Self-esteem

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self-esteem

An individual's regard and respect for himself or herself and his or her sense of identity and self-worth. Individuals with high self-esteem perceive themselves as valuable, and those with low self-esteem denigrate themselves, their self-worth and their achievements.

A person with high self-esteem has a realistic view of his strengths and weaknesses and accepts himself as he is. It is often difficult for the average person to develop a healthy self-esteem and is especially difficult for the child who was adopted at an older age-difficult, but by no means impossible.

Self-esteem is not only important to the individual but also affects his family, his friends (and whether or not he has friends) and his entire life. Most criminals have very low self-esteem. People who never fulfill their potential often hold themselves back from fear of failure traceable to a lack of self-esteem.

Adopted children who were adopted at an older age are particularly prone to low self-esteem in the early stages of their adoption. According to family counselor and author Claudia Jewett, "Low self-esteem is one of the most common characteristics in newly adopted older children."

Often these children have been abused or neglected by their biological parents who may also have verbally abused them, and the children have internalized the negative feedback.

Opponents of TRANSRACIAL ADOPTION have stated that low self-esteem is a key reason they disapprove of such adoptions, particularly involving whites adopting black or biracial children. Studies of Korean and black children adopted across ethnic lines have not borne out this prediction, and children who are transracially adopted appear to have a positive self-esteem for the most part.

When a child (or an adult) has a very low opinion of herself, then she may have exhibited a variety of behavior, including ACTING OUT in frustration, or underachieving in school. The child may find it difficult to understand or even be suspicious that someone would want to adopt and love her. To paraphrase an old Groucho Marx saying, she's not sure she'd want to live with any people who would find her acceptable.

Self-esteem can be encouraged and built up, but it also comes from within. If a child has a very low self-esteem, the parent (adoptive or biological) must strive to bring the child's self-esteem level up to a realistic point.

Jewett says praise may not work well with the child adopted at an older age, particularly generalized praise, "You're a good girl" or "You're a wonderful boy." Instead, Jewett recommends praising actions and tasks that are performed well.

She also recommends the parent teach the child self-praise. "Teaching the child to engage in self-praise not only reinforces his positive behavior, it also teaches him a new set of self-referent ideas .?.?. This skill of praising oneself can be nurtured by asking the question, 'Don't you think you did well on that?' The child's response can then be linked with a statement of praise, such as, 'I think you did a tremendous job, too' or 'You must feel good about that.' When the child becomes more accustomed to giving self-referent verbal reinforcement, the adult can ask, 'What do you think you should say to yourself?' If the child replies that he doesn't know, the adult can ask, 'What do I say to you?' or a similar question to help involve the child in the evaluative, praising process and to give him permission and encouragement to feel pride in himself."

Therapists should also be able to provide many helpful hints. It's important to note, however, that some therapists presume a person is disturbed for the sole reason that she is adopted when in fact other issues may be causing the problems. The child may not have low self-esteem because he wonders why his mother "gave him up" or physically abused him-his difficulty with math or reading may make him feel stupid, and tutoring can help.

Sometimes it is an adoption issue that disturbs a child and lowers his self-esteem. Author Stephanie Siegel described a 12-year-old boy who ran away from home because he could not resolve a conflict in his mind. He could not understand why his birthmother had chosen adoption for him and concluded that he must have been a defective child. He reasoned that his adoptive parents, then, must also have something wrong with them, or they would't have adopted a defective child.

With therapy, the child was able to resolve his anxiety, accept his adoption and improve his self-esteem and self-worth.

One possible way to handle such a situation is for the adoptive parents to bring up the subject of adoption and ask the child if he has any questions about his birthparents. The child may have questions but be afraid to ask the adoptive parents for fear they will feel offended or unloved. (See also EXPLAINING ADOPTION.)


Denis M. Donovan and Deborah McIntyre, Healing the Hurt Child: A Developmental-Contextual Approach (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990).

Claudia L. Jewett, Adopting the Older Child (Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1978).

Stephanie E. Siegel, Ph.D., Parenting Your Adopted Child (New York: Prentice Hall, 1989).

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