Self-esteem is the overall way we evaluate ourselves. Controversy characterizes the extent to which self-esteem changes during adolescence and whether there are gender differences in adolescents’ self-esteem (Harter, 2006). In one study, both boys and girls had particularly high self-esteem in childhood, but their self-esteem dropped considerably during adolescence (Robins & others, 2002). The self-esteem of girls declined more than the self-esteem of boys during adolescence in this study.
Does self-esteem in adolescence foreshadow adjustment and competence in adulthood? A New Zealand longitudinal study assessed the self-esteem of adolescents at 11, 13, and 15 years of age and then assessed the adjustment and competence of the same individuals when they were 26 years old (Trzesniewski & others, 2006). The results revealed that adults with poorer mental and physical health, worse economic prospects, and higher levels of criminal behavior were more likely to have had low self-esteem in adolescence than their better adjusted, more competent adult counterparts.
Some critics argue that developmental changes and gender differences in self-esteem during adolescence have been exaggerated (Harter, 2006). Despite the differing results and interpretations, the self-esteem of girls is likely to decline at least somewhat during early adolescence.
Why would the self-esteem of girls decline during early adolescence? One explanation points to girls’ negative body images during pubertal change. Another explanation involves the greater interest young adolescent girls take in social relationships and society’s failure to reward that interest (Impett & others, 2008).
Self-esteem reflects perceptions that do not always match reality (Krueger, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2008). An adolescent’s self-esteem might indicate a perception about whether he or she is intelligent and attractive, for example, but that perception may not be accurate. Thus, high self-esteem may refer to accurate, justified perceptions of one’s worth as a person and one’s successes and accomplishments, but it can also indicate an arrogant, grandiose, unwarranted sense of superiority over others. In the same manner, low self-esteem may suggest either an accurate perception of one’s shortcomings or a distorted, even pathological insecurity and inferiority.
Narcissism refers to a self-centered and self-concerned approach toward others. Typically, narcissists are unaware of their actual self and how others perceive them. ThIs lack of awareness contributes to their adjustment problems. Narcissists are excessively self-centered and selfcongratulatory, viewing their own needs and desires as paramount.
Are today’s adolescents and emerging adults more self-centered and narcissistic than their counterparts in earlier generations? Research by Jean Twenge and her colleagues (2008a, b) indicated that compared with Baby Boomers who were surveyed in 1975, twelfth-graders surveyed in 2006 were more self-satisfied overall and far more confident that they would be very good employees, mates, and parents. However, other recent large-scale analyses have revealed no increase in high school and college students’ narcissism from the 1980s through the first generation of the twenty-first century (Roberts, Edmonds, & Grijalva, 2010; Trzesniewski & Donnellan, 2010; Trzesniewski, Donnellan, & Robins, 2008a, b).
In one recent analysis, age changes in narcissism were much stronger than generation changes (Roberts, Edmonds, & Grijalva, 2010). In this study, across three generations, college students were the most narcissistic, followed by their parents, and then students’ grandparents were the least narcissistic. These researchers say that is more accurate to label today’s adolescents and emerging adults developmental me rather than generational me.