Self-esteem, or how an individual feels about themselves (Leary and Baumeister
), is considered to be an important indicator of psychological functioning (McCauley et al.
). People with high self-esteem are generally happier and more likely to enjoy close friendships (Leary et al.
). In contrast, low self-esteem is one of the strongest predictors of emotional and behavioural problems (Leary et al.
) and has been implicated in a variety of youth problems (Barry et al.
), including the development of antisocial behaviour (ASB; Trzesniewski et al.
Low self-esteem has been reported in numerous antisocial populations including children and adolescents with conduct problems (Barry et al.
), adolescents at-risk of future ASB (Barry et al.
), adolescents with conduct disorder (CD; Glass et al.
) and youth offenders (Matsuura et al.
). In addition to cross-sectional studies that have found that antisocial individuals display lower levels of self-esteem than typically developing individuals, longitudinal studies suggest that low self-esteem is predictive of subsequent behaviour problems and ASB. For example, Donnellan et al. (
) found that 11 year olds with low self-esteem showed an increase in aggression by age 13. Similarly, Trzesniewski et al. (
) found that individuals who had low self-esteem during adolescence were more likely to have received a criminal conviction during adulthood than those with high self-esteem.
Although the majority of literature exploring the relationship between self-esteem and ASB suggests that low self-esteem is associated with ASB (Walker and Bright
), some research indicates that ASB is most likely to occur when a person with
self-esteem comes into contact with someone who challenges that self-view (Papps and O'Carroll
). Indeed, aggressive children have been found to have higher, idealised self-perceptions of themselves compared to non-aggressive children (Hughes et al.
) and narcissism (i.e., a grandiose self-view) has been shown to lead to high levels of aggression (Bushman et al.
There are different explanations that could account for these seemingly conflicting findings. Crucially, when determining whether low or high self-esteem is associated with ASB it is important to consider how self-esteem was defined and measured. Studies that have found high self-esteem to be associated with ASB have often used measures of narcissism as an indicator of high self-esteem (Bushman et al.
; Baumeister et al.
; Thomaes et al.
), therefore assuming that low self-esteem and narcissism are at opposite ends of the same spectrum (Donnellan et al.
). However, more recent research suggests that narcissism and self-esteem are best conceptualised as two distinct but related forms of self-perception (Barry et al.
) and as such, narcissism and high self-esteem should not be considered synonymous constructs (Barry et al.
It has been argued that narcissism may be a defence mechanism to hide an individual’s feelings of insecurity and actually be an indicator of underlying low self-esteem (Barry et al.
). As such, low self-esteem could be a risk factor that links narcissism to aggression. Indeed, in 9–15 year olds displaying symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and CD, it was the combination of low self-esteem
high narcissism that was associated with the highest levels of behavioural problems (Barry et al.
), providing further evidence that self-esteem and narcissism should be considered separately and that low self-esteem is associated with conduct problems in children and adolescents.
While ASB and behavioural problems appear to be associated with low general self-esteem, this does not appear to be the case for all dimensions of self-perception. A body of research indicates that children with behavioural problems actually perceive their social competence overly optimistically (Hughes et al.
). Indeed, Hughes et al. (
) found that, while teachers rated aggressive children as having experienced more peer rejection than non-aggressive children, aggressive children and non-aggressive children’s self-rated levels of social competence were comparable. Hughes et al. (
) propose that a self-enhancing bias accounts for the optimistic self-views that children with behavioural problems hold and suggest that this bias exists as a defence mechanism to protect children’s sense of security and self-worth (Hughes et al.
). On the other hand, it has also been suggested that the bias is a result of a hyposensitivity to negative feedback (Zakriski and Coie (
). Whatever the underlying reason, the self-enhancing bias appears to be specific to self-perceptions of social competence and quality of peer relationships. Diamantopoulou et al. (
) investigated peer relations in children with symptoms of aggressive behaviour and ADHD and found that aggressive behaviour was related to more negative self-perceptions of behavioural conduct and lower global self-worth but was
related to more feelings of loneliness.
Evidence of a self-enhancing bias in children with behavioural problems adds to the large body of literature that suggests antisocial individuals are impaired in a number of processes related to emotion and social cognition (Hughes et al.
), including emotion recognition. Research consistently finds antisocial individuals to display an impairment in the recognition of negative emotions, which is thought to contribute to the development and persistence of ASB (Blair
). An impairment in the ability to recognise facial displays of negative emotions has been found in children with conduct problems (van Goozen
), adolescents with CD (Fairchild et al.
), and youth offenders (Bowen et al.
Emotion recognition is a key part of emotional intelligence (Rey et al.
) and research suggests there is a positive relationship between emotional intelligence and self-esteem (Ciarrochi et al.
; Rey et al.
; Schutte et al.
). Although self-esteem and emotional intelligence appear to be positively related, to our knowledge this relationship has not been explored in children with behavioural problems. McCauley et al. (
), however, did explore the relationship between self-esteem and a social-cognitive process closely related to emotion recognition: Theory of Mind (ToM). They found that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) showed both, an impairment in ToM and lower self-esteem compared to typically developing individuals. Moreover, ToM and self-esteem were negatively correlated in children with ASD suggesting, not only that self-esteem and socio-cognitive abilities are related, but also that self-esteem is lower in those with impairments in processes related to social cognition. Thus, we might also expect children who show an impairment in emotion recognition to show lower levels of self-esteem than those who do not, and for these two processes to be related,
The current study examined the relation between self-esteem and emotion recognition ability in children with behavioural problems and typically developing controls. We expected children with behavioural problems to report lower global self-esteem and perceive their behavioural conduct more poorly compared to typically developing controls but the two groups would not differ in their self-perceived social competence. We also expected children with behavioural problems to display an impairment in emotion recognition. Given the relationship between self-esteem and emotional intelligence (Schutte et al.
) and the fact that self-esteem appears to emanate from processes closely linked to social cognition, including emotion recognition (McCauley et al.
), we expected self-esteem and emotion recognition to be related and both to be associated with the severity of behavioural problems.
The first aim of the current study was to assess and compare self-esteem and emotion recognition in children with behavioural problems and typically developing controls. Our results confirm previous findings of low global self-esteem, low self-perceptions of behavioural conduct and impaired emotion recognition in children with behavioural problems and support the existence of a ‘self-enhancing bias’ regarding self-perceived social competence. The second aim of the study was to explore the relationships between self-esteem, emotion recognition and behavioural characteristics. For the first time our results indicate that self-esteem and emotion recognition are positively related and inversely associated with severity of behavioural problems. Moreover, we found that self-esteem and emotion recognition, independently of each other, predicted behavioural problems.
The results of the current study are in line with previous work that has found self-esteem to be lower in children and adolescents with behavioural and conduct problems compared to typically developing controls (Barry et al.
; Glass et al.
). In addition, the current study demonstrates that low self-esteem predicted behavioural problems independently of an impairment in emotion recognition, a neuropsychological correlate of, and risk factor for, ASB (van Goozen
). While both global self-esteem and self-perceived behavioural conduct were lower in children with behavioural problems than in typically developing controls, there was no difference between the two groups in self-perceptions of their social competence. This is in contrast to results on the SDQ which showed that both parents and teachers reported that children with behavioural problems displayed a significantly higher number of peer problems than the typically developing control children. This confirms previous suggestions that children with behavioural problems view their own social competence overly optimistically, resulting in a ‘self-enhancing bias’ (Hughes et al.
The current study found that children with behavioural problems had lower self-esteem and impaired negative emotion recognition compared to typically developing controls. Moreover, this is the first study to show that self-esteem and emotion recognition are positively related, significantly expanding on previous work that has suggested such a relationship might exist. The Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) is part of a recent attempt to create new ways of classifying mental illness; it advocates studying the processes underlying mental health problems (Insel et al.
). The RDoC identified six primary domains of behavioural functioning, one of which was the ‘systems for social processes’. This dimension encompasses processes, behaviour and mechanisms which mediate responses in interpersonal settings (
). Both emotion recognition and self-perception were identified as core constructs in this domain and research shows that both self-esteem/self-perception and emotion recognition are essential for successful social interaction (Hunnikin and van Goozen
; Mann et al.
). This study is the first to show that these two processes, both necessary for successful functioning in interpersonal settings, are related to one another.
Although the current study shows that self-esteem and emotion recognition are related, a hierarchical regression analysis found that self-esteem and emotion recognition predicted behavioural problems independently of one another. This suggests that while they are related processes, they are distinct risk factors for ASB. This has important implications when formulating interventions and treatment strategies for individuals displaying behavioural problems. Such strategies, and policy and practice decisions need to take into account that while self-esteem and emotion recognition are related process and risk factors for and correlates of ASB, they need to be considered separately.
The current study found inverse associations between both global self-esteem and self-perceived behavioural conduct, on the one hand, and conduct problem severity and total SDQ score, an indicator of mental health and well-being, on the other. This is in line with previous research that has found that lower levels of self-esteem in adolescence are associated with/ higher levels of criminal activity and mental health problems in adulthood (Trzesniewski et al.
). Like self-esteem, emotion recognition was found to be inversely associated with total SDQ score and in addition, an inverse association was also found between peer problems and emotion recognition. Good emotion recognition enables individuals to initiate and maintain social relationships (Hunnikin and van Goozen
) and the inverse relationship between emotion recognition and peer problems demonstrates that the reverse is also true.
Although the current findings offer promising new avenues for research it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this study. There were differences between the BP and TD groups in terms of demographic characteristics (SES, IQ, age) and as such we cannot rule out their contribution to our findings. SES was not associated with either self-perception or emotion recognition ability while age was significantly related to performance on the SPPC, but not to performance on the FER, and IQ was significantly related to performance on the FER, but not to performance on the SPPC. However, hierarchical regression analyses showed that self-perception and emotion recognition both significantly predicted behavioural problems even when controlling for age and IQ respectively. It therefore seems unlikely that differences in demographic characteristics are responsible for the difference between BP and TD groups in self-perception and emotion recognition. However, future research should ensure participant groups are matched to confirm that any differences in these processes are attributable to behavioural problems and not due to differences in demographic characteristics. A further limitation of the current study is the heterogeneous nature of the sample; children were included in the behavioural problems group if they displayed a high number of peer problems and/or conduct problems, and/or low levels of prosocial behaviour. Future research could explore self-esteem and emotion recognition in more narrowly defined samples and neurodevelopmental disorders characterised by externalising problems to establish whether the same results are found as in the current study.
Along with low self-esteem and impaired emotion recognition ability, a host of other risk factors have been implicated in the development of ASB. Understanding how these risk factors interact with one another, as well as with behaviour, is crucial for improving policy and practice. Future research should expand on the research conducted in the current study and explore the relationships between other risk factors for ASB. Understanding how risk factors interact, and how this may lead to the development of ASB may help with the early identification of children at-risk for conduct problems and enable them to receive help and support at the earliest point.
The current study compared self-esteem and emotion-recognition in children who were identified by their teachers as having behavioural problems to a group of typically developing controls, and examined the relationship between self-esteem, emotion recognition and severity of behavioural problems. Our results indicate that children with behavioural problems have lower global self-esteem, poorer perceptions of their behaviour and display an impairment in emotion recognition compared to typically developing children. There was no difference, however, self-perceived social competence did not differ between the two groups which may be indicative of a self-enhancing bias in children with behavioural problems. Self-esteem and emotion recognition were positively related and both were inversely associated with severity of behavioural problems. Moreover, they both predicted behavioural problems independently of one another. Our findings indicate that the well-documented impairments in self-esteem and emotion recognition in those with behavioural problems may be related. The impairments in these related, but distinct processes, should be taken into account when considering the development of intervention and prevention programmes for children exhibiting ASB.
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