Using self-esteem as an evaluation criteria for young people

In some families, a young person’s self-esteem might be affected by a parent’s mental illness and associated factors. For example, a parent who is depressed may make the child feel they are in some way to blame and that they cannot do what is required to keep their parent well. These feelings may lower the child’s self-esteem and lead to negative self-descriptions and self-beliefs. Developing high self-esteem is essential to the young person’s long-term psychological outcomes as it may serve as a buffer against the impact of parental mental illness.

Programs or interventions dealing with self-esteem in young people might focus on providing them with strategies to:

  • Improve their self-perceptions
  • Develop their sense of competence in key areas.

Click the headings to read more.

Self-esteem – the concept

Self-esteem has received a substantial amount of attention in psychological theory and research over the last 40 years.

Despite this attention, the field is filled with debate and ambiguity; many questions surround both the definition of the concept and key components. Despite this debate, self-esteem has been consistently shown to play a crucial role in psychological functioning and is worthy of inclusion in therapeutic interventions.

This section breaks down the basic theoretical positions, examining the more common definitions of self-esteem and the related term self-concept, and reviews some common measures in this field.

Theoretical background

There is strong debate in the self-esteem literature about what constitutes self-esteem. Central to this debate is the argument over whether self-esteem is:

  • A uni-dimensional global concept (ie an overall evaluation); or
  • Multi-dimensional and made up of a range of components (usually termed self-concepts – eg academic self-concept, physical appearance, social self-concept).

Another aspect of this debate is whether self-esteem is:

  • Stable (ie trait-like); or
  • Transient and reactive (ie state-like).

Researchers and theorists who argue that self-esteem is global view it as enduring across time and situations. In essence, global self-esteem comprises self-evaluations about worth, value, likeability, acceptance and competence (Robson, 1988; Searcy, 2007). From this theoretical position, self-esteem is viewed as a personality trait that is relatively stable despite age and situation.

The argument that self-esteem is multi-dimensional has arisen from evidence which suggests that self-esteem is specific to functional domains and how the individual evaluates themselves in relation to each domain (Brown & Marshall, in Kernis, 2006). Under this theoretical position, a child whose parent has depression may report high self-esteem in academic functioning but low self-esteem in interpersonal relationships. This approach helps identify which aspects of the young person’s view of self need to be improved through intervention.

Theorists who argue that self-esteem is a state believe that it fluctuates with situational factors or key events. Key situational variables thought to influence self-esteem include expectations, changing roles, performance history and responses from others (Demo, 1985). Critics of this approach argue that fluctuations in feelings of self-worth in response to positive and negative events do not indicate how people generally feel about themselves and therefore have little impact on self-esteem (Brown & Marshall, in Kernis, 2006).

Definitions of self-esteem

There is no universally accepted definition of self-esteem. However, many definitions focus on the notion that self-esteem represents an overall evaluation of oneself or generalised feeling of worthiness (Willoughby, King & Polatajko, 1996).

If taking a multi-dimensional approach, self-esteem is viewed as consisting of various functional areas which make up one’s self-concept. Self-concept is typically defined as the ‘description one attaches to oneself’ or ‘a body of knowledge that persons possess about themselves’ (Willoughby et al., 1996, p. 125).

Self-esteem can also be defined as a relationship between a sense of personal worth and a sense of personal efficacy. This definition acknowledges the complexity of the concept while also proposing a key relationship between worth and competence – in essence self-esteem is based on worthiness BUT our sense of worthiness is developed through situations in which we behave competently. This definition can be described as ‘the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living’ (Mruk, in Kernis, 2006, p. 12).

Self-esteem and children of parents with a mental illness

Self-esteem is potentially an important variable to consider when working with young people. Multiple intervention programs suggest that ‘improving self-esteem’ is an important program goal. Research has consistently shown that high self-esteem is related to positive outcomes (eg healthy social relationships, subjective wellbeing, persistence in the face of failure, greater use of problem-focused coping, and higher levels of happiness).

On the other hand, lower levels of self-esteem are associated with antisocial behaviour, depressive symptoms, greater use of avoidance coping, high levels of negative affect, and increased stress. It is argued that self-esteem may act as a buffer that helps to reduce stress by influencing the coping strategy the individual uses (Barker, 2007).

Measures of self-esteem

There are multiple child and adolescent self-esteem measures. For a summary see Table 3 in the Winters, Myers and Proud (2002) paper ‘Ten-year review of rating scales. III: Scales assessing suicidality, cognitive style, and self-esteem’. See ‘Key readings’ for details.

When choosing a scale to assess self-esteem it is important to determine whether you want a measure for global self-esteem or a domain-specific (ie multi-dimensional) evaluation.

Global measures of self-esteem include:

  • Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale
  • Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory

Domain-specific measures of self-esteem include:

  • Burnett Self Scale
  • Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale (Piers-Harris 2)
  • Hare Self-Esteem Scale
  • Harter’s Self-Perception Profiles (for adolescents, children and young children)

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale

This brief global measure scale assesses self-esteem by determining how satisfied teens are with themselves. A benefit of the scale is that it takes less than 10 minutes to administer and score. Originally designed for use with adolescents, its strong psychometric properties have seen it recommended for use with children.

Structure of the measure

The scale contains 10 items which are rated on a 4-point Likert scale. The scale provides a single score representing total global self-esteem.

Construct validity

The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale has demonstrated lower scores for at-risk youth and young people with psychological disorders such as eating disorders and depression. High scores on this scale are positively correlated with resilience. For further information see Winters, Myers and Proud (2002).


A range of studies have reported strong internal consistency and test-retest reliability for this measure. Internal consistency ratings range from 0.75-0.92, constituting an acceptable to excellent level of reliability. Solid test-retest reliabilities have been reported to range from 0.85-0.88.

Evaluation and/or research that has used this measure

The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale has been used extensively in research for both clinical and non-clinical samples. See Winters, Myers and Proud (2002) for suggested further reading.

Availability of the scale

The measure is freely available for ‘educational and professional research’ from the University of Maryland website. However, the authors ask that due recognition of the scale be given in any published work that uses the measure.

Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory

This measure is designed to assess the self-esteem of individuals aged 8-15 years. While the measure yields six scores examining total self-esteem and four domains, the psychometric properties of the subscales are questionable and the scale is best viewed as a measure of global self-esteem (Winters, Myers & Proud, 2002).

Structure of the measure

The scale contains 58 items, eight of which form a lie scale to detect socially-desirable responding. The six areas assessed include:

  1. Total self-esteem
  2. School-academic life
  3. Social-peers
  4. Home-parents
  5. General self
  6. Lie scale

Construct validity   

Convergent validity has been established in relation to other self-esteem measures with a correlation of 0.86. Convergent validity correlations range from 0.67-0.75 and have demonstrated relationships between this measure and the concepts of depression, suicidality, locus of control and social competence.


Internal consistency ratings range from 0.75-0.95, constituting an acceptable to excellent level of reliability. Test-retest reliability is reported to be 0.88.

Evaluation and/or research that has used this measure

The Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory has been used in research for both clinical and non-clinical samples. See Winters, Myers and Proud (2002) for suggested further reading.

Specifically, the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory has been used to examine the relationship between depression and self-esteem in daughters whose mothers have depression. The results of this research are reported by Miller et al. (1999) – see ‘Other references’.

Availability of the scale

The measure is available for purchase from Mind Garden.

Burnett Self Scale

This is an Australian-designed measure that examines 10 self-esteem domains. Of particular interest for COPMI are the ‘Relationship with Mother’ and ‘Relationship with Father’ domains.

Structure of the measure

The scale is a 44-item self-report measure that contains the following subscales:

  • Physical Appearance Self-Concept Subscale
  • Physical Ability Self-Concept Subscale
  • Peer Relations Self-Concept Subscale
  • Relationship with Mother Self-Concept Subscale
  • Relationship with Father Self-Concept Subscale
  • Reading Self-Concept Subscale
  • Mathematics Self-Concept Subscale
  • Learning Self-Concept Subscale
  • School Work Self-Concept Subscale
  • Global Self-Esteem Subscale


The reliability coefficient of the global self-esteem  ubscale is high. The reported reliabilities of the other subscales are acceptable.

Evaluation and/or research that has used this measure

Up to the time of writing, the Burnett Self Scale has not been widely used in research. A shortened version of the scale has been used by Maybery, Reupert and colleagues in the COPMI area.

Availability of the scale

A pdf of the scale is available online.

Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale (Piers-Harris 2)

Piers and Herzberg (2002) revised the original scale to develop a 60-item scale designed to measure total self-concept and six self-concept domain areas. The scale is designed for use with children and adolescents aged 7-18 years. Considerable information is available on the web about this measure (eg a review by the Early Childhood Measurement and Evaluation Resource Centre (ECMERC)).

Structure of the measure

The scale contains 60 self-report items that cover the domains of:

  • Behavioural adjustment
  • Intellectual and school status
  • Physical appearance and attributes
  • Freedom from anxiety
  • Popularity
  • Happiness and satisfaction

Construct validity

See ECMERC (web address above) and others for information.


See ECMERC (web address above) and others for information.

Evaluation and/or research that has used this measure

Reviews of the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale are available in the Mental Measurements Yearbook 16 (2005).

Availability of the scale

The measure is available for purchase from ACER.

Hare Self-Esteem Scale

This 30-item scale examines self-esteem in relation to different environments whilst also providing a Total Self-Esteem score.

Structure of the measure

Three subscales are included to examine self-esteem as it relates to environments in which children find themselves: Peer, School and Home.

Construct validity

The Hare Self-Esteem Scale correlates well with other self-esteem measures and the subscales demonstrate predicted relationships with other concepts such as hopelessness, peer relations and academic achievement. For further information see Winters, Myers and Proud (2002).


No internal consistency data has been reported. Test-retest reliability ranges from fair for the subscales to moderate for overall self-esteem.

Evaluation and/or research that has used this measure

The Hare Self-Esteem Scale has not been as widely used in research as some of the other reviewed measures. See Winters, Myers and Proud (2002) for suggested further reading.

Availability of the scale

The scale is available from the developer, Professor Bruce Hare, Syracuse University, New York, email:

Harter’s Self-Perception Profiles

These scales are designed to measure self-concept by specifically looking at the individual’s perceived competence in various domains. The three scales and their target grades are:

  • Self-Perception Profile for Adolescents (SPPA) (Grades 8+)
  • Self-Perception Profile for Children (SPPC) (Grades 3-8)
  • Pictorial Scale of Perceived Competence and Social Acceptance for Young Children  SPCSA) (Preschool and Kindergarten version AND Grades 1-2 version)

Structure of the measure

Each of the measures contains a variety of subscales such as social acceptance, scholastic  competance/cognitive competence and physical appearance/competence. For details of the subscales in each measure see Winters, Myers and Proud (2002).

Construct validity

Self-Perception Profile for Adolescents: concurrent validity is reported as good by the author.

Self-Perception Profile for Children: no validity information is reported.

Pictorial Scale of Perceived Competence and Social Acceptance for Young Children (PSPCSA): Reported convergent validity correlations range from 0.32-0.80. There is also evidence of discriminant validity; the PSPCSA is able to identify children with and without spina bifida on the physical and cognitive competence subscales.


Self-Perception Profile for Adolescents: Cronbach’s alpha ranges from 0.74-0.92, suggesting acceptable reliability for all domains.

Self-Perception Profile for Children: Cronbach’s alpha ranges from 0.71-0.86, suggesting acceptable to good reliability for all domains. Test-retest reliability is also reported as acceptable.

Pictorial Scale of Perceived Competence and Social Acceptance for Young Children (PSPCSA): Cronbach’s alpha ranges from 0.50-0.85. Reliabilities of between 0.50 and 0.70 are seen as questionable, therefore some subscales of this measure may have poor reliability.

Evaluation and/or research that has used this measure

The Harter Self-Perception Profiles have been used in research for both clinical and non-clinical samples. See Winters, Myers and Proud (2002) for suggested further reading.

Availability of the scale

The scale is available from the developer, Professor Susan Harter, University of Denver, Colorado, email:

Programs or interventions

Families where a Parent has a Mental Illness (FaPMI) (formerly the VicChamps Project): this Service Development Strategy’s strategic objective is to provide a family-focused response.

Key readings

Kernis, M. H. (Ed.). (2006). Self-esteem issues and answers: a sourcebook of current perspectives. New York: Psychology Press. This book has valuable sections on facilitating self-esteem in young people and how self-esteem is influenced by interpersonal relationships.

Robson, P.J. (1988). Self-esteem: a psychiatric view. British Journal of Psychiatry, 153, 6-15.

Winters, N.C., Myers, K. & Proud, L. (2002). Ten-year review of rating scales. III: Scales assessing suicidality, cognitive style, and self-esteem. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 41, 1150-81.

Other references

Chui, L. (1988). Measures of self esteem for school-age children. Journal of Counselling and Development, 66, 298-301.

Demo, D. H. (1985). The measurement of self-esteem: refining our methods. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 6, June, 1490-1502.Miller, L., Warner, V., Wickramartne, P. & Weissman, M. (1999). Self-esteem and depression: ten year follow up of mother and offspring. Journal of Affective Disorders, 52, 41-9.

Searcy, Y. D. (2007). Placing the horse in front of the wagon: toward a conceptual understanding of the development of self-esteem in children and adolescents. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 24, 2, April, 121-31.

Willoughby, C., King, G. & Polatajko, H. (1996). A therapist’s guide to children’s self-esteem. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 50, 2, February, 124-32.

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