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Family Interaction And Self-esteem

One of the most important social contexts for the development and expression of self-esteem is the family. For children, the family is the most important context because its major function is the socialization and care of children. The family is the first primary group that we experience—the place where some of our most important identities take shape (e.g., male/female, boy/girl, son/daughter, and sister/brother). Assessments of role performances based on these identities become early sources of self-esteem. Mead's (1934) discussion of the early stages of role-taking and role-playing, processes essential in the development of the self, occur within the context of family interactions. Parents typically serve as mentors and as significant others for children. The intimate, extensive, and relatively enduring relationships characteristic of the family as a primary group make it an important context for the self-esteem of children as well as adults.

All three processes of self-esteem formation are pervasive in family life. We frequently make self-attributions on the basis of our role performances and interactions with family members, feeling good or bad about ourselves depending on what inferences we draw. Social comparisons are also a common feature of family life, particularly among siblings. Notions of fairness or injustice initially develop within sibling relations, as do comparisons of various competencies and virtues, with inevitable implications for self-esteem. Reflected appraisals are ubiquitous among family members. All family members have opinions about one another and are typically less reticent to express them to each other than is the case outside of family relations. Siblings, especially, may be only too eager to give critical feedback regarding each other's behavior, appearance, social skills, and intelligence. Not all of these appraisals, of course, are equally significant for one's self-esteem. Both what is being appraised (with regard to its importance for one's self-concept) and who does the appraising, are important qualifiers. For children, on most things, the reflected appraisals of their parents may matter much more than those of their siblings.

Reflected appraisals has been the main process examined in studies of self-esteem within families. The bulk of this research has focused on the effects of parental behavior on children's self-esteem. In general, these studies find that parental support and encouragement, responsiveness, and use of inductive control are related positively to children's self-esteem (Gecas and Seff 1990). Most of these parental variables could be considered indicators of positive reflected appraisals of the child. They are also the parental behaviors found to be associated with the development of other positive socialization outcomes in children and adolescents (such as moral development, pro-social behavior, and academic achievement).

Not surprisingly, these relationships are much stronger for the child's perceptions of parental behavior and his or her self-esteem than for actual parental behavior or parental reports of their behavior (Gecas and Schwalbe 1986). Furthermore, this research indicates that there is not much overlap between parental reports of their behavior and children's perceptions of this behavior. Evidently a good deal of selectivity and bias in recall and perception are reflected in these studies.

Birth order and sibling relations may also be consequential for children's self-esteem. On the basis of both reflected appraisals and social comparisons, we would expect first-borns to have higher self-esteem than later-born children. The greater attention and encouragement from parents should contribute to first-borns' greater sense of worth and importance; and first-borns' typically greater power and competence compared with younger siblings should result in more favorable social comparisons. Research, however, provides only modest (and inconsistent) support for these expectations (Blake 1989). Oldest and only children do seem to have higher self-esteem than later-born children, but the differences are not significant. The effects of birth order may be suppressed or mitigated by the influence of several other features of the sibling system, such as sex composition of the sibling order, child spacing, family size, age and sex of target child, and age and sex of next oldest sibling. Without taking into account the effect of these other variables, the influence of birth order on self-esteem may largely disappear (Gecas and Pasley 1983).

Other structural variations within families (e.g., single-parent families, stepparent families, extended families) may affect children's self-esteem, if they have an impact on reflected appraisals, social comparisons, or self-attributions. There has not been much research on the effects of these family structural variations on children's self-esteem. What research there is does not report much variation. The quality of family relations does not seen to vary consistently enough across these structural variations for them to show significant and consistent differences in children's self-esteem.

For children's and adolescents' self-esteem the most relevant domains of evaluation are academic competence, athletic competence, social acceptance, physical appearance, and behavioral conduct. Interestingly, among all these domains, the evaluation of one's physical appearance takes precedence over other domains of self-esteem, especially for girls (Harter 1993). Parents, and others, begin to react to the physical self when one is an infant and toddler. Critical feedback on one's appearance negatively affects self-esteem. Moreover, self-esteem is implicated in various eating disorders (such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating), especially among adolescent girls (Heatherton and Baumeister 1991). Parents place greater emphasis on the academic competence and behavioral conduct of their children, whereas peers place the most importance on physical appearance, likeability, and athletic competence of others their age.

Family relations are also important for parents' and spouses' self-esteem, although these have not received the attention given to children's self-esteem. Husbands and wives are typically significant others for each other, and the reflected appraisals received from these sources should matter a great deal for spouses' self-esteem, even more so now than in the past. As the institution of marriage/family continues to evolve from a traditional pattern (characterized by multiple functions and a segregated division of labor), to a companionship pattern (characterized by fewer functions, but greater emphasis on love, emotional support, and nurturing socialization), the quality of the marital bond becomes increasingly relevant for the self-esteem of husbands and wives. As the high divorce rate attests, however, the family as a "haven in a heartless world" (Lasch 1975) is an increasingly fragile emotional anchor for the self in contemporary society. Along with the loss of functions, there has also been a decline in traditional social supports (such as religion and extended kin networks) for marriage and family. Consequently, a premium is placed on love and affection. It becomes the raison d'être for marriage. And when love and affection declines, as it often does under the stresses of contemporary life, divorce is a common solution. This too has serious consequences for self-esteem.

Along with the marital bond, the parental bond is a major source of self-conception and self-esteem for most adults. It may even be a more enduring source of self-definition than marriage, because people typically do not divorce their children. The identities of "mother" and "father" are among the most important in the self-conceptions of parents. How parents perform the roles associated with these identities, how their children respond to them, and the quality of the parent-child relationship have major implications for parents' self-esteem.

Research on parenthood suggests that it is a rocky road for parents' self-esteem. The transition to parenthood is itself a major event, typically a source of joy and stress, with significant consequences for the marital bond and for family patterns (Demo and Cox 2000). Children provide numerous occasions for both parental satisfaction and distress. They are a source of parental pleasure and pride, increasing parents' self-esteem, as well as a source of frustration, anger, and distress, decreasing parents' self-esteem. Research on parental satisfaction across the various stages of parenthood suggests that the positive experiences are more frequent when the children are young, and the negative experiences increase in frequency when children get older, with adolescence reported as the most difficult time for parents (Gecas and Seff 1990). Maternal self-esteem has long been associated with the quality of mother-child interactions. Research indicates that low self-esteem mothers are more likely to engage in child abuse (Oates and Forrest 1985) and neglect (Christensen et al. 1994). There are, of course, numerous factors that qualify or mitigate this pattern, such as number and sex of children, personalities of the children and the parents, and economic and occupational stresses on the family.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodSelf-Esteem - Development Of Self-esteem, Family Interaction And Self-esteem, Culture: Ethnicity And Self-esteem