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A Therapeutic Model for the Development of Self-Esteem

By T. Lee Burnham, PhD
Rocky Mountain Center for Human Development, 
Salt Lake City, Utah

Years ago as a young graduate student, I listened to one of my favorite professors, Dr. Alan Anderson at the University of Minnesota, discuss the role of birth order in the development of self-esteem. As a behaviorist, my initial response was mostly to dismiss the concept as irrelevant. 

Dr. Anderson had a series of identical metal rocking chairs in his office that brought back many special memories because when I was born, my father had bought one just like those for my mother when I was born. Dr. Anderson told me that when I completed my PhD, he would give one of his rocking chairs to me if I would hear him out and come to a more complete understanding of his ideas. In the process of several years of long and lengthy discussions, he won me over and started my mind thinking in an entirely different direction. So I give credit for what I write here to Dr. Alan Anderson. 

Over the years of my clinical practice, I have come to believe that the very beginning of the development of self-esteem has to do with the quality of the relationship between the parents or significant adults in a child’s environment at birth. 

At birth, a child gains an ability to observe his or her environment and an important part of that observation is the ability to observe how their mother is treated. The first gift children receive comes from their observation of the way their mother is treated. If the mother is treated as a person of worth and value, the child makes an automatic assumption that he or she is a person of worth and value as well. 

I continually tell fathers how important the way they treat and interact with their wives is—to both their wives and their children. Fathers should always treat the mother of their children with respect. The way in which a man speaks and treats his wife should clearly indicate that he sees her as a person of great worth and value, and an equal in power and authority in governing the affairs of their family. 

The Impact of Birth Order on Self-Esteem

  • ?The first principle is that the self-esteem of the oldest child in the family greatly depends on the quality of the emotional bond and relationship between the first child and the father.

The first child in a family enjoys the attention of both parents—until the appearance of the second child. I submit that at this point, the eldest child turns to the father as a result of the mother’s preoccupation with the new addition to the family.

  • If the father-child connection goes well, the child’s process of developing a strong and stable self-esteem continues to move in a positive direction. When the emotional bond and connection does not take place between the father and the first-born child, the child may end up facing major difficulties as an adult.

The second principle is that the self-esteem of the second child in the family depends primarily on the quality of the emotional bond and relationship between the second child and the mother.

  • The third principle is that the self-esteem of the third child in the family greatly depends on the quality of the relationship between the parents.

The third child enters a balanced system and as a result becomes what Dr. Anderson called “the watcher.” This child seems to focus his or her attention on observing the quality of the relationship between the parents and actually seems to take some responsibility for preserving that relationship.

  • The fourth principle is that the self-esteem of the fourth child in the family depends on the quality of the relationships, structure, and stability of the family.

The fourth child is the “garbage collector.” He or she seems to take what is left over and is influenced by the strength and quality of the family system as a whole.

With the fifth child, the process starts all over again, with a slight addition. The self-esteem of the fifth child in the family depends on the quality of the emotional bond and relationship between the fifth child and the father as well as between the fifth child and the oldest child. 

Using an Understanding of the Impact of Birth Order to Help Clients

Self-esteem describes how people feel about themselves. It is a quiet response to the self—a sense of self-respect. When you have it deep inside, you are glad you are you. With it, you don’t need to spend energy impressing others; you know you have value. 

Self-esteem begins with childhood experiences. The degree of self-esteem each person has is bolstered by continued successful experiences. Each individual’s judgment of self influences the kinds of friends they choose, how they get along with others, the kind of person they marry, and how productive they will be. Self-esteem affects creativity, integrity, and stability. Self-esteem forms the core of personality and determines how individuals will make use of their aptitudes and abilities. 

If my client is an oldest child and suffering from self-esteem issues, it only makes sense to at least inquire about the relationship between the client and his or her father. If this is productive, I have saved some exploration time—if not, nothing lost. 

A mental health counselor helps clients build a firm and wholehearted belief in self. Strong self-respect and self-esteem are based on the conviction that each client is lovable, matters, and has value simply because he or she exists. When clients feel they are worthwhile, they can handle their environment with competence, and they know they have something to offer others. 

As director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Human Development, T. Lee Burnham, PhD, has worked extensively with youths and families to create positive learning environments in homes and schools. He also spends a significant time teaching and training potential mental health counselors. For more information, visit his website at <>.