Getting help for teenage low self esteem is a subject close to my heart. I’ll take you through common signs to look out for and what to do as a parent.
As a young child I was called the ‘Smiler’. I used to sing songs going around the supermarket. I loved to dance and appeared confident to others.
But I recall how insecure I felt through my teenage years. My self-esteem took a battering due to bullying, and self-doubt set in.
Now, as an adult, parent and counsellor, I’ve developed a better understanding of the impact that negative thoughts and self-esteem issues can have on the lives of young people.
As parents, it can be upsetting and difficult to see our own kids struggling with confidence and self-esteem problems.
Getting help for teenage low self-esteem can feel very difficult. So what can we do to help?
I’ll give some insight into why teenagers experience low esteem and share some helpful tips and strategies you can put into place to support your own child in building positive self-esteem.
What is Self-Esteem?
The UK mental health charity Mind states that:
“Self-esteem is how we value and perceive ourselves. It’s based on our opinions and beliefs about ourselves, which can feel difficult to change. We might also think of this as self-confidence”.
Healthy self-esteem is really important for everyone. It plays a big part in helping us to focus on positive things and make positive choices in our daily life.
Positive self-esteem helps us build self-confidence, enrich relationships and entrust ourselves to deal with difficult situations.
What Are The Signs That Indicate Teenage Low Self-Esteem?
Here are some typical signs of low self-esteem to look out for.
- Avoiding difficult or new situations.
- Anxious behaviours e.g. always double-checking even when you don’t need to.
- Isolating behaviours e.g. waiting passively for others to organise a meet-up rather than being proactive.
- Oversensitivity to criticism.
- Seeking constant reassurance.
- Disordered eating habits (e.g. comfort eating) and/or negative body image.
- Friendship issues e.g. pretending to be like others to fit in.
- Constant apologising.
- Putting others down.
- Negative self talk and negative comparison with others.
- Self-medication (e.g. substance use or alcohol).
Your teenager’s self-esteem might change suddenly, or they may experience low self-esteem over a longer period of time.
Teenage Low Self Esteem: Avoiding Difficult or New Situations
When outcomes are unknown or uncertain, a child with low self-esteem may find it more difficult to rationalise situations and risk assess effectively.
They may find trying new things scary or anxiety-inducing.
Your teen may feel that they wouldn’t be able to cope with a negative outcome.
Low self esteem contributes to beliefs like: “I’m not strong enough”.
Anxious Behaviours and Teenage Low Self Esteem
In teenagers with low self-esteem, anxious behaviours may show up as outward or internal anxiety (physical or emotional) in teenage low self-esteem.
Your child may get a sense of dread.
They may express fears of the worst happening. They may ruminate over such fears (dwelling on them over and over).
Does your child ruminate?
If a child doesn’t have strong self-belief they are much more likely to feel uncontained or unsafe, which are precursors to anxiety.
Therefore, anxiety and low self-esteem tend to be linked.
Teenage Low Self Esteem and Isolating Behaviours
Some teens engage only in activities that avoid social interactions or conversations with others.
Does your teenager actively avoid competition or comparison with others and seek to stay in a ‘safe’ space that they feel they can cope with?
Do you notice they prefer to spend time playing on video games rather than experiencing the social world perhaps?
There’s nothing wrong with gaming in itself, but how interactive with others and how obsessive your child is about gaming can be indicators of whether there is a problem.
Low Self Esteem in Teenagers: Oversensitivity to Criticism
Nobody likes being criticised, especially if it isn’t constructive or well meaning.
However, teenagers with low-esteem often receive criticism as a personal attack and can finding rationalising the criticism difficult. This strong response often happens because it reinforces existing negative beliefs a child may have about themselves, such as “I’m not good enough”.
Comments from outsiders “prove” to the child that their underlying beliefs are correct, and this can be extremely painful.
Seeking Constant Reassurance: The Connection With Teen Low Self Esteem
We all need reassuring from time to time, but if you notice your teenager needing reassurance for everything they do, it may indicate that are struggling with their self esteem.
Perhaps your child is showing separation anxiety, or attention seeking behaviour? These can be signs that your child doesn’t feel confident enough in their own beliefs and decisions, and that’s why they seek you out.
Disordered Eating Habits or Negative Body Image
Low self-esteem may lead a teen to seek control of something, because they feel out of control in other areas of their lives.
Very commonly, young people believe they would feel better about themselves if only they looked a certain way. This can lead to not only disordered eating habits but over-exercising and obsessing about body image.
If a teenager has been the subject of body shaming or bullying, it’s more likely they will develop low self-esteem connected with the way they look.
Negative Body Language in Teenagers With Low Self Esteem
Teenagers with low self-esteem may slouch, hang their head low or have a defensive or closed body language.
Whilst we all display these types of body language at times, if these are dominant in your teenager, they may be feeling low or not good about themselves.
This kind of body language can contribute to a vicious cycle. If a teenager projects under-confident body language, internally they are more likely to feel under-confident. What’s more, others are likely to treat them as such.
Friendship Issues & Low Self Esteem in Teens
Teenagers with lower self-esteem often question whether they will be accepted, or are good enough for people to want to be friends with them.
They may even appear to sabotage relationships, because underneath they think they will ultimately be rejected anyway. Or, they may be ultra cautious about friendships, never taking the lead or putting themselves forward, for fear of rejection.
The Link Between Teen Low Self Esteem and Constant Apologising
Feelings of inferiority can lead teenagers to frequently say sorry, even when there is no reason for an apology to be given.
Excessive apologising is a sign that the young person doesn’t think they are good enough.
Teenage Low Self Esteem and Putting Others Down
Putting others down is often a sign of low self-esteem. Teenagers may do this in a vain attempt to feel superior to someone else when they are feeling “not good enough”
. It’s a way of projecting their own bad feelings onto someone else.
Normally it is subconscious. Of course, this doesn’t mean it is okay.
Negative Self-Talk and Low Self Esteem in Teenagers
Saying things like “I’m stupid”, or “I’m no good” is common with low self-esteem.
Negative self talk is one of the strongest indicators that your child has low self-worth.
Self Medicating for Teen Low Self Esteem
When a teen’s self-esteem is low, they may engage in risky behaviours such as substance abuse or promiscuity, in order to block out difficult feelings.
Don’t forget to look out for this and bear it in mind.
Teenage Low Self Esteem Examples
Here are two examples (fictional but based on an amalgamation of young people we have supported at Everlief Child Psychology).
Saira is thirteen. She had undetected dyslexia until the age of twelve. She struggled to keep up academically, and felt that she was stupid.
Saira was never the one who got an award or got house points for doing well at school. Now she is receiving extra support in school but her low self esteem is deeply ingrained.
Low self esteem causes Saira to doubt herself all the time, and she shies away from trying new things because she thinks she won’t succeed, based on past experience.
Saira has begun comfort eating and has put on weight. This has led her to feel bad about her body, lowering her self esteem even further.
Saira’s mum Genevieve can see that she needs to do something to help her daughter with self esteem before it spirals, affecting her mental health.
Elliott is 16. He hasn’t started puberty yet and other boys constantly make fun of his “squeaky voice” and small size.
Elliott used to be a sporty and confident boy, but development of self esteem in adolescence has gone in the opposite direction.
Elliott feels like an unlucky underdog.
He sometimes tries new things but his low self esteem causes him to expect to fail. This becomes self-fulfilling. Because Elliott expects to fail, he doesn’t start out with confidence and so he doesn’t succeed. This magnifies his low self esteem even further.
Why Do Teenagers Develop Low Self Esteem?
There are a number of factors that contribute negatively towards a child’s self esteem.
For example, early attachment difficulties when they were little which made them feel insecure in the longer term, feeling unsafe in the home or school environment, trauma or stressful life events like bullying.
A child’s self-esteem is shaped over time.
Even if children seem to have had a positive sense of self-worth in their earlier years, the challenges of adolescence can contribute to a decline in self-esteem.
It’s really important to remember that even a child who hasn’t had any major life challenges can develop low self-esteem.
Well, for one thing, our modern world is a tough one to grow up in. Even the most resilient child can find the teenage years tough. They may face several knock-backs and challenges, and feel that these were somehow their fault.
But if your child is neurodiverse or finds it tough to meet the demands of everyday modern life, they can end up feeling like they are a failure, or that something is fundamentally wrong with them.
Having said this, there are a number of factors which may make low self-esteem in teenagers more likely…
Common Contributors to Low Self-Esteem in Teenagers:
- Peer pressure and friends who are a bad influence leading to uncertainty about the child’s own sense of self and values.
- Prolonged separation from parents or caregivers in early life (see our article: The Importance Of Attachment In Children).
- Living in a dysfunctional or chaotic environment.
- Mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
- Trauma including sexual or emotional abuse or neglect.
- Major life events such as death of family members, divorce, or moving to a new area.
- Injury or health issues.
- Poor academic performance.
- Bullying, including cyberbulling.
- Social isolation.
- Neurodivergence, gender issues or feeling different from others.
Low mood and depression can be perfectly normal responses to difficult events or situations.
It may take time for your teenager to experience the good things in life again.
This links closely with how they feel about themselves. The important thing to remember is that the difficult life experience will not always cloud everything else. There will come a time when things feel more balanced for your teenager again.
How to Help a Teenager With Low Self-Esteem: Getting External Help
Low self-esteem can contribute to mental health problems such as eating disorders and depressive symptoms in young adulthood. It is also a risk factor for self harm and substance abuse.
You can do lots to support your child at home but if this doesn’t feel enough, you could consider finding a child therapist for some low self esteem help.
The therapeutic approach you choose will depend on your child’s preferences, local availability, and whether or not your child has other difficulties alongside poor self-esteem such as depression, eating issues or anxiety.
It’s best to discuss this with your chosen or allocated therapist, and they will help you decide if they are best placed to support your child.
What Kind of Therapy Helps Teenage Low Self-Esteem?
In my counselling clinic and at home I’ve observed that teenagers simply don’t want to talk to parents about some things.
This might be due to embarrassment, shame or worry about upsetting the other person.
It’s a normal response and part of growing up.
Talking therapy can give your child a chance to make sense of what they are feeling and why. From here, they can develop a positive plan and move forward.
Counselling For Low Self Esteem in Teenagers
Counselling is an unstructured form of talking therapy which offers a safe space and dedicated time for your teenager to talk about what matters to them.
This form of talking therapy can help a teen with low self esteem to identify the important things in their world, make sense of how they feel, who they are and how they navigate challenges they face.
Counselling is validating. Just by being there and actively listening, a counsellor is saying to your child that they matter, and their opinions are valid.
CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) for Teenage Low Self Esteem
CBT focuses on unhelpful behaviours and thinking patterns.
Together, the therapist and child identify these patterns and work out ways to gently challenge and change them.
Older children and teens learn to identify their anxious thoughts and negative beliefs whilst adapting any unhelpful behaviours.
In younger children, by contrast, the focus tends to be more on the behaviours only, as they have less insight into their thoughts.
Teenagers can also learn how to disengage from a thought or how not to engage with it in the first place.
ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) for Low Self Esteem in Teens
The principle behind ACT is to embrace thoughts and feelings rather than fighting them or feeling guilt or shame about them.
ACT helps people develop psychological flexibility and a wide range of coping strategies. It also helps young people develop a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives through acceptance and figuring out what their values are.
Compassion Focused Therapy for Low Self Esteem in Teens
Compassion-focused therapy aims to help promote mental and emotional healing by encouraging your teen to be compassionate toward themselves and other people.
Compassion is an essential aspect of well-being and this therapeutic approach aims to support those who are self-critical or hold a negative view of self.
It can be especially helpful when there are strong feelings of shame or guilt.
How to Help a Teenager With Low Self-Esteem: Finding a Therapist
In the UK, you may be able to find a therapist for your child either privately or through the NHS. Sometimes schools can arrange in-house counselling or refer your teen to an external service. Your teen can also speak to their doctor about getting a referral to local therapy services.
If you are outside the UK, speak to your doctor or healthcare provider and ask for a referral.
In both the UK and the USA, you can also find a child therapist through your health insurance company.
UK parents should first approach your GP (family doctor). They will be able to let you know whether your child may meet the criteria for an NHS service, and make a referral. Your child’s school can also make a referral. In some areas, you can self-refer.
Clinical psychologists can offer CBT, ACT and Compassion Focused Therapy. You can find a local private child psychologist through ACHiPPP (the Association for Child Psychologists in Private Practice).
How Can I Help My Teen With Low Self-Esteem?
- Emphasise strengths and positives.
- Model positive self-language.
- Build self worth through clear and strong values.
- Use affirmations.
- Remind them of what makes them feel good.
Your child may have been confident and carefree during their childhood. Yet maybe they’ve struggled to sustain these levels through adolescence.
We know adolescence can be a time filled with questions, self-discovery, self-doubt, pressure and insecurity.
How can you help your teenager to understand and manage low self-esteem?
5 Tips: How to Help a Teenager With Low Self-Esteem
1. Emphasise Strengths and Positives
Focus on your teenager’s positive traits. Give plenty of praise and encouragement for the hard work they put in and the achievements as a result of those efforts.
Compliment your teenager regularly for kind and thoughtful gestures and on their positive character traits.
This sounds obvious, but as parents, criticism and judgement of our children can sneak in under the radar.
For example, we may understandably show frustration at a teen’s messiness and lack of organisation and label them as lazy. This may be internalised by your child as evidence that they are “not good enough” as a person.
Take a moment to reflect on any negative or harsh judgements you have made of your child recently.
2. Model Positive Self Language
Use animated and positive self-language around your child, whilst avoiding toxic positivity.
This is a tricky balance.
Avoid putting a positive spin on everything, because your teen may feel that you aren’t listening or understanding them. Excessive positivity can be invalidating.
However, if your teen is stuck in a negative pattern of thinking, it’s really helpful to point out alternative viewpoints to them, whilst acknowledging their feelings.
Your teen will learn about confidence based on what you do and say. So try to avoid being hypercritical of yourself (or of them).
For example, instead of “I’m useless at planning my time”, you might say “planning can be a struggle for me at the moment”.
3. Build Teen Self-Worth Through Values
There are many negative effects on your teen if they only feel good when they get a bunch of ‘likes’ when using social media, but they don’t truly know what’s important to them beyond this superficiality.
Help build up your teenager’s sense of worth by emphasising your own values and living by them.
Encourage and celebrate your teenagers positive thoughts, behaviours and actions. Praise effort and achievement.
4. Use Affirmations to Improve Teenage Self Esteem
Get your child to write down compliments that people give them. They may not believe them at the time, but they can look back and read them when they are feeling low, despondent or demotivated.
It’s easy to dismiss compliments and forget about them. Writing them down helps us to internalise them.
Suggest that your teen regularly repeats 2 or 3 things they want to believe about themselves.
Yes, even if they don’t believe it.
For example, “I am good enough” or “I am a good person” or “I have something to contribute to the world”.
Saying these affirmations out loud regularly is thought to train the brain and reshape it, so eventually the beliefs become fully accepted.
5. Remind Your Teen of What Makes Them Feel Good
A positive sense of self can sometimes be present in some settings yet not others.
For example, a teen may feel brilliant when they are performing on stage, but they may feel worthless in class.
Encourage your child to have visual reminders in the house or in their bedroom.
Mementos from places where they felt happy or had fun. Maybe they can display medals, certificates or trophies, or things they have made or created.
Why not keep a box of photos or birthday cards to hand that capture positive moments and can be looked back at?
Often teens with low self-esteem feel their lives are outside their control. Try Dr Lucy Russell’s free circle of control worksheets to help your child identify areas where they can feel empowered and start enjoying life again.
Is Low Self-Esteem in Teenagers Normal?
To some extent teenage low self esteem is considered normal. It’s a time when a teenager is finding their way in the world and developing identity, so some uncertainty and self-doubt is to be expected.
The 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence report fond that a staggering 61% of 10 to 17-year-old girls in the UK have low self-esteem.
In a 2019 study of 1,149 Vietnamese students of both genders, 19.4% experienced low self-esteem.
However, this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do to help your teenager with low self esteem feel better about themselves.
Physiological and brain changes that occur through puberty can cause mood dips and swings that contribute to teenage low self esteem. Many teens feel out of control during these changes and find it hard to have confidence in their own sense of identity.
Whilst it can be perfectly normal for a teenager to lack confidence, low self-esteem is often very ingrained and enduring. The teenager holds a very different view of themselves than others hold of them.
Low self-esteem isn’t a mental health problem in itself, but mental health issues and self-esteem are closely linked.
How Do You Know When Your Teenager Has Developed High Self-Esteem?
High self-esteem is easy to spot. Here are some great examples:
- Gravitating towards social situations and enjoying them. (Note that introverts may also have high self-esteem but they may not show this characteristic.)
- Embracing independence and maturity.
- Self-praising their accomplishments and achievements.
- Accepting that things go wrong for everyone sometimes.
- Accepting frustration and dealing with it calmly.
- Trying out new things and challenging themselves. Stepping out of their comfort zone.
- Engaging with and helping others, rather than having an internal focus on themselves.
- Clear views on what is important to them and what they want from life.
How Can Teenagers Develop “Good” Self-Esteem?
Developing through the teen years, young adults with higher self-esteem and confidence are better prepared to handle peer pressure, navigate relationships, make good decisions and recover from inevitable setbacks.
The good news is that teenagers can work on self-esteem by themselves, alongside any support that their family (and/or therapist) provides.
Reflections: How to Help a Teenager With Low Self-Esteem
Self esteem in adolescence can be easily knocked by difficult experience. You can counter this by actively working on positive experiences with them.
For example, identify areas where it is easy for them to succeed, and build more of those activities into their lives.
Offer opportunities for your teenager to take small, calculated steps outside their comfort zone, which will gradually build their confidence.
Use the tips below, selecting one or two areas to focus on to start with.
- Identify strengths as well as weaknesses.
- Set goals (these must be attainable) and plan how to tackle them through problem-solving.
- Learn and develop new skills e.g. through involvement with team sports or the arts.
- Develop resilience and confidence by practising taking small risks.
- Practise self-praise and positive affirmations, remembering to praise their own effort as well as outcomes. For example: “I’ve done the preparation for the test and I feel ready”, or “I was really nervous, but I’m really happy with how I handled that situation”.
- Choose a healthy role model to follow; someone who shares their own personal values.
- Surround themselves and connect with people who make them feel good.
How to Help a Teenager With Low Self-Esteem: Summary
The development of self esteem in adolescence happens over time, shaped by our experiences. It is closely linked with emotional wellbeing. If your teenager has low self-esteem there are many things that you can do to support them, and they they themselves can do. However, these strategies are not quick fixes, they are methods that gradually build self worth over time. If your teen’s low self-esteem has been very low for a long time and it is affecting their everyday life, talking therapy may be indicated.
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
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