, and playing. When asked what it was about the activity that made them feel good about themselves, they reported (listed in order of frequency):

  • "I'm good at it/I can do it." (mastery or competence)
  • "I enjoyed it."
  • "It helped people."
  • "Being with friends."
  • "Expressing who I am."

The important work on women's development by Carol Gilligan (1982) pointed out that females are more likely than males to derive their worth from relationships. However, this diverse group of girls was more likely to gain self worth from activities that supported their sense of competence versus being with friends or helping others.

Low self esteem is purported to be a predictor of many different health problems including substance abuse, early sexual intercourse, eating disorders, and so on. However, research on the connection between self esteem and sexual behavior has generated some startling results. A recent study (2002) looked at the impact of self esteem on initiation of sexual intercourse among adolescents ages 12-16. Girls with higher self esteem ratings were more likely to remain virgins than girls with lower self esteem ratings.

In contrast, boys with higher self esteem ratings were less likely to remain virgins than boys with lower self esteem ratings. In response to very different gender-based messages about sexual behavior, girls with low self esteem may begin having sexual intercourse as a way to feel more desirable or attractive and to gain intimacy, while boys with high self esteem may begin having sexual intercourse because they are comfortable risking rejection, and it's a way of gaining prestige in a male arena.


What Educators Can Do

Clearly, these research findings highlight the particular importance of helping adolescent girls develop high self esteem. At the same time, it's critical to remember that all girls are not the same. Their race or ethnicity, social class, school environment, and other important characteristics impact their sense of self, their experience of being female, and the risks and opportunities present in their immediate environments.

Author Reynold Bean (1992) says young people need to have the following four conditions of self esteem met in order to have high self esteem:

The Sense of Connectiveness

They must be able to gain satisfaction from the people, places, or things they feel connected to. This includes feeling comfortable with their own bodies, feeling they are an important part of a group, feeling they belong to something or someone, and feeling a connection to a past or heritage.

The Sense of Uniqueness

They must acknowledge and respect the qualities and characteristics about themselves that are special and different, and receive confirmation from others that these qualities are good. This includes being affirmed for what they are rather than being judged for what they aren't.

The Sense of Power

They need to have the competence to do what they must, the resources they need to express their competence, and the opportunity to use their competence to influence important circumstances of their lives. This includes believing that they can do what they set out to do, feeling comfortable with responsibility, feeling in charge of their own lives, and being able to use the skills that they do have in appropriate situations.

The Sense of Models

They must be able to refer to human, philosophical, and operational models to help make sense of the world and then use these models as reference points for establishing their own goals, values and standards. This includes knowing people they want to be like, feeling a sense of purpose and future, and having values that guide their behavior.

There is no one brief activity to enhance one's self esteem. It takes time, practice and consistency. Specific tips for enhancing self esteem include:

  • Create opportunities to help build girls' sense of connectiveness, for example, in their relationship with you. Be accepting and caring. Give consistent positive and affirming feedback that is genuine and based on real observations. Also, use small group activities to help them form meaningful relationships with one another and conduct activities to help them investigate and affirm their cultural or ethnic heritage.
  • Encourage their sense of uniqueness by noticing and affirming special characteristics and talents even when they don't suit your taste. Encourage girls to express their own thoughts and feelings using different vehicles — talking, writing, poetry, drama, song. Teach them to do positive, rather than negative, self talk.
  • Promote their sense of power by giving them a meaningful say in planning their own programs and establishing group rules. Model and teach skills such as assertiveness, decision-making and problem solving. Ask them what activities make them feel good about themselves and provide opportunities for those activities.
  • Enhance their sense of models by, first of all, being a role model yourself and, secondly, bringing other human role models — both women and caring, non-stereotypical men — into their lives. Give them opportunities to express their beliefs and values without being judged as well as opportunities to make decisions and then evaluate them, and always have high expectations and standards.



Self-Esteem Books

Bean, R. (1992). The Four Conditions of Self-Esteem — A New Approach for Elementary and Middle Schools. Scotts Valley, CA: ETR Associates.

Bean, R. (1992). Individuality, Self-Expression and Other Keys to Creativity — Using the 4 Conditions of Self-Esteem in Elementary and Middle School. Scotts Valley, CA:  ETR Associates.

Laing, S. and C. Bruess (1997). Communication and Self-Esteem. Scotts Valley, CA: ETR Associates.

Mruk, C. (1995). Self Esteem — Research, Theory, and Practice. New York: Springer Publishing.

Palladino, C. (1989). Developing Self-Esteem - A Positive Guide for Personal Success. Menlo Park, CA:  Crisp Publications, Inc.

Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia — Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Ballantine Books.

Ross, B. J. and N. Way, Eds. (1996). Urban Girls — Resisting Stereotypes, Creating Identities. New York:  New York University Press.

Self-Esteem Articles:

Belgrave, F. Z. (2002). Relational theory and cultural enhancement interventions for African American adolescent girls. Public Health Reports 117(1): s76-s81.

Brack, C. J., D. P. Orr, et al. (1988). Pubertal maturation and adolescent self-esteem. Society for Adolescent Medicine 9: 280-285.

Cole, F. L. (1997). The role of self-esteem in safer sexual practices. Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care 8(6): 64-70.

Dielman, T. E., S. L. Leech, et al. (1984). Health locus of control and self-esteem as related to adolescent health behavior. Adolescence 19(76): 935-947.

Doswell, W. M., G. K. Millor, et al. (1998). Self-image and self-esteem in African-American preteen girls: Implications for mental health." Issues in Mental Health 19: 71-94.

DuBois, D. L., R. D. Felner, et al. (1999). Profiles of self-esteem in early adolescence: Identification and investigation of adaptive correlates." American Journal of Community Psychology 27(6): 899-932.

Gardner, L. H., D. I. Frank, et al. (1998). A comparison of sexual behavior and self-esteem in young adult females with positive and negative tests for sexually transmitted diseases." The ABNF Journal July/August: 89-93.

Huerta, R. and O. L. Brizuela-Gamino (2002). Interaction of pubertal status, mood and self-esteem in adolescent girls. Journal of Reproductive Medicine 47(3): 217-225.

Lackovic-Grgin, K., M. Dekovic, et al. (1994). Pubertal status, interaction with significant others, and self-esteem of adolescent girls." Adolescence 29(115): 691-700.

McGee, R. and S. Williams (2000). "Does low self-esteem predict health compromising behaviours among adolescents?" Journal of Adolescence 23: 569-582.

Mullis, A. K. and R. L. Mullis (1997). Vocational interests of adolescents: relationships between self-esteem and locus of control. Psychological Reports 81: 1363-1371.

Orr, D. P., M. L. Wilbrandt, et al. (1989). Reported sexual behaviors and self-esteem among young adolescents. AJDC 143: 86-90.

Quatman, T. and C. M. Watson (2001). Gender differences in adolescent self esteem: An exploration of domains. Journal of Genetic Psychology 162(1): 93-117.

Spencer, J. M., G. D. Zimet, et al. (2002). Self-esteem as a predictor of initiation of coitus in early adolescents. Pediatrics 109(4): 581-584.

Wingood, G. M., R. J. DiClemente, et al. (2002). Body image and African American females' sexual health. Journal of Women's Health & Gender-Based Medicine 11(5): 433-439.



Bean, Reynold. The Four Conditions of Self Esteem: A New Approach for Elementary and Middle Schools. Santa Cruz: ETR Associates, 1992.

Erkut, Sumru, et. Al. Diversity in Girls' Experiences: Feeling Good About Who You Are. Urban Girls: Resisting Stereotypes, Creating Identities. New York: New York University Press, 1996, pp. 53-64.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Mruk, Chris. Self Esteem: Research, Theory and Practice. Springer Publishing Company, 1995.

Rotheram, Mary Jane, et. Al. Personal and Ethnic Identity, Values, and Self Esteem among Black and Latino Adolescent Girls. Urban Girls: Resisting Stereotypes, Creating Identities. New York: New York University Press, 1996, pp. 35-52.

Spencer, Jennifer, et. Al. Self-Esteem as a Predictor of Initiation of Coitus in Early Adolescents. Pediatrics. Vol. 109, No. 4, April 2002, pp. 581-584.


About the Author
Pamela Wilson, MSW, is a nationally known sexuality education consultant and trainer. She has written or co-authored numerous curricula and other publications, including, When Sex is the Subject: Attitudes and Answers for Young Children and a curriculum, Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education for Grades 7-9. She is also featured in the sexuality education videos Raising Healthy Kids: Families Talk About Sexual Health. Pam can be reached at