One day, a 17-year-old track runner anchors his relay team's win with a personal best time and he's feeling nearly invincible. The next, he's crushed by a college rejection letter. Such moments can be confusing for parents and caregivers, but there are ways to offer support. Through modeling, encouragement, and acknowledgment we can guide adolescents to develop the skills necessary to tackle moments of insecurity.
Why is self-esteem important? Self-esteem impacts decision-making processing, motivation, relationships, emotional health, and overall well-being. Low self-esteem can contribute to or be a symptom of anxiety and depression. One study demonstrates that clinically assessed adolescents with high self-esteem suffer fewer symptoms of anxiety/depression and attention problems over time, indicating that self-esteem acts as a resilience factor against such symptoms. Studies have shown how high self-esteem acts as a buffer under stress, hence reducing the harmful effects of stress on mental health. It has also been shown that individuals with low self-esteem often adopt passive-avoidant coping styles focused on emotions, whereas individuals with high self-esteem will adopt active problem-focused coping strategies.
Parents can provide support by highlighting a healthy balance of self-acceptance and self-improvement. This can be accomplished by showing adolescents that it is possible to accept flaws while also continuing to work on becoming better. Support them in identifying their strengths and weaknesses. Then continue to guide them in goal setting and problem-solving in order to support them in improving areas of struggle.
Introducing new opportunities is another way to help encourage an adolescent’s self-esteem. This can include obtaining employment, trying a new activity, or discovering a talent/hobby, but, most importantly, it is about challenging adolescents to build their self-esteem. Many adolescents avoid new endeavors due to fear of failure and embarrassment- this is where parents can provide encouragement by normalizing their response.
Acknowledging the entire spectrum of success and failure is valuable in the development of self-esteem. As human beings, we grow from our experiences, but expecting perfection can be debilitating to our self-concept. It is important while we are supporting and encouraging self-esteem that we also include an acknowledgment. It gives us the courage to keep trying and rise to the challenge despite previous setbacks; it creates resilience or grit.
By providing support, encouragement, and acknowledgment, we are able to create a foundation for young people’s identity. With a foundation, our adolescents can then help themselves in strengthening their self-esteem independently. They can improve by becoming aware of negative thoughts, challenging negative thinking patterns, practicing positive affirmations, and self-compassion.
Whenever the opportunity arises, parents and caregivers should model to adolescents how to face new situations with courage and confidence and demonstrate the importance of self-esteem. Self-esteem may be of clinical relevance despite not being regarded as a clinical term. So talk about your experiences and actions to help build your own confidence as well. We do not stop growing just because we are adults, and, perhaps, the lessons we teach our children will one day be the lessons we too need to hear.
About the Author: Heliana Vargas is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Granada Hills Charter. She earned her Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Psychology from California State University Northridge and her Master of Arts (MA) in Social Work from the University of Southern California. Heliana has been a professional educator since 2018.