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.
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.
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.
Common Signs of Low Self-esteem in Teenagers
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Warning signs can include:
If you see any of these signs, the first thing to do is to talk to them.
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.
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