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Family Health Magazine - ADOLESCENT HEALTH

Self-Esteem and Teens
How to increase self-esteem in your child

Esteem: The dictionary definition of esteem is a verb meaning “to regard with respect” or “set a value on,” or a noun meaning “a high regard” or “a favourable opinion."

Self esteem then means to have a high regard or respect for oneself. Those with high self esteem believe themselves to be worthy of happiness, health, wellness, respect, friendship, love, achievement and success.

All parents hope to see their teens grow up into healthy, contented adults with the skills to achieve bright futures. High self esteem has been shown repeatedly to be more important in predicting success in all areas of life than a high IQ.

This article will examine some aspects of self esteem in adolescence and offer suggestions for parents and their teens who have low self esteem. Bettie B. Youngs, Ph.D., Ed.D author of 14 books including “How to Develop Self Esteem in Your Child” offers six ingredients for the development of a healthy self esteem.

  1. Freedom from physical harm
  2. Emotional security
  3. Sense of identity
  4. Need to belong
  5. Capable feeling
  6. Purpose in life

Characteristics of a Healthy and Poor Self Esteem

Healthy Poor
  • Copes well with difficulties in school and in personal and social life
  • Picks self up after a fall
  • Has ambition and committed to achieving
  • Develops good relationships
  • Confronts obstacles
  • Solves problems
  • Comfortable alone
  • Strives to be useful, helpful, purposeful and responsible
  • Participates willingly
  • Compassion for self and others
  • Willing to share
  • No need of constant approval from others
  • Accepts advice without viewing it as criticism
  • Belittles self: “I can’t”, “I’m fat”, “I’m ugly”, I’m dumb”
  • Lacks ambition
  • Turns to drugs more easily
  • Poor social interaction
  • May be shy and withdrawn or loud and demonstrative
  • Tends to want to give up
  • Criticizes others excessively
  • Achieves less well in school
  • Moody, aloof, aimless, negative and indecisive
  • Acts withdrawn
  • Resists admitting a mistake or lies to stay out of trouble
  • Displays a behavioural problem, demanding constant attention
  • Seeks others with low self esteem who think poorly of themselves
  • Needs constant reinforcement from others
  • Has a sense of failure

1. Freedom from physical harm

Everyone, especially children, requires a safe environment in which to thrive. Parents should always be alert to their child’s fears, whether when the child is alone, with babysitters, or with other family members.They must be ready to take steps to ensure safety for their child in the home and in the neighbourhood. It is the writer’s opinion that there is no place for hitting or physical abuse in any situation, unless in self defense.

Although physical abuse may occur in the home, it is equally likely to happen in the schools or neighbourhood. At first the abuse may be in the form of verbal and physical threats and if these are not handled swiftly, the threats may progress to assaults, injury and theft. The abuse may occur in restrooms, on a bus, in an empty hallway, in a lunchroom or in a classroom. In the USA, 800,000 students stay home in a typical month because they are afraid to attend school!

Parental responsibility: When a teen is threatened with abuse, parents must become involved. Children often rebel at this help, fearing embarrassment or the risk that it could make the situation worse. However, parents should see this as a normal reaction and intervene anyway. Otherwise, the child is more likely to have feelings of abandonment, fear, depression and mistrust.

When teens feel physically secure, they are more likely to open up, take chances and develop their full potential.

2. Emotional Security

Unconditional love: This is this most important contributing factor to a child’s emotional security. Parents may not like the behaviour of their child but they must continue to show their love. It is this love that helps to maintain the teen’s self esteem needed for the future.

“Put downs - tear down!” The “put-down” messages a child hears (from parents especially) encourage poor self esteem as the child begins to believe the “put-downs” must be correct. “You’re dumb,” “You’re lazy” translate into the child believing the criticism, hence becoming despondent and less motivated. This sets a cycle for more “put-downs” as the despondent child withdraws and is even less motivated.

On the other hand, praise affects a teen in a positive way. Complimenting your teen is more likely to change behaviour for the better while focusing on the negative aspects of behaviour is not usually productive. Emotionally secure children have higher self esteem, with more confidence and assertion.

The years between ages 12 to 15 are a time of rapid growth and can turn into a time of chaos. Mood swings are extremely common because of hormonal changes.

By the time the teen is 16 to 18 the strong need for intimacy is developed. Thoughts of sexual interests are usually high priority. Relationships with parents can change dramatically at this point. The teen may test the same sex parent who should try not to take the attacks too personally! The most successful approach is to handle the defiance with negotiation. Parents are now facing a newly developing adult with a unique and very important identity.

It is extremely important that parents have a solid relationship themselves and support one another as their teen develops into adulthood.

Unfortunately some parents, however much they love their child, may find themselves confronting the teen at every turn. Both sides seem to argue over everything and the tensions increase the longer the fights go on. The teen’s self esteem is in great jeopardy in these situations and the families should seek counselling. Family patterns may seem familiar if parents remember how their parents related to them in their own teen years.
Confrontation only leads to more problems. For the cycle to end with some hope for the future, parents must be the ones to direct and create the needed change in the situation.

3. Sense of identity – need to belong

To achieve a healthy self esteem a teen needs to have a strong sense of what he or she is really like. Two simple questions directed to the teen often open discussion:

  • “What four words best describe you?”
  • “What four words would you like to describe you?”

The first question offers a parent insight into the child’s own perception of self. The second question may suggest areas where parents can help the teen change. This help may be the key to the dreams of the teen being realized.

4. Need to Belong

There is a strong sense within us all to “belong” - belong to a family, a community and a group of friends. Bonds with others are important. The bond between parent and child is the most important. Even when teens are showing their determination to be independent - a healthy, although sometimes distressing time - they still need the sense of belonging to a family.
Bonds between parent and child can be maintained by showing genuine interest and love, touching and listening. Social skills are important to give the teen a sense of belonging in a community. Parents can encourage teens in what they do well and enter groups or teams in that area.


To learn responsibility a teen must be given responsibility. Contributions to family discussions and activities enhance self esteem. The contributions should, of course, be recognized positively. Nagging, arguing and threats do not improve a teen’s sense of responsibility. When giving praise to a teen for some responsible behaviour, the praise must be:

  • given immediately
  • honest and deserved
  • consistent with previous experiences
  • personal to the teen Any rewards should be unexpected.

The other area where teens need to feel they belong is at school. Without this they may fail to achieve in academic and social areas of their lives.

Teens are more likely to succeed in school if parents:

  • work with teachers as a team rather than becoming confrontational over any failures
  • provide resource material at home
  • switch off the TV and read themselves!
  • encourage learning
  • support school rules
  • use effective discipline at home
  • view drinking as a very serious matter
  • It has been proven that achievement score tests are higher for teens when their parents are involved in the school.

5. Capable feeling

To learn to feel capable, one has to take risks and try new experiences - going on the bus alone, baking cookies, trying a new sport. Success in whatever is chosen leads to a sense of increased capability and self esteem.

Sometimes mistakes are made. Mistakes are normal and are important in our learning - even if a teen gets on the wrong bus, burns the cookies or has difficulties in a new sport, the learning process continues. Parents should support the attempts and help the teen learn from mistakes. This gives the child confidence to try again.

Helping a teen to see consequences for a decision or behaviour is vitally important. Parents should use questions like “If you do that, what will happen?” regularly to encourage the child to see beyond the immediate moment. This skill is one more aspect of being capable.

6. Purpose in life

The Coleman report on Education in the United States stated that parental support in a child’s life was the most important factor as a predictor for failure or success. Second to parental support was the degree to which a student felt his life has meaning.

Often we see intelligent teenagers disturbing others and behaving without direction, interest or motivation. When they are helped to set goals for the future, involving their interests and areas of success, they often go through a shift in attitude and begin to focus on their studies. Teachers can often help students to think of the contributions they can make and turn special interests into associated goals.

Having attainable goals that are decided by the teen give the teen the sense that “this is important to me” and have the best results. Parents should resist meeting their own goals through their child who will be less motivated by being encouraged in an unwanted activity.

Tips for parents to help preserve self esteem in their teen

  • Be supportive. Parent support is the most important factor in a developing child’s life.
  • Get in touch with your child’s fears.
  • Take action when necessary to preserve safety in schools and the neighbourhood.
  • Join parent groups at the school to promote your concerns.
  • Reassure your child often that he is lovable, capable and important. Speak positively.
  • Listen to your teen - without prejudice; keep your views to yourself. No one likes to be ignored or half-listened to.
  • Make your interest obvious by keeping notes to remember the child’s activities and schedules.
  • Boast - direct compliments to teens can be embarrassing but boast to a friend when the teen can overhear. You’ll feel your child’s joy.
  • Criticize the behaviour not the child.
  • Use “I” statement such as “I feel angry that the dog didn’t get walked today” not “You were lazy again today and didn’t walk the dog.” The second statement is challenging and decreases self esteem. The first one is more likely to bring an apology.
  • Criticize in a respectful manner rather than with sarcasm.
  • Try not to bring up old wrongs.
  • Try not to anticipate wrongdoings and criticize before they happen (if you show that you expect the worst, you’ll likely get it!)
  • If you want to be effective and persuasive with your teen use these two steps:
    1. Understand your teens point of view
    2. Then share your message clearly - but in good humour!

Further reference:
Betty B. Young’s, Ph.D., ed.

“How to Develop Self Esteem in your Child - Six Vital Ingredients”


  • Don’t hurry
  • Don’t misinterpret
  • Don’t judge

The writer hopes that this article will increase awareness of the importance of self esteem and provide some hints for achieving this in teenagers.

FAMILY HEALTH is written with the assistance of
Alberta College of Family Physicians
FAMILY HEALTH is written with the assistance of
Alberta College of Family Physicians
While effort is made to reflect accepted medical knowledge and practice, articles in Family Health Online should not be relied upon for the treatment or management of any specified medical problem or concern and Family Health accepts no liability for reliance on the articles. For proper diagnosis and care, you should always consult your family physician promptly. © Copyright 2019, Family Health Magazine, a special publication of the Edmonton Journal, a division of Postmedia Network Inc., 10006 - 101 Street, Edmonton, AB T5J 0S1    [AD_FH]
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