Written by Karl Perera, MA, DipLC
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Teenagers are particularly susceptible to low self esteem. There are many reasons why this is so including the fact that they are experiencing huge changes during this early period of their lives. Teens experience so many ups and downs and have to adapt and learn quickly from the events that happen to them including mistakes as well as successes. It is a time of self discovery, yet the ability to cope with being a teenager and all that encompasses and maintain self confidence at the same time is very challenging.
I’ve been writing about self esteem and self confidence for more than twenty years and have published a book about the subject. I have worked with coaching clients and students of all ages and academic ability. I understand how important it is for a teen to develop and maintain healthy self esteem because I suffered from critical issues during my own time as a teenager, including an inferiority complex and depression. So let me guide you here as you seek to understand why teens suffer from low self esteem, what are the main causes and how teenagers can learn to cope and build their self-esteem.
Self esteem is an important issue for teens because comparison between teens is very common. Body image can foster low self esteem. Teenagers face many stressful new life experiences and change. Healthy self esteem helps teens to cope with these challenges.
Self esteem for teens is quite a complex topic. So, whether you are a teen yourself looking for help or a parent looking for information on how to help your teenage son or daughter, or a browser stopping by, the information and advice I offer here should be very helpful.
Why do so many teenagers suffer low self esteem?
There are a number of reasons why teens, in particular, face the risk of developing low self esteem. According to this study by McClure et al. (2010), the following are major problem areas that can cause self esteem issues:
- Academic achievement
- Treatment by parents
- Participation in group sports
- Watching TV
- Race and gender can also cause extra problems too
I think that some of the above are fairly obvious and easy to explain but I would like to talk about a few of the above and why they cause problems for teens.
Treatment by Parents
We learn so much from our parents. This includes our values and how we see the world and ourselves as part of it. When parents mistreat their children either physically or mentally, it can have long-lasting effects on a child’s self esteem that can continue into adulthood.
If a parent continuously puts a child down, then we shouldn’t be surprised if that child develops into a teenager with low self-worth and other associated mental health problems. Unfortunately, this is all too common. Even when a parent means well and tries to be, what they consider, a caring parent, they can easily influence a child’s self-concept and view of the world with their own actions and words.
So, if you are a parent, take care to do your best to encourage and boost confidence in your child. Be careful what you say and do, especially when you get frustrated and angry, as all parents do. I have a son and a daughter and I know from personal experience how challenging parenting can be. I tried to help my children to become confident in themselves, being sensitive to this problem because of my past experience of the low self esteem I suffered as a teenager and adult. I tried not to repeat the mistakes that I feel were made by my parents despite the fact that they tried their best.
I realise that for some, parents’ actions can be extremely damaging. When a parent does not have or show the love a child needs, this is very harmful. The insecurity felt by the child can last long after he or she becomes an adult. Then there are some who are physically or mentally abused (or both) and who can become scarred for life.
My thoughts are with those unfortunate children who often become very unhappy and depressed teenagers. Please, let’s never forget how important you are in the life of your child, and your love is the most valuable gift you can give.
Self Esteem for Teens: How Can Participation in Group Sports Help
When teenagers play sports that involve teams this is a social bonding experience. These group activities are especially important to teens. With sporting performance comes encouragement and improved self-confidence. As a valuable team member self-esteem is increased. the opposite is true. Can you remember the feeling of lining up for a team and not being picked? It’s soul-destroying if it happens regularly.
Personally, I can remember the feeling of getting picked for the school athletic team and the house team too. I was good at sports and particularly at running. It did help my low self esteem quite a bit, though it seems it was not enough. Yes, success in team sports is very important to form friends and to shine socially.
What are the Effects of Low Self Esteem for Teens?
Unfortunately the effects of low self esteem on teens can be quite wide-ranging and in some cases severe. The main effects include social withdrawal and isolation, lack of friends, depression, suicidal feelings, negative thinking, anxiety, stress, violent behaviour, eating disorders and poor academic achievement.
Wang and Veugelers (2008) also explain how low self esteem in the teen years can affect adult life as well and may even become long-term. They note that poor education, unemployment, criminality, lower pay and money problems can all be related to low self esteem stemming from teenage years.
What is the Effect of Race on Self Esteem in Teens?
Some interesting findings about the effect of race on self esteem:
Black teens are not as likely to develop low self esteem as white teenagers.
Latinos have also been shown to have lower self-esteem levels compared to whites and blacks.
See this article for more detailed information comparing race and self-esteem in teenagers.
What is the Difference in Self Esteem Between Teenage Girls and Boys?
As in other studies, McClure et al found that female teenagers had higher rates of low self esteem, compared to males. in fact, the claim is made here that from research females were twice as likely to suffer from low self esteem compared to males. This is a significant difference. One way of explaining this difference may be in the fact that many girls seem to be affected by negative body image issues. This does also exist for males but it is much less of a factor.
I spoke with an experienced Special Needs Coordinator (sENCO), Jo Wilkes, who has worked at the University of Cambridge supporting disabled students in their studies. She is currently working with teenagers in a Cambridge school and completing her Masters in Educational Psychology. She explained how important she believes self esteem is for teenagers and what can be done to help them become more confident.
I asked Jo the following question:
How serious an issue is self esteem in teens in your experience and what do you think causes it?
It is massive. Body image issues in particular. I think that the media has a lot to answer for.What can we do about this? I am not sure.
It feels inappropriate to tell the students that they look fine. So I try to have more general conversations about body image.
I show them this video. They really like it :)
They find it relatable and we can talk generally about what it means to be a “beautiful person”.I think that there need to be more conversations like this.
There is a lot of pressure in a place like Cambridge to be both intelligent and beautiful.
I really enjoyed chatting to Jo Wilkes about her experience working with teenagers in the educational field. The way we talk to teenagers can have an important effect on them, let’s hope that we can inspire them and encourage them to be positive in life and believe in themselves more. This is something we can all do when we have the opportunity. As a teacher myself sharing a large amount of time with teenagers each day, I had the opportunity to engage in such conversations myself. But, you don’t have to be a teacher to talk to a teenager and have a profound effect on their development.
How Can Teens Build Self Esteem?
Like other groups teens can build self esteem by becoming more active in sports they are good at and taking up interests they enjoy. Making friends is really important for teens and sharing activities and interests with others is very rewarding. Self-discovery needs to happen and if a teen loses the desire to participate or to pursue interests or hobbies then they might benefit from help. The best way to build the self esteem and confidence of teens is to encourage them and give them the care, love and attention they need.
One word of caution. Although teens need the freedom to express themselves, they also benefit from some measure of discipline as long as it is not over-restrictive. Teenagers need to learn boundaries and limits as well as find encouragement to reach for the skies!
- McClure, A. C., Tanski, S. E., Kingsbury, J., Gerrard, M., & Sargent, J. D. (2010). Characteristics associated with low self-esteem among US adolescents. Academic pediatrics, 10(4), 238-244.
- Twenge, J. M., & Crocker, J. (2002). Race and self-esteem: meta-analyses comparing whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians and comment on Gray-Little and Hafdahl (2000).
- Wang, F., & Veugelers, P. J. (2008). Self‐esteem and cognitive development in the era of the childhood obesity epidemic. Obesity reviews, 9(6), 615-623.
Website Author and Your Guide
Karl Perera is a fully qualified Life Coach (DipLC), Teacher (MA), and author of the book Self Esteem Secrets. He has taught at various universities including Durham, Leicester and Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge. He has run More-SelfEsteem.com since 1997 since suffering from low self esteem for more than 25 years overcoming it in his thirties.