Self-esteem and early attachment

By Tina Bjarnskov, Senior Psychologist

In therapy I often talk to clients about self-esteem.

Self-esteem refers to an inherent sense of value and worthiness; a sense that we are good enough just by being alive and breathing.

My clients often suffer from a lack of self-esteem and more often than not they even scold themselves for not having more of it! “I always need other people to tell me, that I’m good enough.” Why can’t I just believe in myself and my own worth and not care what other people think?”  Self-esteem is a tricky thing – it’s true that it’s an inherent more or less consistent, inner sense of being good enough, but originally it came from our interactions with other people.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the first building blocks of self-esteem; early childhood attachment.

Attachment theory, pioneered by John Bowlby and further developed by Mary Ainsworth, states that infants are biologically predisposed to seek proximity to their primary caregivers in times of distress or discomfort. Through sensitive and responsive caregiving, caregivers provide a secure base from which infants can explore the world and a safe haven to return to when in need of comfort and reassurance.

Key Components of attachment:

Secure base:

Caregivers serve as a secure base from which infants can confidently explore their environment, knowing that they have a source of support and protection to return to if needed. This sense of security allows infants to develop curiosity, independence, and a positive orientation toward the world around them.

Safe haven:

Caregivers also serve as a safe haven, offering comfort, soothing, and emotional regulation when infants experience distress or discomfort. By responding promptly and sensitively to their child’s needs, caregivers foster a sense of trust, security, and emotional resilience in their infant.

Impact of Early Childhood Attachment on Self-Esteem:

Internalization of caregiver responses:

During early childhood, infants internalize their interactions with caregivers, forming mental representations or “internal working models” of themselves and others. In secure attachment relationships, infants internalize positive perceptions of themselves as worthy of love, care, and attention, laying the groundwork for healthy self-esteem.

Sense of worthiness and belonging:

Securely attached children develop a fundamental sense of worthiness and belongingness, stemming from their experiences of consistent and attuned caregiving. They learn that their needs matter, that they are valued and respected, and that they are deserving of love and affection, all of which contribute to a positive sense of self-worth.

Emotional regulation and coping skills:

Secure attachment relationships provide a buffer against stress and adversity, equipping children with effective coping skills and emotional regulation strategies. When faced with challenges or setbacks, securely attached children are more likely to seek support, express their emotions openly, and bounce back resiliently, bolstering their self-esteem in the process.

Interpersonal relationships:

The quality of early childhood attachment lays the groundwork for subsequent interpersonal relationships throughout life. Children who experience secure attachment are more likely to form trusting, supportive relationships characterized by mutual respect, empathy, and intimacy, further enhancing their sense of self-worth and belongingness.

In this way early childhood attachment serves as a cornerstone for the development of self-esteem, providing a secure foundation upon which positive self-perceptions and interpersonal relationships can flourish. By fostering secure attachment relationships characterized by sensitivity, responsiveness, and emotional attunement, caregivers play an important role in nurturing children’s self-esteem and resilience from the very outset of life. As we recognize the profound impact of early childhood attachment on self-esteem, we gain valuable insights into the critical importance of providing loving, supportive, and nurturing environments for infants and young children to thrive and flourish.