This thesis reports on three discrete studies undertaken to examine the relationship between parental perception of low power in relation to their child, child experience of shame, and low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is associated with the perception that other people are not sufficiently approving or accepting of one’s self or behaviours, and this negative self-evaluation has implications for life-long psychological health. Given the long-term negative outcomes of low self-esteem, both for the individual and society, there is a need to better understand the elemental nature of the construct and its development. The self-evaluative emotion of shame is thought by some to underlie low self-esteem (Bernichon, Cook, & Brown, 2003; J. Tangney, 1999) and was taken as the focus of this study. One of the mechanisms of shame in very young children is thought to be parental derogation—a style of interaction seen in low power parents. This being so, it would be expected that low power parents would have children who reported low self-esteem.
Study One, outlined here, examined this hypothesis. Study One examined the reported self-esteem levels of seven and eight year old children, in concert with parental cognitions. Findings of this study showed that girls of low power mothers reported lower levels of self-esteem than either girls of high power mothers or boys of low or high power mothers. Low power mothers also perceived their daughters as being more non-compliant and more deliberately intentional in their misbehaviour than did high power mothers.
In Study Two, a new instrument was developed and trialled. This measure, the Socio-Emotional Measure of Shame in Young Children (SEMSYC), was designed to assess shame and the perception of maternal feedback in pre-school age children. The development of this measure was necessary as no suitable instrument was available for this purpose. The findings of this study were twofold. Firstly, it found that the measure was a reliable means of assessing child shame in the pre-school child, and secondly, it revealed a strong association between child shame and child perceived negative maternal feedback.
Study Three then gathered data using the SEMSYC with a different population of children and their parents, in order to assess shame and perceived negative parental feedback in relation to parental power and parental stress. Results of this study confirmed the measure’s psychometric strength and, in addition found that low power mothers, as a group reported greater stress and less satisfaction with their parenting than did either high power mothers or high or low power fathers. The children of low power mothers, however, were no different in their reports of maternal negativity or their expression of v shame than the children of high power mothers. Data were also collected from fathers in this study and analysis showed that reported levels of child shame did not differ between high and low power fathers.
Although little research has been undertaken into the determinants of self-esteem in children, it has been suggested that a sense of low power in parents may lead to the use of certain parenting behaviours that could be detrimental to the development of a child’s healthy sense of self. This thesis predicted that low perceived control by parents over parenting outcomes (low power parents) would be related to (a) low self-esteem in eight year olds, (b) the perception of negative parental feedback in young children, and (c) increased shame proneness. Analysis of the data found that girls of low power mothers reported lower levels of self-esteem than did either boys of low power mothers or boys or girls of high power mothers. No effect was found for child shame proneness or child perception of parental negative feedback and low power in parents, although low power parents showed greater levels of parenting stress than did high power parents.
It is seen that these studies have implications for both practice and future research for both children and parents. In terms of practice, and with regard to children, the SEMSYC has provided a previously unavailable means for the assessment of shame in pre-school children. Secondly, the SEMSYC confirmed that three year olds have the ability to discriminate emotional expressions and site them within appropriate contexts. This validation allows for its use as a measure of normative emotional development in young children. Finally, its flexibility in allowing for non-verbal responses may make it applicable to groups who have intellectual or language impairments. These studies are seen to inform parenting practices as it has been shown that parental cognitions and parental perception of power are significantly associated with reported levels of stress. Any intervention programs that attempt to modify parent-child interactions should consider the role of parental cognitions.
Future research should continue to investigate the relationship between shame and its influence on self-esteem in the early years. It is suggested that alternative methods of investigation could be considered, such as a combination of parenting questionnaires and observation of free-play parent-child interaction, such as those used in studies of the toddler years. These techniques would permit a more authentic assessment of parenting practices and disciplinary strategies. In addition, future studies into the influence of parenting cognitions and power need to be of a triadic nature in order to examine the role played by both mothers and fathers, and their unique influence on the emotional development of young children.