What Causes Low Self-Esteem in Teenagers?
Low self-esteem in teenagers, especially girls, is a major factor in nearly all types of mental illnesses and personality disorders. More vulnerable to experiencing low self-esteem than adults, some teenagers may need self-esteem therapy for major depression and anxiety arising from feeling inadequate, flawed, and unlovable.
Although psychologists have studied the concept of self-esteem and how it affects adolescents for years, disagreements persist over a complete definition of self-esteem. Generally, self-esteem is viewed as how someone perceives their sense of self-worth.
Teens with low self-esteem tend to compare themselves unreasonably with peers who they consider more attractive, smarter, and popular. While peer comparison among teens is an ordinary feature of adolescent development, kids with extremely low self-esteem and pre-existing mental or behavioral health issues should consider self-esteem programs for youth.
What is Low Self-esteem and How Does It Affect Adolescents?
Adolescent psychologists view low self-esteem as a thinking disorder that, unless corrected, becomes ingrained in thought patterns. Teens with severe low self-esteem may obsessively ruminate about their faulty beliefs and engage in self-defeating behaviors like not studying for an exam and failing it (“See! I can’t even pass a simple exam!”), or deliberately being late for school and then blaming falling grades on their incompetency.
Meet Carol. She's a 15-year-old sophomore with new friends
She’s a 15-year-old sophomore who joins the school swim team.
Although she is about 20 pounds overweight, she loves to swim and was thrilled to finally be a part of the swim team.
Since joining the team, Carol has spent much less time with her non-team friends. Instead, she immediately identified with her swim team friends and stopped hanging out with friends she had had since grade school.
Committing her identity to only one part of her life–the swim team–caused her to grapple with something she had never experienced before–low self-esteem.
Low Self-Esteem Statistics Among Teenage Girls
Common Signs of Low Self-esteem in Teenagers
- Constantly criticizing and blaming themselves for not being “perfect.”
- Making bad choices that worsen their self-esteem
- Feeling guilty even when something is clearly not their fault
- Allowing others to mistreat them because they think they “deserve” to be mistreated
- Saying things like “I’m useless,” “Nobody likes me, “and “I’d just ruin the party if I went.”
- May start teasing and calling their peers names. Verbal bullying is an active sign of low self-esteem. Physical and verbal bullying may indicate a more serious mental health problem.
- Acting and/or speaking in an overdramatic fashion. Teens with low self-esteem crave validation and attention from both peers and adults. Once they discover acting or speaking in a way that forces people to pay attention to them, some teens may develop a histrionic personality or hypochondria.
- Excessively bragging about themselves or exaggerating accomplishments to get attention.
- Self-harming behaviors (cutting, banging their head against the wall repeatedly, burning themselves with lighters, pulling their hair out)
- Hearing negative messages about them from others when, in fact, no such negative message was actually made.
- Inability to accept compliments
- Abusing drugs and alcohol
Recognizing low self-esteem signs in teens is often difficult for parents since many of these behaviors are automatically attributed to teen angst and moodiness.
However, parents might consider enrolling their child in self-esteem therapy for adolescents when a teen consistently shows symptoms of low self-esteem for more than three months.
Meet Lily, a 13 year old feeling down and not enough
I’m not sure when it started, but lately, I’ve been feeling really down about myself. It’s like no matter what I do, I just can’t seem to shake this feeling of not being good enough.
I used to be really confident, but now I feel like I’m not pretty enough, smart enough, or popular enough. I hate looking in the mirror because all I see are my flaws. I compare myself to the other girls in my class, and I always come up short.
Sometimes, I try to hide my feelings from my parents. I don’t want them to worry about me, but I know they’ve noticed that something is wrong. They keep asking me if I’m okay, but I just shrug it off and say I’m fine.
One day, my mom sat down next to me on the couch and asked me how I was feeling. I tried to brush her off, but she wouldn’t let it go. She told me that she noticed I wasn’t smiling as much as I used to and that I seemed sad all the time.
That’s when I broke down and told her how I’ve been feeling. My mom listened to me and told me that it was okay to feel the way I did. She said that everyone struggles with self-esteem at some point and that it was nothing to be ashamed of.
She hugged me and told me that she loved me just the way I am. She also suggested we go see a therapist to talk about my feelings and work on ways to improve my self-esteem.
At first, I did not want to go, but I eventually agreed. It’s been a few weeks now, and I’m starting to feel better. My therapist is helping me work on my “negative self-talk,” (how I talk to myself) and teaching me how to focus on my strengths instead of my flaws.
I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m feeling a lot better. And I’m glad that my mom was there for me when I needed her most.
Teenage Girls' Low Self-esteem: The Influence of Culture and Society
Today, teenage girls are often subjected to messages from pop culture and society that can result in low self-esteem. It can be difficult for teenage girls to find acceptance and validation in a world that favors certain ideals, whether it’s unrealistic beauty standards or gender roles. For instance:
- The media plays a significant role in shaping expectations. Research shows that the over-representation of thin ideals in attractive models and actors in traditional and social media can lead to body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem, eating disorders, and other mental health issues, particularly among teenage girls.
- Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other factors can lead to feelings of low self-worth and self-doubt. Experiencing discrimination undermines our sense of belonging and leads to negative self-perceptions.
For example, a study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that experiences of racial discrimination among African Americans and LatinX in early adolescence were negatively associated with self-esteem. 6
- Gender roles – Traditional gender roles and societal expectations can lead to a limited sense of self and restricted opportunities, particularly for girls. Gender and identity play a significant role in self-acceptance, perception, and expectations of gender affect self-worth.
Furthermore, transgender adolescents have higher rates of behavioral and mental health issues related to low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and how they perceive themselves.
What are the 4 Most Common Causes of Low Self-esteem in Teenagers?
1. Lack of Parental Nurturing
Low self-esteem issues can affect children as young as five. Parents or guardians who constantly belittle and criticize a child will raise a child without a sense of self-worth or self-identity.
This makes them vulnerable to strongly identifying with groups or gangs to the point they feel useless and inferior without the group to support them.
2. Perception of Physical Appearance
Every parent of a teenager knows how much importance their child places on physical appearances–especially their own. In fact, teens are their own worst critics when it comes to their hair, noses, eyes, feet, hands, etc.
Teens with low self-esteem often see imperfections when they look in a mirror that nobody else sees. Parents may feel like they are helping their teens feel better about themselves by allowing them to have rhinoplasty performed or paying for orthodontic treatments their child really doesn’t need.
However, indulging these distorted beliefs only reinforces the teen’s low self-esteem and basically tells the teen that, yes, you are imperfect and need to be fixed.
Peer pressure is the everyday term used to describe a teen’s preoccupation with conforming to what other teens their own age are doing, wearing, saying, etc.
Brain research into the neurodevelopment reasons teenagers worry so much about peer pressure has to do with structural and chemical changes occurring in the brain at puberty.
When teens are with peers, the brain’s reward center is activated. When in the presence of adults, this same center is not activated. The reward center also processes social information, which leads psychologists to believe this is a primary reason why teens are so painfully aware and attentive to peer behavior.
4. High Expectations from Parents and Teachers
When teens feel like they are under pressure to be “overachievers” and can’t live up to the unrealistic expectations of adults, they can develop low self-esteem signs, such as self-defeating behaviors, self-criticism, and self-harm behaviors.
Everyone has a specific potential for doing the best they can, and they should be given a chance to discover that potential independently. Demanding a teen to be a straight-A student when they are B students can severely damage their self-esteem and potentially cause other psychological issues.
How Can Parents Help Teenagers with Self-esteem Issues?
Understanding what promotes low self-esteem in adolescents offers insights into what parents can do to help a teenager deal with a lack of self-worth and confidence.
Work on a Teen’s Decision-making Skills
Let your teen make decisions that can positively impact their self-esteem. For example, teens who procrastinate doing homework because they say, “I’m dumb, anyway.
Why do it?” could be given a choice to finish their homework before or after they talk to a friend over Zoom. In other words, the parent is giving the teen a choice to do the homework before Zoom or the choice to affirm their sense of responsibility to keep their word.
Ask for Their Opinions
When you need to make a decision about something, whether it involves buying a present for a friend or how you should handle a minor issue at work, ask your teen what they would do if they were in your shoes. Listen attentively to what they say and indicate you take their opinions seriously.
Give Genuine Compliments Only
Teens instinctively know when parents compliment them but don’t really mean it. Make compliments personal, heartfelt, and appropriate for the moment. Repeat the compliment a few days later to let them know you haven’t forgotten how proud you are of them.
Teens who set achievable goals have a sense of accomplishment and improve their self-esteem. Encourage or teach your child how to plan and set goals that are specific, measurable, and realistic. Then cheer them on as they try to achieve them.
Set a good example by practicing self-care and encourage your teenager to do the same. Bring them along for a day at the spa or to get that pedicure. Promote nutritious foods, exercise, and outdoor activities, and make sure they get enough sleep. Taking care of our physical and mental health will help them boost their self-esteem.
4 Easy Ways to Help Your Teen Improve their Self-esteem (Video)
When Teens Self-Harm
What is Self-harm?
Self-harm is a complicated topic. It happens more frequently than we realize, but hiding is easier. It takes many forms and According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), 1 in 5 teenagers engages in some form of self-injury, with nearly one-third of those injuries being severe enough to require medical treatment.
Self-harm is considered a symptom of a mental illness. It’s a way to cope with emotional pain and a way to find control, a release, or a way to change emotional pain into physical pain.
When a girl self-harms, she doesn’t intend to die. She is seeking a way to cope with her overwhelming emotions and pain. The most common form of self-harm among teenagers is cutting. But many also hit themselves, bite, burn skin, pick and scratch, pull their hair (trichotillomania), over-eat and undereat, exercise excessively, drink poison, or resort to risky behaviors like unsafe sex and use of substances.
Why Do Adolescents Self-harm?
Teenagers that self-harm have low self-esteem, feeling like they are not good enough, not worthy, or don’t belong. Most often, the reasons that drive a girl to self-mutilation are related to trauma, anxiety, depression, or other mental health condition that is undiagnosed or untreated.
Self-injury is intentional. The risks are high. Cutting, hair pulling, and burning can lead to infections, physical injuries and scarring, and sometimes an accidental death.
What are the Warning Signs of Self-harm?
Warning signs can include:
- changes in behavior or mood
- refusal to communicate with family members or friends
- social isolation
- noticeable cuts or burns on the body—especially on the wrists or arms
- sudden changes in appearance (such as wearing long sleeves even during hot weather).
If you see any of these signs, the first thing to do is to talk to them.
Meet Emily, 17 years old, Self-harming and Recovery
My story is about overcoming my self-harming and poor self-image with the help of residential treatment.
A few years ago, I was in a very bad place. I felt like no one cared about me, and I would get these intense feelings that would make me think I couldn’t go on. I was afraid I wasn’t good enough and was ashamed and fearful that I would be found out.
I started to cut myself. At first, it was small cuts, but it quickly became more, and before I knew it, it got out of control.
Residential Treatment Center for Youth DepressionI started by creating images representing how I felt when I was feeling good and what I liked about myself. It wasn’t easy to do, but eventually, I realized there was much more to like than I ever thought about.
It really helped me build my self-esteem, and once I was feeling better, I also realized I wanted to do better in school and started to catch up with my courses. The better I did, the better I felt. Before I knew it, I liked who I was becoming. I wish I had stopped resisting sooner.
In therapy, I also learned how to manage my anger, communicate my feelings better, and be more patient with myself. I realized I was not alone in my struggles and that others felt like I did.
We started talking with my parents, and they were very supportive. It took some time, but now we can talk about almost anything. I know they want me to feel good and be happy.
At RTC, I learned many things that helped me become more confident, take better care of myself, and make healthier choices. I’m happy now that I have overcome so much. It also feels good to help other girls who feel like I did.
Now that I’m home, I even started volunteering at a local shelter, which has given me a sense of purpose and pride.
If you’re struggling with self-esteem issues or self-harm, I want you to know that you’re not alone and that help is available. Don’t be afraid to seek it out.
Speak to a Family Advisor About Enrollment in Residential Treatment or Therapeutic Boarding School
National Association of School Psychologists – provides resources and information on how parents can support their children’s social-emotional development, including tips on promoting self-esteem. Website: https://www.nasponline.org/
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – provides confidential support for people in distress, including those struggling with self-esteem issues. The Lifeline offers 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Website: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
- Email, text, information, or forum support is offered by self-harm services – for example, National Self Harm Network, Self-injury Support, LifeSIGNS, The Mix and Sane.
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) – provides information and support for individuals and families affected by eating disorders, including body image issues and low self-esteem. NEDA’s helpline is available Monday-Thursday from 9am-9pm and Friday from 9am-5pm EST. Phone: 1-800-931-2237. Website: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
Turning Winds – a therapeutic boarding school and residential treatment that provides holistic and therapeutic treatment for teens 13-18 suffering from mental health and substance abuse disorders.