"Development of a Healthy
Sense of Self in Children"
By David A. Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP
Children strive to find their niche, their place in the world where they
can feel significant. They need to feel they belong and have something
to contribute to their social world including their family. When healthy
and positive paths to a sense of self are blocked, children may develop
a distorted or deviant sense of self. In this case the child will make
their mark and derive a sense of importance from behaviors that may be
disruptive and have a negative impact in their interpersonal world.
The late psychoanalyst Walter Bonime (1989) described the development of
the sense of self, "Children who are frustrated in their efforts to
develop a positive and healthy sense of self will make their mark in
some, often disturbing, way. It may be necessary for the child to
terrorize, bully or see people frightened, worried, crying, at their
wits' end. Such a child may have to be first, to be captain all the
time. The child may have to rebel against coercion, refuse to do
anything expected of him or her, or insist on doing everything that is
forbidden” (p. 136). The implication is that every child needs to feel
significant in one way or another. If they can’t make their mark in some
positive way, they will distinguish themselves in a deviant or distorted
Some children may be so
discouraged in their efforts to establish a positive sense of self; they
choose to distinguish themselves by being the meanest bully on the
block. Others will make their mark in other distorted or deviant ways
perhaps by being the class clown or by becoming a world-class martyr. No
child starts out with the goal of developing a deviant or distorted
sense of self. These are children who are discouraged and believe that
the path to a more positive sense of self is blocked. As parents and
teachers it is crucial that we notice these barriers and assist and
encourage the child to overcome them. It is essential that we identify
their individual and specific talents, strengths, interests, and
positive personal qualities and look for opportunities to highlight
these assets in children. Every child has something that he or she can
uniquely contribute to the world around them and it is vital that
parents, teachers, counselors and helpers of all kinds be diligent and
determined in delineating these positive attributes. The acting-out
child is almost always a very discouraged child who feels defeated in
his or her efforts to make a positive impact on their interpersonal
of the stories I developed in the book: Engaging Resistant Children in
Therapy is called "The Ballistic Stallion." It is about a girl, Sally,
who was determined to ride a horse that her father had decided to sell
because no one could ride it since it was so wild. As a result of her
courage and determination she finally succeeded in riding the stallion
in time to prevent her dad from selling the horse.
I then ask the kids
to think of a time when they succeeded in "overcoming the odds," when
they did something that took courage and determination that perhaps no
one thought they would be able to do, like the first time they went off
the high diving board. Every child has a story to tell about such a
moment in her/his life. We should ask for these stories and listen
carefully and we will come away with fresh appreciation for the
strengths of the child.
Bonime, W. (1989). Collaborative psychoanalysis. Cranbury, NJ:
Associated Universities Press.
Copyright © 2006 by David A.
Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP. All rights reserved.