Teaching Our Teens Well: Self-Esteem vs. Self-Kindness

When teenagers start to engage in dicey behaviors, one of the first assumptions many people make is, “He must have low self-esteem” or “She has no self-confidence.” But what does that really mean? 

Traditionally, self-esteem is described as a person’s overall self-evaluation or judgment of self-worth. For example, Mary is a teenager with high self-esteem. She believes, “I’m competent. I feel good about myself.” Jack, on the other hand, has low self-esteem, and believes, “I’m such a loser. Nobody likes me.” Mary has positive emotions associated with her beliefs, such as pride or joy, while Jack experiences negative emotions, like shame or anxiety. Over time, Mary may begin to excel in her life, but Jack may retreat and stop trying in school or engaging with friends and family. He may even turn to quick fixes, like substance use and abuse, to soothe his emotional pain. Of course, we want to help the Jacks of the world when we see the first signs of trouble or concern. As such, many self-esteem programs have been implemented in schools to prevent teens from having low self-esteem. On the face of it, this makes sense as there is evidence that children’s self-esteem can be directly related to motivation and academic success.

But there’s hitch in trying to boost teens’ self-esteem that many educators and parents get caught up in – and why many self-esteem programs don’t work. Some strategies used by well-meaning adults entail a system of rewards and incentives: stars, prizes, awards or money. Typically when children are not following the rules and behaving badly, these rewards are removed or negative consequences follow. As a result, what kids begin to learn is: “If I do ABC, I get a prize; if I don't do XYZ, I avoid punishment.” The downside, however, is that kids often don’t internalize the value of the learning process. When it comes down to it, we want our kids to appreciate effort over outcome, be kind toward others and develop a sense of purpose. 

If boosting self-esteem is not the panacea for raising happy and healthy teens, is there something else?

Yes. Psychologists are studying the benefits of other characteristics, such as self-compassion.  Kristen Neff, PhD, a self-compassion researcher suggests:

“In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself… Moreover, self-compassion isn’t dependent on external circumstances, it’s always available – especially when you fall flat on your face!”

There is a growing body of social science research revealing that, in comparison to self-esteem, people who develop self-compassion also have greater emotional resilience, more realistic self-concepts and are more caring toward themselves and others.

So, where do you start? At home. Parents can role model self-compassion, especially when things get rough or when they experience stress, sadness, failure and disappointment. If we want teens to know and show they are worthy of love and belonging, parents need to as well.

Tara Cousineau, PhD, is founder of BodiMojo, Inc., which creates innovative health communication tools in child and family health. She is a clinical psychologist and has received numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovative Research program. Her team is currently creating the BodiMojo app, a mobile intervention for kids that promotes emotional awareness, self-kindness, and mindfulness. She is one of twelve global ambassadors for the Dove Self Esteem Project, a social mission to improve body image in girls and women. She earned her PhD at Adelphi University and was a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School.  She has her own blog at www.taracousineau.com and writes for HuffPost Parents. You can connect with Tara on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.