Is it Really a Problem of Self-esteem?

Is it really a problem of self-esteem? Looking inside may not be the answer to how children can flourish

“A sign of health is the ability to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same” Donald Winnicott

Reminding myself to see children for who they can be

When I first meet a young person in school, I like to set myself a challenge. I ask the teacher, “Don’t point her out. Let me observe for a while and see if I can spot who she is.” Usually I can tell by a child’s dishevelled appearance, by an argument between two children, or when I see the child who tries relentlessly to get her teacher’s attention. However, this simple exercise also helps me think about what a child looks like when he or she is settled and happy. I borrow a metaphor from the garden, flourishing, to describe this kind of happiness in children. A quick search on the internet reveals I am not the first to use this term. The idea of human flourishing has been around at least since the time of Aristotle. However, if we think of flourishing simply in terms of boosting a young person’s self-esteem, we may do more harm than good.

Notice me! Rather than low self-esteem, attention seeking may be a cry for mutuality

Nathan’s teacher made a discovery and she wanted to share it. “I know what it looks like when he is settled. He isn’t looking at me.” She must have recognized my slightly puzzled expression and so she added, “I realized that whenever I look at the class, he is already looking at me, but when he is really into something he isn’t constantly watching me.” Nathan’s teacher had nailed it on the head. (I must have metaphors on the brain.) This little boy was usually in a state of constant vigilance. I remember observing him once responding to conversations happening on the other side of the room.

It wasn’t just his hypervigilance that worried his teacher. He constantly sought her attention. He interrupted her lessons, and if that didn’t work, he was expert in creating mini-disasters. I have seen water bottles, pencils, and jotters spilled to the floor in a whirl of activity. It would have been easy to think this little boy’s problems were all about attention seeking and low self-esteem.

Nathan’s teacher came to me one day quite distressed. “Nathan is telling me he is bad. How do I help him have a better self-esteem?” She paused and then added, “I keep telling him he is not bad and that no one is bad, but he told me again, ‘Miss, I am bad.’”

I wondered if Nathan wasn’t trying to communicate a sense of, “Don’t forget me! I can’t bear the thought that you don’t notice me.” Boosting Nathan’s self-esteem wasn’t going to fix this. He needed empathy; someone who would hear how hurt he was and not reject him. I tried to model a response for his teacher. “Oh, Nathan, if you believe you are bad that must be so hard for you.” Rather than attention seeking, a child may be operating from a profound sense of loss, unable to share their grief with others for fear of being abandoned (1).

I have been in many meetings in which a teacher talks about a child who is afraid of failure, lacks friends, has poor personal hygiene, seeks attention, or lacks confidence. It is often thought of as a problem of low self-esteem. What concerns me about thinking in terms of self-esteem is that we may miss not only a child’s deeper needs but also become blinded to what true flourishing looks like.

Shouldn’t we boost young people’s self-esteem?

Not so long ago, the idea of boosting self-esteem was presented as a cure-all for a wide range of social ills such as teenage pregnancy, drug misuse, and other anti-social behaviours (2). I once interviewed a group of African-American boys growing up in the inner city of Chicago. Naively I assumed they would all have low self-esteem. By the end of the interview, I realized that I was the one with a self-esteem problem. My informal survey surprisingly corresponded to the findings of much larger and more scientific studies. Young people’s perceptions of themselves improved significantly during the 1980’s and 90’s. However, according to some even more rigorous studies that tracked young people over several decades, improving self-esteem did not reduce drug misuse or risky sexual behaviours. It seems that Bowlby was right to hold self-esteem ideology in contempt for its simplistic reductionism (2).

The wounded self may mask its true needs

I don’t want to minimize the depth of harm caused to a child who suffers maltreatment or the devastating impact that neglect and abuse can have on a child’s developing sense of self. An infant’s earliest experience of intimacy with another human being should be one of safety and security. It is in that state of dependence that the infant should be able to experience a sense of rightness and wholeness about themselves. When safety, security, and continuity of care are lacking, a child may suffer a primal, narcissistic wound (1).

Put simply, we were not built to flourish as separated beings, so recovery shouldn’t be thought of as boosting self-esteem. Rather, a young person needs to experience relationships in which he or she can be free from a preoccupation with self. Donald Winnicott warned that a child may develop a ‘false self’ as a way of masking their true need for mutuality* (3,4). I think children and young people are happier when they experience the freedom of self-forgetfulness; instead of using a false self to protect themselves, they are able to experience an integrity of self. Again, put simply, they can enjoy other people enjoying being with them.

Not being preoccupied with self allowed him to enjoy being with his classmates

Several years later, in another school and with another teacher, I walked in to Nathan’s classroom and for a moment I couldn’t see him. He was reading a book with two other children. They were peering down at the pages, each with his or her chin cupped in hands. Nathan seemed totally absorbed in the moment. So much so that even his posture was a mirror image of the two other children. I am not being unrealistic; I didn’t think for one moment that Nathan would never struggle again. However, this little glimpse of Nathan being able to relate to others in a way in which he could express his comfort with just being himself helped me think of him not just as an injured, traumatised little boy.

Human flourishing as having the freedom to forget self

For the past thirty years, I have taken young people to summer camp. This year was no exception. Driving back from a day trip, my car was packed with teenagers. Someone asked to play music from Les Miserables. The young people sang along at the top of their lungs, but one voice stood out to me, not because it was louder but because I had never heard that young person singing before. A young man, one of my pupils, who has lived in fourteen different homes and suffered relentless rejection and loss. He wasn’t trying to draw attention to himself; he was just enjoying being part of the group. For a few moments, I was reminded of what it looks like when young people are flourishing. I find that I never stop needing to be reminded of what that looks like.

* Mutuality can be defined as an empathetic exchange between a child and an adult that communicates a sense of being understood. The child’s thoughts and feelings are matched in intensity of involvement and interest (4). Donald Winnicott gave this example: ‘“Settled in for a feed, the baby looks at the mother’s face and his or her hand reaches up so that in play the baby is feeding the mother by means of a finger in the mouth.” The baby whose mother is involved in this intense identification with him benefits from the experience of feeling understood’ (4, p82).

Keeping It Real

1. What do we really mean when we say a child has low self-esteem?

2. What other needs might the child be trying to communicate?

3. How do I refresh my vision of what it looks like when children are truly flourishing?


1. Newton Verrier, N. The primal wound: understanding the adopted child. CoramBAAF; 2009.
2. Harrison, G. The Big ego trip: finding true significance in a culture of self-esteem. Nottingham: Intervarsity Press; 2013.
3. Phillips, A. Winnicott. London: Fontana Press;1988.
4. V Jordan, Judith. The meaning of mutuality. work in progress. Wellesley Centres for Women; 1986. Available from: [Accessed 2/10/2017].
5. Abram, J. The language of Winnicott: a dictionary of Winnicott’s use of words. 2nd edition. London: Karnac; 2007.

Share this post

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. For further information please read our Privacy Policy.

Skip to content