Self-esteem: Building confidence, being true to yourself, and cheesy Pinterest quotes.
Self-esteem is a term that is often overused during adolescence, but just as frequently misunderstood. Before researching self-esteem, I had a bias of the term “self-esteem” and its meaning. Self-esteem had been drilled into me as a teen and I remember being tired of hearing about it and talking about it. But, as I reflect upon my younger years, I realize that I did not truly understand self-esteem, or how its embodiment can impact women and girls. Understanding the role of self-esteem could change the way we treat and empower others, building a generation of confident, daring leaders.
I am asking you, the reader to consider self-esteem in a new light, hearing what the risk factors of negative self-esteem are, and then imagining what beauty could occur in a world full of confident, passionate, and creative youth. A deeper understanding of the role of self-esteem provides us the information we need to empower our youth to not only to improve how they view themselves, but how they view, treat, and interact with others and the world around them.
A recent study by Maccio and Schuler (2012) suggests that almost all adolescents, particularly girls, may be facing low self-esteem simply due to their age, developmental stage, and the stressors they are facing. Self-esteem, whether high or low, is the value in which one views themselves as worthy or favorable (Zeigler-Hill, 2013). Despite adolescence being a time filled with challenges and soul-searching for one’s identity, adolescents facing trauma and overcoming other challenges such as housing instability or abuse, are at even higher risk for low self-esteem (Hyun, Chung, & Lee, 2005). As exposure to trauma increases, negative distortion of self-esteem and the negative risk factors also increase (Maxwell, 1992).
If we understand self-esteem and ways of fostering it in our youth, we could change this statistic. What if the opposite were then true, what if almost all adolescents are empowered with high self-esteem despite their age, developmental stage, and the stressors they may be facing?
So, how then, as a society can we prioritize self-esteem?
Would we do more about self-esteem if we knew the negative impacts it had on adolescents?
Would we stop tuning out at the words “self-esteem” if we knew that low self-esteem can contribute to mental illness in adolescents? Could attention to self-esteem at a young age be a means of increasing the mental health and wellness of individuals in our society? If we installed positive coping skills and beliefs about others through early childhood education, in our schools and our churches at a young age, would difficulties as an adult decrease?
What if I told you that positive self-esteem could save lives? Low self-esteem was reported to be reliably associated with feelings of loneliness, feelings of being trapped, and suicidal ideations (Kidd & Shahar, 2008). Additionally, as self-esteem drops in adolescents, depressive symptoms increase (Maxwell, 1992). Paying greater attention to self-esteem could play a role in prevention of suicide, the second leading cause of death among adolescents (CDC, 2017).
Would we pay more attention to self-esteem if we knew it contributed to engagement with risky behaviors? If we knew it could decrease delinquency, substance use, criminal activity, health problems, and unplanned pregnancy? (Maccio & Schuler, 2012).
If we knew that self-esteem could decrease eating disorders and body image struggles among young girls, would we go out of our way to understand and play our part in fostering self-esteem? (Taylor & Montgomery, 2007).
The literature regarding the negative impact of low self-esteem is humbling. Hearing the ways that self-esteem is negatively affecting lives was enough to get me on board with the importance of self-esteem. However, while I think it is important to shed light on the negative impacts of self-esteem, it is not the only story I want to tell. Let’s switch gears to a positive light and imagine the beauty that could come from generations of adolescents living with positive and healthy sense of self.
Imagine a generation of youth socially connected, full of adolescents who believe they belong. Filled with adolescents who believe in themselves, and their peers. Imagine adolescents who saw themselves as resilient, worthy, and deserving, creating positive relationships with peers and family members (Begun, Bender, Brown, Barman-Adhikari, & Ferguson, 2016).
What if we saw adolescents engaged in positive coping skills? Could this lead to lower crime rate? Better physical and mental health? Could adults be affected as well, who are inspired by the example set before them on regulation of stress and coping? (Kidd & Shahar, 2008).
What if we saw a generation engaged with creativity? Academic achievement? Imagine generations skilled in effective communication, using their gifts, passions, and knowledge to create innovative ideas, solutions, and contributions to this world (Maxwell, 1992).
Dream with me of teens willing to stand up against peer pressure and express unpopular opinions, despite what the rest of their surroundings seem to be doing or saying (Maxwell, 1992).
What if we stopped dreaming and imagining these outcomes and truly believe it’s possible? What a vision to believe in, striving to create a world where our youth do not have to fight to survive, but we raise a generation ready to thrive.
Now of course it is naive to believe this is a simple task. I understand the impact of trauma, hardship, and challenges of this world are far more impactful than the surface we are touching.
But, I believe we all have a role to play here.
I have hope for our future generations. I have hope for leaders to rise, to be brave, confident, creative, intelligent. The research is compelling, sharing these outcomes can be possible when adolescents are equipped with positive self-esteem. But it starts with us, it starts with our willingness and continues with our actions.
But how? What role can we play to build a generation of confident, daring leaders?
If possible, engage in the research. For such a topic as this, there is a large gap in evidence-based interventions. But, we should be prepared to take what we know and implement it in your communities. Evaluate it and spread the word.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is suggested, a therapeutic approach that helps individuals positively shift their cognitions and behaviors (Bender, Ferguson, Thompson, Komlo, & Pollio, 2010). Let’s work alongside our youth to reduce the impact of negative beliefs with positive cognitions, changing behaviors as a result.
Another recommendation is life skills education (Mohammadzadeh, Awang, Hayati, & Ismail, 2017). We should teach our youth how live in a practical sense. Finances, education, emotional regulation, physical health, reframing, stress management, positive coping skills. Not all teens are given the chance to learn these things as they transition into adulthood, but you and I can be a reason that they do learn how to do these things. Teaching our youth and specifically our girls how to live, with an unconditional positive warmth and support, can increase their confidence to navigate the great world before them.
However, I believe it’s even more simple than this.
Be in relationship.
While models, therapies, and other interventions can be beneficial and truly impact an individual life, research has shown relationships and social connectedness are effective interventions for building self-esteem (McCay et al., 2011). Simply, relationships can make a difference with our youth. It does not require a special degree or a license to be in relationships with others, supporting them in their journey to believing they are worthy.
What if culturally we shifted our energy from talking about the youth of our nation to talking with the future leaders. We can’t expect our future leaders to value themselves if we do not show them the value they deserve.
So, let’s get involved. Show up. Be in relationship with others. Empower our youth. Point out the good you see in them and help it flourish. We can encourage others. We can use our words wisely. We can speak words of affirmation and mean them. We can value others. We can be genuine.
Through my research and my social work internship experience of working with adolescent girls, I continue to dream of a world that replaces suicidal ideations, criminal activity, and low self-esteem and fills it instead with generations of creative, passionate, valued, and confident leaders.
I believe we can take these dreams further and make a reality. It takes you, me, and our communities around us. I see change coming, and it all begins with relationships.
Begun, S., Bender, K., Brown, S., Barman-Adhikari, A., & Ferguson, K. (2016). Social connectedness, self-efficacy, and mental health outcomes among homeless youth: Prioritizing approaches to service provision in a time of limited agency resources. Youth & Society, 1 – 26. https://doi.org/10.1177/0044118X16650459
Bender, K., Ferguson, K., Thompson, S., Komlo, C., & Pollio, D. (2010). Factors associated with trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder among homeless youth in three U.S. cities: The importance of transience. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23(1), 161 – 168. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.20501
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). National center for health statistics: Adolescent health. Retrieved on November 23, 2018 from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/adolescent-health.htm
Kidd, S., & Shahar, G. (2008). Resilience in homeless youth: The key role of self-esteem. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78(2), 163–172. https://doi.org/10.1037/0002-94184.108.40.206
Maccio, E., & Schuler, J. (2012). Substance use, self-esteem, and self-efficacy among homeless and runaway youth in New Orleans. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 29(2), 123–136. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10560-011-0249-6
Maxwell, B. (1992). Hostility, depression, and self-esteem among troubled and homeless adolescents in crisis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 21(2), 139 – 150.
McCay, E., Quesnel, S., Langley, J., Beanlands, H., Cooper, L., Blidner, R., … Bach, K. (2011). A relationship-based intervention to improve social connectedness in street-involved youth: A pilot study. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 24(4), 208–215. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6171.2011.00301.x
Mohammadzadeh, M., Awang, Hayati, K. & Ismail, S. (2017). The effects of a life skills-based intervention on emotional health, self-esteem and coping mechanisms in Malaysian institutionalised adolescents: Protocol of a multi-centre randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Educational Research, 83, 32–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2017.02.010
Taylor, T., & Montgomery, P. (2007). Can cognitive-behavioral therapy increase self-esteem among depressed adolescents? A systematic review. Children and Youth Services Review, 29(7), 823–839. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2007.01.010
Zeigler-Hill, V. (2013). Self-esteem. New York, NY: Psychology Press.