Teenagers and Low Self Esteem

Teenagers and Low Self Esteem

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. 

5 Things That Are Stressing Kids Out About COVID19 And How You Can Help Them

5 Things That Are Stressing Kids Out About COVID19 And How You Can Help Them

The coronavirus pandemic has turned our world upside down so suddenly that, even for experienced educators and counselors, comforting students may feel like a very heavy task right now, especially when their own lives are perhaps also just as chaotic.  Understandably, it can be very difficult to think clearly when something unprecedented like this happens, regardless of how commonplace stress was in our lives before. 

To help clear the fog a little bit, here are 5 common fears and concerns emerging from kids, and some practical tips you can use to help your kids process their concerns:

1.  Fears about the coronavirus and what’s going to happen.

Regarding fears about the coronavirus itself, the best advice (for them and for us) is to practice cautious bravery, rather than allowing fear to dictate our attitudes.  Of course, this is easy to say, but it’s difficult to know when that line is being crossed.  One thing that almost guarantees that we’ve crossed the line is getting too absorbed by the media’s coverage of what’s going on.  If your kids are around it constantly, whether it’s of their own accord or second hand from your own intake, the fearfulness can create traumatic responses that can last well into their adult years, and so it’s even more important for them to stay a bit veiled to reality.  Try and monitor how much they’re consuming, and limit their exposure to only the things they need to know to stay safe.  It’s also not a bad idea to console particularly anxious kids by reminding them that, according to statistics, the virus does not affect them severely at all, but it’s still important to avoid it so that we don’t infect other people.

2.  Distress over social distancing.

Many kids are feeling the pangs of having to stay away from their peers and friends, and the hard part is that the ending of lockdown is still unforeseeable.  A comforting approach with this issue is to tell them that although this is difficult, it is definitely temporary, and for the purpose of protection, because otherwise things would get much worse.  Luckily, they have things like facetime and social media (for those old enough) that allow them to stay in touch with their friends.  They can also use this time to try and develop some skills, hobbies and talents that they’ve always been curious about, and in fact these are excellent ways to channel their stress.

3.  Grief.

Given that COVID-19 has been having a deadly impact on the population, there are likely to be many kids affected by its greatest devastations.  One of the hardest things about grief is the fact that it leaves us feeling like there was so much more we wanted to say, but now it’s too late.  To help your kids cope with their bereavement, tell them to write letters to their lost loved ones, expressing everything they’d want them to know.  Focusing on gratitude, and not as much on the sorrow of the loss can minimize the emotion of helplessness.

4.  Fears about family financial situations.

As heartbreaking as it is that children are sometimes forced to endure financial straits, it’s even worse when they are aware of it.  If their concerns are somewhat unfounded, ask them to think of other times when they were worried about something but everything turned out fine.

However, if their concerns are legitimate and real, the best advice for them would be to, again, reinforce that they practice being brave above all else, and encourage them to trust you and themselves enough to believe they will be alright in any situation because they are brave.  To remain in control of themselves and build up mental strength, it’s imperative that they stay focused on whatever is in their control, which, unfortunately, is sometimes limited to just their attitude.  If they find that their emotions of resentment are too much to contain, then they must be smart and use it to their advantage by channelling it into something more long term.  Remind them that some of the most successful people to have ever existed, accomplished what they did because they used the negativity of their circumstances as fuel to propel them out of it.

5.  Worry about academics and extracurricular activities.

Many schools are cutting their sports, arts, and music programs during this time, and many kids are feeling or going to feel the grief of those losses as well, not to mention, may impact their plans for the future – as in college scholarships, etc.  Remind them that, luckily, everyone else will be having the same problems, so no one is going to hold this circumstance against them, and we will get through this.  In the meantime, they can try and see this time as an opportunity to sharpen their skills even more, so they can hit the ground running when everything starts back up.


Why Some Kids Lie About Schoolwork

(and how to teach them self accountability)

You receive an email from your daughter’s high school Science teacher. 

After getting a 65% on the last test, her grade has dropped down to a C-.  The teacher is graciously offering an extra credit assignment to be submitted in one week, which could bump her test grade up to 75%…

Teenagers and Low Self Esteem

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. 

Teaching Kids To Be Self Accountable

Teaching Kids To Be Self Accountable

You receive an email from your daughter’s high school Science teacher. 

After getting a 65% on the last test, her grade has dropped down to a C-.  The teacher is graciously offering an extra credit assignment to be submitted in one week, which could bump her test grade up to 75%. 

What a relief!  So, you go tell her about the deal, and although she’s not as relieved as you thought she would be, she agrees that she should do the assignment. 

A week goes by and you get another email – your daughter did not turn in the extra credit assignment and so has missed her chance to raise her grade.  You’re baffled.  It was only a couple of days ago that you had asked her how the assignment was going, expecting her to say what assignment? but instead, she’d said it was fine and she was halfway done.  Now, when you confront her about it, she says she didn’t realize it was due today. 

Have you ever had such an experience with your kid, one so riddled with hints of apathy, immaturity, or outright rebelliousness, that it leaves you wondering why don’t you want what’s best for you?? 

As someone that’s been in the private tutoring industry for over a decade, I’ve been lied to about schoolwork countless times by many students.  For example, I once had a student that suddenly started getting 100’s on his tests, after failing all of the previous tests from that class.  At first, I was proud and impressed, but when I asked him to do the easiest type of problem from the same unit, he couldn’t even do the first step, which, might I add, was typical of the skill level I had seen from him in our previous sessions.  So, I started out by asking him if there was anything he’d like to tell me about his latest successes in Math, and he said no.  Then, I began taking more direct approaches, but his responses still wouldn’t budge. 

Behaviors like this were always so baffling to me, especially in cases where they’d know I knew the truth, and they’d still somehow attempt to defend themselves.  So, I decided I was going to get to the bottom of why some kids self sabotage and how in the world do they justify it to themselves?! 

One thing about me is that I’m a real stickler about reviewing tests with my students when they get them back. Experience has taught me that old tests are where the most valuable lessons are found. By combing over old mistakes, even on the tests that students do well on, we can figure out where their thinking went wrong — like the assumptions they made, the thought processes that lead to their careless or frequently repeated errors — and that way, we can start correcting their self sabotaging test-taking habits.
My students, however, strongly dislike going over old tests. Whenever their grade comes back low, they feel too ashamed to want to look at the test again, and whenever they do well, then they don’t see the point in looking at what they did wrong. Clearly, they find it painful to face their old mistakes, almost like it’s a regret, regardless of how well they performed on the test.
This implies that, ultimately, they lie and self sabotage because their fear of facing their mistakes is greater than the fear of not improving themselves. What we want for them is to switch those two fears around, so that they fear the consequences of standing still to such a degree, that they’re willing to face their mistakes. That is what it takes to accept responsibility and hold oneself accountable.
I’ve uncovered a lot more about these sorts of behavior patterns, how they think and how to effectively teach them to be self accountable, but it’s a lot to take in all at once, so I put together in a 4-part Teaching Accountability email series that covers:
  • How they justify their self sabotage to themselves.
  • How to build trust with your teenager.
  • Strategies for teaching self accountability and for holding them accountable.
  • What I said to my “cheating” student (above) that got him to lower his guard and resolve the issue amicably.
  • Understanding the ideal student mindset, and a way to effectively explain it to them.

If you would like access to this series, submit the form below to subscribe and we’ll email it to you the next few days.