Study suggests your adulthood self-esteem has its roots in the way you were raised as a child

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Studies of identical and non-identical twins indicate that our self-esteem is influenced by the genes we inherited from our parents, but also, and perhaps slightly more so, by environmental factors. And according to a new study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, these environmental influences started playing a lasting role very early in life.

Ulrich Orth at the University of Bern has reported evidence that, on average, the higher the quality of a person’s home environment when they were aged between 0 and 6 years – based on warm and responsive parenting; cognitive stimulation; and a safe, organised physical environment – the higher their self-esteem many years later in adulthood.

The data come from nearly 9,000 individuals, born between 1970 and 2001, whose mothers had enrolled in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that started in the US in 1979.

Orth analysed the biennial interviews with the mothers that took place in their homes when their children – the participants in this study – were aged 0 to 6. This provided the measure of the quality of the participants’ early childhood home environment in terms of parental warmth and responsiveness, cognitive stimulation and the safety and organisation of the home. Orth also noted the quality of the relationship between mother and father during this period; the presence or not of the father; maternal depression; and family poverty.

Measures of the participants’ self-esteem started when they were aged just 8 and continued biennially until they were 27. The survey researchers used a measure designed for children until the participants were age 14, and thereafter switched to the well-known Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale.

The critical finding is that the quality of the home environment between the ages of 0 to 6 correlated significantly with participants’ self-reported self-esteem in later childhood, and even with their self-esteem into adulthood, although the association weakened over time. “The findings suggest that the home environment is a key factor in early childhood that influences the long-term development of self-esteem”, Orth said.

Other childhood environmental factors besides the quality of the home environment were also associated with later self-esteem. Maternal depression (associated with lower self-esteem) and better quality of parents’ relationship (associated with higher self-esteem) correlated with participants’ self-esteem in later childhood, but these correlations approached zero over the longer-term into adulthood.

In contrast, the families’ poverty (associated with lower self-esteem) and, to a lesser extent, the presence of the father (associated with higher self-esteem) continued to correlate with later self-esteem through to age 27.

When factoring out quality of the home environment, the association between these other childhood factors (maternal depression, parents’ relationship, poverty, and father’s presence) and participants’ later self-esteem was weakened substantially (but not entirely eradicated) suggesting that these other factors are tied to later self-esteem largely via their influence on the quality of the home environment.

Orth added a note of caution in relation to the findings for fathers’ presence. The data do not say anything about homosexual same-sex parents and children’s later self-esteem because such a family situation was too rare in the survey. It’s possible, he says, that the presence of any second parent – not necessarily a father – would have the same associations with later, higher self-esteem. In any case, the association between father’s presence and later self-esteem, though statistically significant, was only very small (over the long term, the effect sizes for poverty and especially for quality of the home environment were larger).

Why should the early family environment have such enduring associations with later self-esteem? Orth believes it is because early child-parent interactions affect a person’s pre-conscious representations of who they are and their self worth, eventually becoming deeply embodied in their self concept.

Orth says his findings have important practical implications because they suggest that interventions designed to enhance the quality of the early home environment could have lasting benefits for a child’s self-esteem. The way that the quality of the home environment mediated the role of other factors, like poverty, is particularly relevant. This suggests, Orth explains, that “…the negative effects of poverty on children’s self-esteem could be prevented, or at least reduced, by interventions that improve the quality of the home environment in families that are in poverty.”

As with all survey research of this kind, it’s important to remember that causality has not been demonstrated conclusively between the earlier measured factors and later self-esteem – it’s possible unknown factors are at play. Most obviously, a study of this kind cannot account for the role played by genes shared between parents and their children.

Perhaps a deeper question is whether higher self-esteem is a desirable outcome at all. There was a time when many psychologists and social reformers believed increasing the average self-esteem of a community would open the doors to a range of welcome outcomes, from superior mental health to career success. However, we know today that the benefits of greater self-esteem are quite modest, mostly centred on feeling happier and having more initiative, and that excessive self-esteem can even be problematic in some cases, especially if it slides into narcissism.

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