What Happens When a Child Has Low Self-Esteem?

Children with low self-esteem might be thought of as lacking protective armor against the negatives in the world, according to the KidsHealth website 1. Self-esteem is a measure of self-worth and an indication of whether a child values herself as a person. A sense of self-esteem begins in childhood and continues to develop as we get older, but the patterns may be well established by adulthood. It's important for children to develop positive self-esteem as young as possible, according to KidsHealth 1.

Dealing with Failure

Children with low self-esteem tend to be more self-critical and might respond to challenges by becoming passive or withdrawn, according to KidsHealth 1. Unfortunately, failure to try results in more failure and robs a child of the ability to learn by making and correcting her mistakes. A child with low self-esteem is more likely to be pessimistic and have a low tolerance for frustration, which also increases the chance that rather than persevering on a project, she will simply give up. Giving up, however, reinforces her sense of disappointment in herself, and her fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Low Self-Esteem and Children's Behavior

The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that children with low self-esteem tend to exhibit certain kinds of behaviors 2. They may lie or cheat if they are doing poorly in a game. Others might act very bossy or controlling toward their peers and siblings. Children with poor self-esteem often have low grades, and might excuse their performance by saying the teacher is "dumb." Changing moods, sadness, crying, angry outbursts or excessive quietness can also be signs of a self-esteem issue 2. Some children with poor self-esteem might be readily influenced by their peers to cut classes or engage in behaviors such as shoplifting or substance abuse.

Destructive Health Behaviors

Low self-esteem increases the risk of destructive behaviors. Research at Florida State University found that 11-year-old boys who had low self-esteem and peers who approved of drug use were 1.6 times more likely to be drug dependent at the age of 20 3. Research reported in the March 2006 issue of the "Journal of Adolescent Health" found teen girls with low self-esteem were likely to have early sexual experiences and to choose high-risk partners. They were also more likely to engage in unprotected sex after initiating sexual activity. A February 2013 article in "Health" magazine reported that low self-esteem was linked with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia 5.

Behavioral Characteristics

Marilyn Sorenson, a clinical psychologist and author of the book “Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem,” writes that children with low self-esteem display certain behavioral characteristics as adults. They are likely to have chaotic relationships, with hurt feelings, defensiveness, poor communication and unreasonable expectations. They might be hyper-vigilant -- always anxious and afraid of making a mistake -- or they might misinterpret what other people say or do. They may alternate between passive, aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior and be sarcastic, rude, gossipy or manipulative. Sorenson notes that those with low self-esteem often have poor communication skills.