Teen Self-esteem: Helping Youth Build Confidence and Feelings of Self-Worth


Study after study shows that we all start out with the same capacity for positive self-esteem, but our experiences and how we choose to deal with them can affect whether our self-esteem is heightened or diminished. In order for youth to develop healthy self-esteem, they need to feel loved, valued, competent and worthy. As a youth worker you have many opportunities to build self-esteem in young people. You can help them uncover their natural talents, boost their self-confidence with praise, help them see how resilient and resourceful they are and acknowledge their successes both big and small. This section will focus on simple ways that you can help young people build positive self-esteem.

What Is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem refers to how you think and feel about yourself. It is your belief about how valuable, capable, lovable and worthy you are as a person. People with high self-esteem feel good about themselves and have a healthy sense of self-worth. They value who they are on the inside, and do not allow other people to define or place limits on them.

In order to have high self-esteem it’s important to have a healthy body image. While you may not like everything about your body, when you have high self-esteem you tend to be generally pleased with the way you look. You also keep yourself neat and well groomed. And while we all know that there is always room for improvement, when you have high self-esteem you don’t beat yourself up about the characteristics or qualities that you lack. Instead, you work on being the best person that you can be – not for others but for yourself.

It’s important to keep in mind that healthy self-esteem is something that we have to work on continually. And when working with youth we need to make sure that we continually help them to build their self-esteem. If we make the conscious commitment to say and do things to build young people up, then we will be able to help them develop a healthy sense of self-worth.

What Negatively Affects A Person’s Self-Esteem?

· Not Having One’s Basic Needs Meet

We all have a basic need for food, clothing, shelter and medical care. When these basic needs are not met, chances are our self-esteem will be negatively impacted. Youth who do not have adequate food, clothing or shelter will have more difficulty concentrating in school, building positive social relationships, and developing an identity that is not associated with their deprived circumstances.

· Being Put Down, Humiliated or Ignored

No one likes to be talked down to, embarrassed, or have their emotional needs ignored. When youth are made to feel incapable, unworthy, or incompetent they will begin to believe the worst about themselves and behave in ways that perpetuate those negative beliefs.

· Being Unhappy With The Way You Look

Part of maintaining a healthy sense of self-esteem is accepting and being happy with the way you look. Let’s get real. This does not mean that you’ll never fantasize about looking like a famous celebrity or that you can’t work on projecting your best physical image. What it means is, if you truly have a healthy sense of self-esteem you won’t put down the way you look or obsess over the physical traits that you’re not 100% pleased with.

For many teenage girls, their self-esteem is directly linked to the way they look. In part, this is due to media imaging that constantly bombards them with messages about what’s attractive and what’s not. But it’s also the result of how a youth’s loved ones made her feel about herself growing up. If youth are complimented on their physical appearance and unique style, then they are more likely to see themselves as attractive, regardless of the images that the media projects.

· Having to Pretend To Be Someone That You Are Not In Order To Fit In or Get Your Needs Met

As mentioned throughout this book, the desire to fit in is a natural pat of adolescent development – especially fitting in with one’s peers. The problem comes in when the cost of fitting in is paid by not being true to oneself. When youth feel like they have to pretend to be someone that they are not, they will go through life thinking and feeling that the only way to gain love and acceptance is to hide behind a mask. This tears down their self-esteem and diminishes their sense of identity.

Further, once they become adults they will not have the necessary skills to get their needs met because they have never learned how to stand up for what they want.

For many gay, lesbian and questioning youth, the need to mask their true identity is a real issue. They know that more often than not they will be met with prejudice, disapproval and in many instances open hostility. Some feel safer hiding their true feelings and keeping their sexual identity private. What this does is set them up to live a double life. And if they are not able to be true to themselves, their self-esteem may be negatively impacted.

· Being Compared Unfavorably With Others

Why can’t you be more like…? Your sister would never behave this way. These are just two examples of how without even realizing it some adults make unfavorable comparisons. When we compare one youth against another we tear down the youth’s self-esteem. Why? Because unfavorable comparisons foster the belief that one youth is better than the other.

· Being Fed A Constant Diet of Unrealistic Ideals

Sometimes when youth watch the fantasy world of television they buy into the media’s definition of success, happiness and beauty. When youth watch a video or sitcom and see the seemingly picture perfect life of a celebrity, they may find it difficult not to try to live up to that fantasy. As a youth worker it’s important that you seek to counteract unrealistic and, or negative images projected by the media with more positive, realistic ones.

· Being Abused or Neglected


All children need to feel safe. When a youth comes from a household plagued with abuse or neglect the youth does not have a solid foundation upon which to build a healthy sense of self-esteem on. Until she heals these emotional wounds, her identity will be attached to her abusive experiences. Further, when a youth’s trust has been shattered, he may have difficulty forming healthy relationships with others.

· Being Made to Feel Unimportant

Young people need our time and attention. They need to feel like they matter. If a youth feels like the adults in his life do not care about him, he is likely to act out in self-defeating ways to gain attention. Young people need to know that there are adults in their lives who care about them and have a vested interest in their success.

How’s Your Self-Esteem?

If you are to help youth build positive self-esteem, it’s a good idea to start out by building up your own. This is not to say that you do not already have healthy self-esteem, but since we already know that healthy self-esteem operates on a continuum, it’s a good idea to periodically give yours a little boost. I would like to start this process by having you acknowledge and give thanks for everything that is fabulous about you and working out positively in your life. Sarah Ban Breathnach author of, The Simple Abundance Companion states that, “appreciation, acknowledgement and action are the trinity of a woman’s transformation.” Although Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book speaks to women, I believe that the principles of appreciation, acknowledgement and action can transform all of our lives. Begin your trinity of transformation by honoring the many ways that you are blessed.

Copyright © 2006 by Cassandra Mack

Excerpted from Cassandra Mack’s book, “Smart Moves That Successful Youth Workers Make.”

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