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Low Self-Esteem in Adolescents: What Are the Root Causes?
(Adapted From Psychology Today. Click Here for full article.)
  • Low self-esteem in teens is not uncommon and can cause problems with peers, in decision-making, and is associated with anxiety and depression.

  • Some key causes of low self-esteem are adverse childhood experiences (trauma), chronic criticism, societal expectations and attacks on identity.

  • Adults can help improve self-esteem by demonstrating love, praise, and emotional support, and giving responsibilities that prove successful.

Understanding Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is the overall opinion a person has about themselves—how they perceive their abilities and worth, their self-confidence, and their sense of security. People experience low self-esteem differently. For example, not everyone with low self-esteem is excessively self-critical, but no matter how it manifests, low self-esteem is quite common. Even the most successful people, including celebrities and athletes, often struggle with “pockets” of self-doubt in certain parts of their lives.

Causes of Low Self-Esteem

Let’s consider some reasons a child or teen might have low self-esteem:

  • Chronic Abuse and Criticism: We all need compassion, empathy, and encouragement.

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): ACEs are events that occur during a child’s development that may be traumatic, such as neglect, witnessing violence, the death of a family member, or the imprisonment of a loved one.

  • Societal Pressures and Expectations: We are all constantly exposed to the successes of friends and family on social media, accomplished celebrities, and highly edited photos of people in the media and advertisements. It’s hard to resist comparison and the feeling of not being good enough. Society’s unreasonable and unattainable expectations are damaging to self-worth.

  • Attacks on Identity: Hurtful messages about marginalized people can shake a young person’s pride in a fundamental part of their identity such as their culture, race, sexualitygender, or socioeconomic class. Those with chronic medical illnesses, physical impairments, learning disorders, or mental health conditions face similar challenges.

Effects of Low Self-Esteem

Young people with low self-esteem may:

  • Demonstrate less confidence and avoid taking healthy risks, such as auditioning for a school play

  • Struggle to make important decisions, such as choosing which classes to take or whether to accept a leadership position in a club

  • Have difficulty saying no under peer pressure, such as when pressured to use substances or drive under the influence

  • Find it hard to embrace healthy confrontations and self-advocacy when they need to stand up to a bully or argue for their values

  • Tend to suffer from anxiety, depressionloneliness, or addiction later in life

How to Help Young People Increase Self-Esteem

One of the greatest gifts we can pass along to children is the belief that they have inherent value and are worthy of being loved for who they are.

By helping a young person develop healthy self-esteem, we support their inner strength and confidence and help them learn from their failures. The younger we start helping the better, but it’s never too late to begin improving a young person’s self-esteem. Caring adults can:

  • Show children unconditional love, encouragement, and praise. Even when kids fail or misbehave, we can show compassion as we process the situation together.

  • Help children have a positive impact on another person’s life. This can be done through volunteering in the school or community, helping younger siblings, or assisting parents with chores.

  • Help young people improve their favorite skills and activities. Confidence and competence go hand-in-hand, and when kids feel proud of their abilities, they’ll also feel more positive about themselves.

  • Help young people develop a realistic and positive view of themselves by reflecting accurately on their strengths and weaknesses. Be sure to do this in a non-judgmental way. No matter the age, we grow the most when we see failures as an opportunity to learn about ourselves.

  • Give young people the chance to take responsibility for their actions. This includes the chance to apologize when they experience conflict.

  • Identify and challenge negative thought patterns, which are often exaggerated and distorted, and erode self-esteem.

  • Help young people take pride in their unique identity and their differences. These include sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and family constellations.

  • Model positive behaviors. Demonstrate to your child how you practice self-compassion and don’t hide your setbacks from your child.

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