How can low self- esteem affect the adolescent?
Those of you who have worked with me or are familiar with the work I do, would know that I put a lot of focus on self-esteem. For individuals, in relationships and of course nurturing this in our kids and teens. Self-esteem impacts every area of our lives. Often the first time we see signs that our self-esteem is low, is during the teen years. In this article, I want to talk about some of the signs I see in teens that show healthy self-esteem, and some of the symptoms that may show they need help.
So, what are some of the signs of healthy self-esteem in our teens?
- The ability to form friendships and interact with their peers reasonably comfortably. School puts this under the spotlight as kids work to fit in and form relationships
- Dealing with minor challenges in life comfortably
- Engaging in hobbies and activities
- Having a mostly healthy view of their physical self
These are just some things we would expect to see in our teens with healthy self-esteem. It is not a definitive list, but look for these things to ensure they are tracking well.
Now let’s look at some of the signs of low self-esteem in this age group.
- Having difficulty making or keeping friendships or peer relationships
- Holding back from volunteering answers or participating in class
- Not owning their achievements or downplaying them
- Isolating themselves from others, sometimes including at home (although healthy teens do like their bedrooms also!)
- Being angry at things that shouldn’t normally incite anger
- Hearing a negative message from others when it wasn’t in fact negative
- Being overly judgemental of others
- Blaming others for their own mistakes or problems
- Negative moods. Often taken out on family and peers
- Poor self-image. Sometimes masked through makeup, controlled eating or exercising
- Being promiscuous. Having sexual encounters that aren’t appropriate or with someone they don’t care for
- Difficulty accepting compliments
- Trying to be a perfectionist, or conversely, not trying at all
- Fear of failure, above what would be expected at this age
- For girls, wearing a lot of makeup to leave the home
- Making a statement by dressing in outlandish outfits to act as though they don’t care about fitting in
- Using alcohol and drugs
- Being overly sulky
As you can see, the list of potential signs of low self-esteem is long and varied. Some of the things may well be normal and a part of the adolescent experience and growth. It can be difficult to see immediately, if it is normal teen behaviour, or low self-esteem at play. I often speak with parents who contact me for their teens for behavioural issues, they believe they have a teen who is simply acting out and adhering to the ‘typical difficult teen’ we all hear about. Usually when I start working with these kids, it becomes apparent pretty quickly, that the behaviours are a result of low self-esteem, they are negative coping mechanisms they have drawn on to stay safe.
Client case adapted to ensure privacy and confidentiality:
I worked with a young lady, 14, who was rude to her family, sulky, disrespectful to teachers and had few friends. The friends she did have, she didn’t treat very well. When she met me, she was angry and dismissive of counselling. Her Mum was used to her behaving like that and put it down to her being a difficult teen. It was only when they discovered she had started drinking and was having sex, that they decided something needed to be done and contacted me.
To the outside world, this girl was just not a nice person. Her Mum kept apologising to me for how rude she was when we would meet (this confirmed to this girl that she was a big problem). When she finally decided she could trust me and she opened up, we discovered that her self-esteem was very low. She had been acting as she had so that people wouldn’t see how terrified she was that she wasn’t as good as other kids. All her behaviours were about trying to stay safe and fit in. In a very odd way, but she was trying to show she didn’t care. When she realised that these behaviours meant people didn’t like her for those, she was stuck and couldn’t back track without losing face. She then dug her heels in and took on even more poor decisions.
Inside, the truth was, she really believed she was ugly and stupid and thought her parents didn’t love her as much as her siblings. With her behaviours she had dug herself a hole and couldn’t find a way out. (After finishing our counselling work, she is a happy, well adjusted teen with healthy self-esteem and way easier to parent as a result).
This is pretty typical of what I see although the symptoms are varied. I do find that parents tend to reach out when the behaviours are impacting others in a negative way. Often the problem is not seen if the teen presents them in towards themselves. If you see a number of these symptoms in your teen, then it is worthwhile looking at to see what is going on underneath in that adolescent brain.
Being a teen is hard work. We have all been there. It is a time where we are trying to work out how we fit it, who we are, navigate school, home, exams, hormones and expectations, all with a brain that is still growing and developing.
If throughout this journey, our self-esteem is healthy, then we have an easier time of this task. If it isn’t, then we can create some negative coping mechanisms that we may well take into adulthood with us.
One of the best gifts you can give your child is helping them, either yourself or with the help of a professional, to have a healthy self-esteem so life is that little bit easier to navigate and they can be their authentic self.