How Names Play a Role in (Lifelong and) Childhood Anxiety: Part 1

nameA child named Stress Ball Billy may have a tough road ahead. Not only is the name unusual, and not in a good way, but can also play a huge role in his personality as well as his destiny.

Thus it would not be a surprise if Stress Ball Billy grew up to suffer severe anxiety and stress. Nor would it be a surprise to find out his parents viewed their new baby as an unwanted burden that brought them plenty of tension and, well, stress.

Stress Ball Billy would not only get ridiculed at school for his name, but he could also become so stressed out and fueled with anxiety that he drops dead of a heart attack at age 22.

Even if such an example sounds far-fetched, it’s not that far from reality. That’s because names reflect and shape us much more than we may realize, as pointed out by Behind the Name writer and researcher H. Edward Deluzain.

Names can have a dramatic impact on a child’s personality, self-concept and psychological state throughout his or her entire life. Names can also be a reflection of the parents’ own psychological issues, even if the parents are not aware they even have any.

A Name’s Impact on Self-Concept 

Self-concept, or the perception one has of oneself, starts early in life. It comes from cues children get from the world around them, with their parents leading the pack as No. 1 message senders. Children also receive cues from their teachers, classmates, babysitters, friends and others they come in contact with throughout their childhood.

Once self-concept is formed, it plays a role in how someone acts. If a boy thinks of himself as smart, for instance, he may indeed buckle down on his studies, perform well in school and always raise his hand in class. If a girl sees herself as strong, she may be eager and willing to try out for sports, run for class president or plan a career as a firefighter.

Those with self-concepts of being dumb or weak, on the other hand, can also sadly act accordingly. Even if the child who thinks he’s dumb happens to be more intelligent than the boy who thinks of himself as smart, chances are high each will live up to his self-concept.

Here’s where a name can play a crucial role. A child’s name influences the types of messages he or she receives from other people and sets the stage for development. So-called desirable names can lead to desirable results, with acceptance and respect as the overriding messages. Names considered undesirable can instead result in derision and disregard.

Which names are considered desirable change over time and vary from culture to culture. A lineup of the most popular baby names for 2012 gives a quick glimpse of popular or desirable names in different regions.

Top 5 Baby Names in 2012


  • US: Sophia, Emma, Olivia, Isabella, Ava
  • Australia: Charlotte, Ruby, Lily, Olivia, Chloe
  • Europe: Olivia, Lily, Sophie, Amelia, Emily


  • US: Aiden, Jackson, Ethan, Liam, Mason
  • Australia: Jack, William, Noah, Ethan, Oliver
  • Europe: Harry, Jack, Oliver, Charlie, Alfie

Desirable names typically have positive, friendly feelings associated them, while undesirable names can bring feelings of repulsion or scorn. Even if a person doesn’t realize he or she is sending a message one way or the other, the person holding that name can have either positive or negative feelings reinforced throughout a lifetime.

‘Desirable’ vs. Undesirable Names 

A study out of Tulane University looked at the effects of desirable vs. undesirable names by asking teachers to rate a number of students’ names and then offering the students a series of tests examining self-concept and personality.

Students with desirable names showed:

  • Considerable higher levels of adjustment
  • Fewer conflicts regarding self-image

Another study, this one out of West Virginia Wesleyan College, looked at the effects on personality if children found their own first names undesirable. Students who didn’t like their first names were far less positive toward themselves than those who did like their names.

Last names can be even trickier, since parents don’t have as much as a say in what last name most of us carry. Last names, too, can have a multi-faceted impact on a child’s life, as evidenced by a case history of a man with the last name Stankey.

What Happened to a Boy Named Stankey

The Stankey case study, noted by Deluzain, comes from Boston psychiatrist Dr. William Murphy. Mr. Stankey came for psychoanalysis with the chief complaint of suffering from excessive underarm sweating and odor, which he said made it impossible for him to make friends.

Sessions with Stankey eventually uncovered:

  • Stankey had been nicknamed “Stinky” by his childhood peers
  • Stankey had been ridiculed by peers holding their noses and waving their hands as if faced with a horrific stench
  • Stankey thus withdrew, becoming aloof and distancing himself from the group
  • Stankey’s mother made fun of the family name
  • Both his mother and father happened to be compulsive about any type of odor

Although Stankey at first denied any issues with his name, it was later discovered he unconsciously blamed his dad for:

  • His own inability to make friends and social problems
  • Giving him the last name that led to ridicule
  • Giving him the last name that made him physically stink

Digging deeper still, the main underlying issue behind Stankey’s woe ended up being his own self-concept.

“In effect,” Deluvain writes, “the patient had come to see himself as ‘stinky,’ and this, in turn, made him act the way he thought a stinky person was supposed to act.” 

Just imagine what could happen to Stress Ball Billy.

Coming Soon: Part 2 of How Names Play a Role in Lifelong and Childhood Anxiety


Study info:

  • Murphy, William F. “A Note on the Significance of Names.” Psychoanalytical Quarterly 26 (1957): 91-106.
  • Strunk, Orlo, Jr. “Attitudes Toward One’s Name and One’s Self.” Journal of Individual Psychology 14 (1958): 64-67.

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