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May is National Teen Self-Esteem Month! While we should take the time to commemorate the importance of building self-esteem in our children and our peers, building self-esteem is a matter of long-term consistency. So let us commit to lifting each other in 2021 and beyond.

Bridging the Gap Between Teen Self-Esteem and Mental Health

Adolescent self-esteem is a critical protective factor for good mental health – and crucially, low self-esteem is a common risk factor for symptoms of depression and anxiety. Self-esteem also plays a protective factor against attention problems (ADHD), although to a lesser degree. The effects of self-esteem on behavioral issues, however, are inconclusive.

Having a healthy and robust sense of self can help teens feel more secure in the face of certain stressors and be less prone to self-deprecating thoughts. However, just as self-esteem can help improve a teen’s mental health, it bears mentioning that teens who have a proclivity towards anxiety issues or depression (due to family history or environmental factors such as early trauma) will generally struggle with poorer self-image.

The two are intertwined, and addressing one can help address the other. But building up a person’s self-esteem is no easy task, regardless of whether the initiative comes from the inside (self-motivation) or the outside (a concerned friend or loved one). So, this May, we are encouraging teens, as well as friends, families, and communities, to take part in uplifting one another.

This year’s effort is significant, as teens face a mental health crisis unlike any we have seen in decades. Worse yet, we have no idea how this period of their lives will affect them in the years to come. Your contribution could be as simple as refraining from hypercritical comments or considering your words more carefully before you speak, or making helping a close friend develop in a way that might give them a personal boost to their self-esteem.

Teen Self-Esteem, Depression, and Anxiety

Mood disorders and anxiety disorders constitute most mental health diagnoses among teens. The most common ones include major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder, including low self-esteem as a major risk factor. While there are other factors behind the development and cause of these conditions, the link between self-image and mental health is undeniable, and it is often a two-way street.

Boosting teen self-esteem – or more practically, helping them boost their own self-esteem, may go a long way towards reducing or even preventing the development of a disorder, or at least majorly improving quality of life and helping prevent suicidal ideation.

It Starts With You

Our sense of self is a complicated thing, developed over the years through observation, social interaction, as well as our own inner headspace. A person’s voice can be naturally self-critical or conditioned that way over the years, and they may have a harder time registering or even accepting praise as genuine.

Others have a harder time recognizing their own flaws – or, in an ironic twist, possess such a fragile sense of self that they brutally lash out at even constructive criticisms. Learning to recognize and differentiate between healthy and problematic voices in our own head, at least with regards to how we treat ourselves and comment on our own thoughts and behavior, can help address self-esteem issues.

It might sound silly to start with the voice in your head, but just learning to identify the downward spiral before it goes completely out of control can be a good first step. It is healthy to be humble and reflective, but it is not healthy to constantly refer to yourself with harsh words or think in such negative extremes like “I’ll never amount to anything,” and “of course I couldn’t do it, I could never do something that great.”

Instead, consider rephrasing such sentiments. For example, “I’m just starting, and there’s a long and tough road ahead” is a much healthier response to an early stumble or initial failure. No one who has ever done anything great in their lives has gotten to where they got without many moments of self-doubt and failure. Similarly, “I didn’t get it this time, but I’ll keep trying” or “and that’s okay” are important sentiments, too.

Your Friends Matter

Unsurprisingly, who you surround yourself with can have an impact on how you feel, both about yourself and in general. We are all human and rely at least in part on each other to better understand how to think of ourselves – and if your “friends” or family include bullies and scolders, then you will find yourself becoming overly critical of not only your actions but your personality, your temperament, and immutable characteristics. This can lead to self-hate and depression. On the other hand, when those around us are patient with us and accepting, it teaches us to accept ourselves. Bullying does not make someone stronger – it breaks them down.

Learn to Set Better Goals and Expectations

Failure hurts, and a life well-lived will see many failures before any successes roll in. But that does not mean we should only ever set our sights on the stars. Instead, it is important to learn to set healthy and realistic goals and expectations and benefit from meeting them.

You do not have to look and move like an athlete, be a valedictorian, speak three languages, and play an instrument all at the same time. Instead, start with daily goals that you can consistently work towards, prioritize in a direction that interests you, work with your strengths and recognize (and accept) your weaknesses, and focus on being grateful for the things in life that go well for you.

Embrace the Power of Giving

Studies have shown that giving is a much more satisfying feeling than receiving – and it can go a long way towards helping you improve your self-esteem. We are not just talking about charity or good intentions. Making an effort to give your time to someone else, for free, whether by volunteering at a local organization or making a nice meal for your friends as a show of appreciation, generally makes us happier than receiving the same kindnesses from others.

Are you or a loved one struggling with self-esteem issues? Working on developing a healthier sense of self and being kinder towards yourself can go a long way, but some people struggle with thoughts and emotions that cannot be dealt with alone. It’s okay if you need help; we all do eventually! Thus, if you feel discouraged about asking for help, know that you are not alone! Get in touch with a mental health professional today.