3 Causes of Low Self-Esteem in Teens (And What to Do About It)

By Kristine Tye Posted April 21, 2016 under Guest Authors

Low self-esteem is common in teens, but it can be difficult to determine whether low self-esteem is a symptom of something more. Luckily, you can have a positive influence on your teen and help them build healthy self-esteem.

Here are three of the main contributors to low self-esteem in teens, along with the things a parent can do to help with each challenge.

1. Having Trouble Understanding Moods and Emotions

Teens have difficulty identifying feelings, responding to feelings, and remembering that feelings are not permanent. Adults struggle with this, too; however, for a teen, these experiences of emotional turmoil are much more intense. This makes a teen feel confused, inadequate, or isolated. 

A teen may feel unable to ask for the help that they need. Low self-esteem makes a teen extremely vulnerable. Depression and anxiety can be hard to spot in teens because of the common stereotype that all teens are moody.

Tools for Understanding Moods and Emotions

Give your teen time to process an emotion. Encourage your teen to be kind to themselves and not to be afraid to feel angry or sad. Show them these things with your behavior, not just your words. You are constantly modeling to your teen the way in which emotions like anger, sadness, or frustration are handled.

Provide opportunities for your teen to learn to address emotions. For example, a therapist for teens could help them to identify the tools that are most useful for them. This can prevent future depression and anxiety problems, especially if you are already seeing signs like self-deprecating comments or a change in behaviors and habits.

2. Being Stuck in Negative Thought Patterns

Low self-esteem often goes hand-in-hand with excessive worry, anxiety and/or negativity. Expecting the worst harms your teen’s sense of possibility or capability, creating a negative cycle of thoughts and actions. 

For example, your teen may anticipate that a test will go poorly and, as a result, avoid trying or studying. Low self-esteem is often mistaken as laziness in teens because this tendency toward a lack of positive action when thinking negatively. 

Negative patterns of thinking often become a habit for teens as they learn to make sense of the adult world. Your teen may quickly develop negative beliefs about themselves or about the world.

Creating Healthy Thought Patterns

It may be difficult for your teen to notice evidence of positive things in their life. Explaining logically why they should see something in a positive way is not helpful; it may only leave your teen feeling more frustrated or misunderstood.

Instead, help train your teen’s own mind to notice the positive. Model noticing the positive things that are already there or that you or your teen is already doing. Show appreciation for your teen’s behavior and model appreciation for things in your life. 

A common mistake parents make is to tell their teen to “look on the bright side” when their teen just needs to be listened to. When teens feel heard they will often come up with excellent solutions themselves.

3. Experiencing Breakdowns in Communication

Difficulty communicating in a positive way with the people around them can be both a cause and a symptom of low self-esteem. Communication breakdowns will distance your teen from you and other helpful adults, as well as from important peer relationships.

Social situations are a key part of your teen’s development, and trouble in your teen’s social world has a negative impact on your teen’s internal world. Negative or conflicting messages from the outside world can cause a teen’s self-esteem to suffer. 

It’s not just harmful communication (like bullying or criticism) that contributes to low self-esteem in teens; it is also an inability to talk about the feelings associated with these struggles.

Building Strength in Communication

Not all teens communicate in the same way. Allow yourself to discover things that make communication easier and more positive for you and your teen. 

For example, many teens (especially those with low self-esteem) don’t need to be reminded of how important things like their grades or their choices are; they need to be reminded that what they want to do is possible.

Brainstorm solutions to problems alongside your teen – and value their suggestions. Listen first before offering suggestions. Your teen’s therapist can help your teen engage with both you and their peers in more positive and productive ways.

Kristine Tye MA MFT is a California licensed marriage and family therapist and anxiety treatment expert. She specializes in working will teens. Learn more about how to connect and communicate with teens via her website. Get your free article and download The Parent Teen Argument Antidote. You can connect with Kristine on Twitter.

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