Michelle was a 15-year-old African American female in the ninth grade at a private middle school when she completed the Piers-Harris 3. She was living at home with her parents and two younger sisters (ages 9 and 7). Michelle’s parents were both business executives who worked long hours. As a result, Michelle was frequently responsible for taking care of her sisters after school and in the early evenings. Michelle’s grades in school were mostly As, with some Bs. She was involved in several extracurricular activities, including track and field and the journalism club. She was being evaluated by a psychologist at the request of her parents, who expressed concern because she had become withdrawn and uncommunicative at home during the previous year.
For Michelle’s Piers-Harris 3 profile, validity issues were considered first. The Total (TOT) score was not consistent with positive exaggeration. The Response Bias (RES) and Inconsistent Responding (INC) index scores (51T and 43T, respectively) did not indicate the presence of response bias or random responding. The profile appeared valid for further interpretation.
Michelle’s overall self-concept was in the Low range (TOT = 36T ). Michelle reported significant doubts about her own self-worth over a variety of situations and tasks. She appeared to feel less competent and talented than most of her peers.
The next step was to examine Michelle’s domain scale scores and item responses in order to help identify the specific feelings and behaviors that contributed to her low self-concept. Michelle appeared to have relatively strong self-evaluations with regard to peer relationships (Social Acceptance [SOC] = 54T ). Her item responses showed that she felt that other teenagers liked her and that she had many friends. She acknowledged being shy (Item 57, “I am shy”), but apparently this had not detracted from her generally positive view of her social functioning.
The other five domain scales demonstrated vulnerabilities in Michelle’s self-concept. Most worrisome were the Freedom From Anxiety (FRE) and Happiness and Satisfaction (HAP) scale scores, which were in the Very Low and Low range, respectively (28T and 34T ). Michelle’s item responses on these two scales suggested that she frequently felt sad and anxious. She reported many worries, especially about her school performance (yes to Item 7, “I get nervous when the teacher calls on me,” and Item 13, “I get worried when we have tests in school”). She also expressed a basic dissatisfaction with herself (e.g., yes to Item 25, “I wish I were different”).
Michelle’s score on the Intellectual and School Status (INT) scale was in the Low range (33T ), suggesting that she felt negative about her academic performance. This was not consistent with her history of good grades. A possible explanation is that she had unrealistically high expectations for her grades (e.g., she considered anything less than a perfect report card a failure). These sorts of expectations are sometimes communicated by achievement-oriented parents. In Michelle’s case, this was certainly a possibility, as both of her parents were highly educated professionals.
On the Physical Appearance and Attributes (PHY) scale, Michelle scored in the Low range (37T ), indicating that she may have had poor self-concept in relation to her body image. Indeed, examination of the items on this scale that relate to physical appearance showed that she endorsed all but one in the direction of negative self-concept. Michelle also scored in the Low range (38T ) on the Behavioral Adjustment (BEH) scale. This score indicated that she saw herself neither as a serious troublemaker nor as a perfectly behaved teenager. Inspection of the item responses revealed that some of Michelle’s concerns related to perceived failure to measure up to her parents’ standards (e.g., yes to Item 44, “My parents (or caregivers) expect too much of me,” and Item 8, “My family is disappointed in me”). She did not endorse items representing aggressive tendencies or disruptive behavior at school.
Taken together, Michelle’s Piers-Harris 3 results indicated serious deficits in her self-concept, and that further psychological evaluation was warranted. Michelle reported low self-concept across many areas, most acutely in relation to her physical appearance and her perceived failure to meet her parents’ expectations. She also endorsed a high level of current emotional distress and expressed a basic dissatisfaction with herself. On the positive side, she saw herself as able to relate effectively with her peers, and to establish and maintain satisfying friendships.
After further testing and interviewing, the psychologist determined that Michelle was suffering from depression and an eating disorder. Michelle revealed that she had secretly been engaging in binge-eating and purging behaviors during the year before her evaluation. She confessed that she was upset about the way her body had changed since puberty. She also stated that she was worried she would not get into a good college if she did not improve her grades. The psychologist recommended a two-part treatment plan for Michelle. First, she suggested that Michelle and her parents enter family therapy to work on improving communication and developing more reasonable expectations for Michelle’s academic work. Second, the psychologist recommended that Michelle take part in a cognitive-behavioral group for teenagers with eating disorders. The psychologist felt that the group therapy format might capitalize on Michelle’s strong self-concept in the area of peer relations.
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