Having low self-esteem is not particularly abnormal, especially among teens. In fact, research tells us that girls in particular tend to have lower self-esteem in their teen years, and that these feelings improve as they become adults. The same or similar can be said for boys – it’s one of the reasons nearly half of all boys regularly exercise exclusively to put on muscle mass.
Teenagers and personal insecurity is a classic combo. But that does not mean it isn’t a cause for concern. While having low self-esteem is common, it is also one of the larger red flags for long-term mental health issues. Low self-esteem correlates with increased risk of self-harm, increased likelihood to smoke and drink, higher rates of eating disorders, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Does that mean your teen is doomed to suffer from a mental health disorder as a result of their self-image? No. But a low self-image can compound the risk of conditions like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders, and may be a precursor to other forms of self-deprecation and internalized hatred.
So, how do you help a teenager with low self-esteem?
What Does a Teenager with Low Self-Esteem Look Like?
Low self-esteem may be expressed in multiple different ways. Generally speaking, however, there are two distinctly separate forms of teenage low self-esteem: aggression towards the outside, and aggression towards the inside.
An insecure teen is an unhappy teen. They dislike, or maybe even hate certain parts of themselves, and see no use or potential path towards change. They take it out either on themselves – becoming quiet, withdrawn, needy, or passive – or on others – becoming aggressive, abrasive, and anti-social.
Either way, teens who struggle with low self-esteem tend to have a harder time making genuine connections with others. They may still have “friends”, but these may be people who stick around for status or as part of a clique, especially if the teen in question is a known bully. Past the surface, however, one of the major problems with a low self-esteem is an inability to form healthy relationships. A poor relationship with yourself is a bad start for a relationship with anyone else. Either they cling excessively to others, or push them away.
All teens with low self-esteem also experience negative self-talk, which reinforces their feelings towards themselves, and makes it hard for other people’s positive assertions and estimations to come through. You can’t expect a few words of praise to help resolve a teen’s deep seated issues with themselves, at least not at first. It takes consistent and genuine recognition to help a teen realize their own potential, embrace the positive parts of themselves, and learn to develop a healthier relationship with themselves, and then with others.
This self-talk further warps a teen’s self-image, which is not always the same as your self-esteem. Your self-esteem is a value judgment, a summary of how you see your qualities as a person. Your self-image is your physical representation – how you look to yourself.
Teens with poor self-esteem tend to have a worse self-image of themselves, needlessly criticizing every last physical detail, obsessing over unrealistic or unattainable physical standards, or even experiencing harsh body dysmorphia, wherein they might see themselves differently to how they really look to others, i.e., seeing themselves as fat despite being overly skinny, too lanky and lithe despite being muscular, or too tall or too short despite being of average height.
Why Does My Teen Have Low Self-Esteem?
One reason teens experience low self-esteem more than adults do is that they are insecure about their place in the world. In other words, it may be a part of growing up – coming to terms with who you are in the grander scheme of things.
But not all teens experience low self-esteem, at least not to the degree that it begins to impact their mental health. There are a few reasons why some teens are more likely to struggle with low self-esteem:
- Genes play a role. Some people have a higher genetic predisposition towards anxiety and self-esteem issues, for example.
- Home environment and parenting play a role. Teens with a history of abuse or trauma, such as witnessing domestic violence, are more likely to struggle with self-esteem problems.
- The history of a teen’s mental health plays a role. Some teens might have been social butterflies as children but struggle to maintain their relationships with others as they reached puberty, because of the onset of a condition like ADHD or depression. The symptoms of these conditions can affect friendships, and make it harder to communicate with others, or result in hurt feelings. This can impact a teen’s self-esteem, especially if they were socially outgoing. In other cases, low self-esteem can be a symptom of the condition itself, such as most anxiety disorders.
- Societal pressures are also a factor. These are especially relevant in the modern age of social media. Teens aren’t just seeing idealized proportions and unrealistic beauty standards in TV or on billboards; they’re seeing them on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. They say comparison is the thief of joy, but it’s hard to impossible not to compare yourself to others as a teen today. Every element of your day-to-day is scrutinized online, and even if you don’t share images or videos of yourself, you can easily find pictures of people who might look like you, or whom you might relate to, being bullied, or criticized online. Teens who belong to marginalized groups or minorities – such as ethnic minorities or the LGBTQ+ community – may struggle with a low self-esteem due to colorism, racial preference, police brutality, and a heteronormative society.
Attacks on a teen’s self-confidence need to be met with measures to help your teen feel more comfortable in their own skin, and develop pride in their abilities and innate qualities as a person.
How To Build Up Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is built one day at a time. It is a long-term process, one that takes a lot of investment in your teen’s mental health. Some important things to keep in mind include:
- Focus on self-improvement. Help your teen discover and channel their efforts into avenues that they can succeed in, whether it’s academically, musically, physically – but also encourage them to continue to work on the things they might not be naturally good at.
- Praise your teen’s efforts. It’s not always about the outcome. If you only praise your teen when they’re getting an A+ or win gold, then you’re teaching them that anything less is worthless. It’s important that your teen learns not see things as black-and-white – and that they can be proud of the strides they’ve made.
- Help your teen moderate their language, especially self-talk. Remind them to avoid using self-deprecating words and to quit bad-mouthing their own efforts.
- Give them greater control and choice. Independence is a powerful tool towards helping a teen build their self-esteem. Allowing them to make their own choices can help them not just make mistakes and learn from them, but feel proud for making the right decision when it counts.
- Be a character model for them. Do you recognize some of your teen’s traits in yourself? Then it may be time to work on your own confidence, as well.
Is a Confident Child a Healthy Child?
Outward displays of confidence may be a positive thing, but it is important to differentiate between what your teen chooses to project to the outside world, and how they might be feeling inside. Famously, Mr. Olympia winner Arnold Schwarzenegger shared that he felt immense anxiety and body dysmorphia in the days leading up to a competition, despite his on-stage bravado and extremely competitive persona. He would look at himself in the mirror and wonder how he’d won.
It’s no different for many of today’s social media influencers. Even if your teen seems to be confident about themselves – whether it’s their appearance or their abilities – keep an eye out for subtle red flags, such as a low tolerance for criticism from others, obsessing over peers, constant comparisons, or self-deprecating comments made in private.