Self esteem is a hot but somewhat controversial topic in the Psychology academic world these days.  Many modern day Psychologists denounce high self esteem as a necessary tenet for raising a mentally healthy child.  Whether or not that is true, as many parents and teachers can attest, the absence of high self esteem (a.k.a. low self esteem), seems to be “the problem behind the problem” for many adolescents today. 

In this article, I’ll be going over:

  • What is self esteem and why it matters,
  • What is the potential impact of low self esteem for today’s youth,
  • How to tell if your son/daughter suffers from low self esteem,
  • What the big debate over self esteem is about, and
  • What you can do about it as a parent. 

As an educator for over 10 years, I have repeatedly witnessed firsthand, the prevalence and significance of low self esteem in my students.  Academically, one key negative impact observed is a low motivation to improve, causing students to develop a fixed mindset. 

What is self esteem?

Self esteem is often conflated with confidence, but the thing is, I have personally worked with many kids that were outwardly confident, only to eventually realize it was actually a mask for low esteem.  This would be most obvious in instances when they would pretend to understand something rather than ask for clarity, or they would get uncomfortable when discussing their mistakes.  So, perhaps self esteem is something that goes deeper than confidence.  

There are various definitions used in the Psychology world, but for this essay, I’m going to define it as the way someone feels about themselves as determined by the weight they place on the perspectives of others in their decision making, as compared to their own.  This is the only way to understand how a kid that appears to be very confident could still have low self esteem – their perception of themselves would have to rely so heavily on the feedback they’re getting from the outside, that learning and improving would not be worth the risk of receiving negative feedback.

Therefore, according to this definition, only a student with high self esteem would place a higher value on correcting a misconception than they would on what I might think of them if they were wrong.  This is why I believe that self esteem is not something that should be dismissed so easily – I’ve seen it interfere, time and time again, with the progress and potential of my students.  

Even those that don’t have the appearance of high confidence suffer from the impact of low self esteem, although this time, it’s problematic in a different way.  For them, low self esteem is more about having such little belief in themselves that they don’t see the point in trying.

What is the potential impact of low self esteem in kids?

The problems caused by low self esteem in youth these days span far and wide in scope, beyond just academics.  It only seems logical that their dependency on the acceptance of others would be at the root of why things like depression and anxiety are on the rise, not to mention addictions to social media, among other addictions, and any poor, short-sighted and unnecessarily risky decisions they make.  It’s no wonder that so many parents, educators and mental health professionals are concerned about the effect that social distancing will have on today’s generation of kids.

I want to be clear that I am not asserting that there is something wrong with wanting to be accepted, it is one of the basic human needs, after all.  The problem arises when it becomes the primary motivating factor behind their decisions, because even if it happens to pay off for them, the reward will likely not satiate the need, but rather, make them even more dependent on it. 

To some degree, we all have this need, but as we get older and wiser, our priorities change, and we become more accepting of ourselves, and so, less dependent on others for that.  So, maybe that’s what will happen to this generation too?  Perhaps, but one thing is for sure, they have a lot more tools and distractions at their disposal to feed their addictions, which start at a much younger age for them than for us, and the patterns of “needs” created in childhood can be very difficult to get free of as adults.  

The other thing is that the growing years so greatly influence the path that our lives take.  These are the years when their potential is the greatest, yet it can easily get sabotaged. 

How to tell if your teen suffers from low self esteem

Here are some little signs and things to look for when trying to determine if your son or daughter has low self esteem, as well as some signs of high self esteem:

Signs of low self esteem:

  • They don’t like change.
  • They think they’re good at everything (or most things).
  • They quit easily when faced with resistance.
  • When they disagree with you, they have a tone of defiance.
  • Or they hardly ever disagree with you, and when they do, it’s with uncertainty.
  • They have an apathetic attitude towards anything that will require work.
  • They worry a lot about what others will think of them, and try to please others.
  • They don’t own up to mistakes.

Signs of high self esteem:

  • They do things outside of their comfort zone.
  • They love to learn.
  • They’re more afraid of not improving than they are of appearing weak or ignorant.
  • They don’t have a problem disagreeing or questioning your opinions, but it is out of curiosity, not to challenge you.
  • They do what they say they’re going to do.
  • They’re not so afraid of being wrong or embarrassing themselves that they stop themselves from doing something anyway.

What is the big debate over self esteem about?

The reason that so many Psychologists denounce the importance of high self esteem is because having high self esteem, or placing a higher value on one’s own perspective rather than that of others, especially too early in life, can pave the way for narcissistic traits.  It is like the pattern I mentioned above, with the students that are “too confident” to teach anything new to, since they apparently don’t need to learn anything more, and so, that is why parents are now being discouraged from giving false praise to their kids in early childhood.

What is really needed is something I’ll refer to as earned high self esteem, where they are praised, but only appropriately so – when they do something to earn it.  That way, the reward comes as a result of working hard to overcome a challenge, and not for simply believing one is entitled to the reward (think: A for effort).  On the other end of the spectrum is the problem of feeling demoralized in the event of failure, but I’ll come back to combating that. 

By now, you’re probably wondering, what about the kids that are already past the early developmental stages, like their tween and teen years?  Can those patterns still be changed, and if so, how?

What you can do to help them:

Have you ever tried convincing someone to believe in themselves?  It can be an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Some people feel grateful for your attempt and will agree, just to make you feel better about trying to encourage them.  Others can feel offended that you think they don’t already believe in themselves.  So, sometimes even having a conversation about it can be tricky, but here are some of my suggestions for what you can do: 

  1. Compliment them on their courage, as well as on successful results.  That way, you’ll recalibrate their thinking, so that they get little boosts of “reward” even when they fail at something, meaning that they won’t quit so easily on themselves, and they’ll get used to the idea that high self esteem is something that takes hard work to earn.
  2. Teach them to be self accountable, so they start to focus more on their own responsibilities and opinions than on the outside feedback.  If you would like to learn more about how to do this, I’ve put together a series that you can read about here.
  3. Seek out a good therapist or life coach for them if they seem overly preoccupied with wanting external validation.  Having a professional therapist will help them process their emotions, and hopefully, communicate and reflect their self image to them in a way that moves them towards independence.
  4. Look for volunteer opportunities that they can join.  This is another activity that reinforces the first and second suggestions: that high self esteem must be earned.
  5. If they are the shy and reserved type, try to gently nudge them to do things that are slightly outside of their comfort zone, and keep expanding that zone slowly.