How you view yourself, your qualities, and your capabilities — in other words, your self-esteem — plays a major role in your mental health. This is true for people of all ages, including teenagers. A healthy level of self-esteem can set a teenager up for success as it can empower them to set boundaries, bounce back from challenges, and make positive choices.
Unfortunately, many teenagers struggle with low self-esteem. Adolescence can be challenging, and hormonal shifts, physical changes, and social challenges, coupled with new responsibilities and peer pressure, can affect a teenager's self-perception.
May is National Teen Self-Esteem Month, which offers us the opportunity to reflect on the connection between self-esteem and mental health, as well as how to build self-esteem in teenagers.
The Connection Between Self-Esteem and Mental Health in Teens
Low self-esteem is associated with high mental symptoms. Not only is a low sense of self-worth a symptom of depression, but low self-esteem can also lead to the development of mental illnesses.
A three-year study reported that adolescents with low self-esteem are more likely to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety. Similarly, a 2019 study on 1,149 students found that 19.4% had low self-esteem. The study also found that low self-esteem was associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety diagnoses and academic stress.
Low self-esteem can also adversely affect a teenager's behavior. For example, research suggests that teenagers with low self-esteem are more likely to engage in problematic smartphone use and risky sexual behavior.
The Impact of Social Media on Teen Self-Esteem
In recent years, social media has become increasingly unavoidable, especially for teens, affecting almost every aspect of their day-to-day lives, even their self-esteem.
Although receiving likes and positive comments from others may temporarily boost self-confidence, social media can also be a means for constant comparison. Because social media is a "highlight reel" where people tend to show positive experiences, teens may compare their everyday life to a curated version of others.
Social media can also be how teens start to hyper-focus on how they look instead of how they feel and what they enjoy, leading them to worry about their appearance mainly. Additionally, it can be a tool for online bullying: a 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 59% of U.S. teens have personally experienced cyberbullying.
At the same time, social media can be addictive — and it can be difficult to put down the phone, even if some offline time is needed.
If social media is the source of the low self-esteem, the teenager needs to work towards a healthier relationship with social media. A 2023 study found that reducing social media by 50% improved body image among teenage participants.
Open them up to discussing positive social media habits, such as limiting their social media use and having a "cut-off time" before heading off to bed. Healthy social media habits can also include avoiding triggering pages that make them feel bad about themselves and instead following authentic and positive accounts.
Building Self-Esteem in TeensParents, caregivers, and teachers can play a big role in helping teenagers cultivate self-esteem, as the messages teenagers receive from the world around them can shape their self-perception and their relationships with themselves.
Adults can help cultivate self-esteem in teenagers by:
- Praising their efforts, not just their accomplishments, so that they’re reminded that they are valued even when they make mistakes.
- Giving specific praise and feedback instead of vague praise — for example, “I like how you’ve blended the colors in the background of your painting” or “You rearranged your bookshelf really well — I like how you organized them alphabetically.”
- Showing a genuine interest in their lives, ideas, and hobbies by asking empathetic questions and engaging their opinion on topics.
- Encouraging them to participate in extracurricular activities they enjoy, which can give them a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
- Providing them with opportunities for success and recognition by giving them responsibilities/tasks that they’ll thrive at.
- Discussing self-esteem and body image in the classroom and at home.
- Encouraging them to rectify their mistakes and improve on them, but without making them feel ashamed or worthless because of their failures.
Promoting Positive Body Image and ConfidenceBody image isn’t just about your physical characteristics but also about how you feel about your body’s characteristics. Having a negative body image can impact your self-esteem.
Teenagers may be particularly susceptible to negative body image for various reasons. One cause, puberty, can lead teenagers to feel alienated from their body and its functions. Additionally, introducing romantic relationships may make teenagers more self-conscious about their body and how others perceive them.
You can promote healthy body image by:
- Encourage healthy eating habits and physical activity for the sake of health, not appearance. In other words, teach your teens that caring for their body is about how they feel and function, and not just about how they look.
- Modeling positive self-talk in front of them. When they see you engage in negative self-talk — such as putting down your appearance and fixating on your physical flaws — they may mimic your actions.
- Promote media literacy. A lack of media representation and the proliferation of edited, airbrushed pictures mean that teenagers don’t always see real people who look like them on social media and in film. Introduce them to a wide range of representative media and remind them not to compare their body to Photoshopped images.
- About-Face is an organization that educates young women about distorted media portrayals
- Adios, Barbie, and The Body Image Project are platforms for sharing body and identity experiences
- Body Sense promotes healthy body awareness among athletes
- The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has resources on body image, eating disorders, and self-confidence
At-risk teenagers with low self-esteem may benefit from a treatment program like multisystemic therapy (MST). MST is a highly effective, evidence-based approach that is used to treat youths and their families. Among other skills, MST aims to nurture a sense of self-esteem in teenagers.
MST is an evidence-based alternative to incarceration or severe system consequences due to serious externalizing, anti-social, and/or criminal behaviors. MST effectively treats youth and their families by utilizing a built-in suite of interventions within the home, school, and community settings. Treatment is tailored to the family and their individual strengths and needs, which could include but is not limited to the following types of therapies: Family Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Drug and Alcohol Treatment, Mental Health Services, Peer Ecology Assessment and Intervention, Trauma-informed treatment, and Educational/ Vocational Support.
If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about Multisystemic Therapy, contact us here.