Teens who struggle with their self-image can also have a tough time with their mental health, so helping them build a higher opinion of themselves is important. In fact, self-esteem issues are one of the most common struggles among teens, according to Nicole Pingel, a licensed professional counselor and family services coordinator at Calo Programs, a residential treatment center in Missouri. In a recent interview, she shed light on the topic and highlighted several helpful self-esteem activities for teens.
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What Is Self-Esteem?
The American Psychological Association defines self-esteem as “the degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in one’s self-concept are perceived to be positive. It reflects a person’s physical self-image, view of his or her accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as the ways in which others view and respond to that person.”
According to Pingel, self-esteem is often formed during a person’s youth.
“Early life experiences with caregivers during the window of development from when we’re in utero through the first several years of life can help define who we are in relation to the world and how we learn to regulate our emotions,” she said. “Sometimes, we develop a poor sense of self early on through negative interactions with and feedback from caregivers. However, adolescence is a really powerful time to develop ‘Who am I?’, ‘Where do I fit in the world?’, and ‘Is the world safe?’”
Causes of Low Self-Esteem in Teens
There are multiple causes of low self-esteem in teenagers. They include:
- An unhealthy environment at home: Pingel explained that foundational caregiver relationships can form the beginning of a weak or strong sense of self-esteem. “Lived experiences can be framed by negative internal messages, like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not pretty enough.’”
- Social media: Pingel said social media can be a catalyst for low self-esteem in teenagers. For example, they can get caught up in how many likes and views they get, form insecurities based on impossible standards they set based on others’ appearances, and experience cyberbullying.
“Social media can be a blessing and a curse,” Pingel said. “It has the power to connect people from all over the world, but there’s so much feedback about who you should be and what society is. There are so many conflicting and confusing messages right at their fingertips.”
Common Signs of Low Self-Esteem in Adolescents
According to Pingel, teenage boys and girls who have a poor self-image have several common tells.
- Lack of hygiene (e.g., suddenly not brushing teeth, showering, and washing).
- Extreme messiness (e.g., a messy room).
- Isolation (e.g., cutting themselves off from family, friends, and teammates).
- Harmful behavior (i.e., engaging with negative peer groups or in self-harm or risky behavior.
- Voicing self-hate (e.g., “I’m not good enough,” “I’m fat.”).
Pingel encouraged parents to avoid interpreting that last tell as attention-seeking behavior and to engage in a conversation with their teen.
“When your kid comes to you with something like that, come alongside them to understand more about what they’re saying and why,” she said.
Pingel recommended asking gentle questions, like:
- What kind of person do you want to be?
- What makes you think you aren’t this person right now?
- What do you think it would take to get there?
- How could I help you feel the way you want to feel?
Activities That Can Help Your Teen’s Self-Esteem
A safe, secure, loving relationship between a teen and their caregivers is the most important way to help teenagers develop self-esteem. Once that foundation is set, there are several self-esteem activities for teens that can further boost a teen’s confidence. Pingel said the emphasis should be on building up a teen’s purpose and passion.
“Sometimes I help students identify what makes them feel good about their purpose in life,” she said. “’Do you want to volunteer and help serve others? Do you want to join a group at school or after school to help develop a sense of self and make connections?’ I have one teen who finds anime and stage makeup helps to make her feel good about herself. Another performed random acts of kindness, and that made them feel like they were making a difference.”
Self-esteem activities for teens can include any healthy activity that helps teens find where they fit in the world.
Pingel’s suggestions include these eight tips:
- Help your teen get a hobby. Doing something they enjoy, like arts and crafts, gives your son or daughter something meaningful to do with their free time. Pingel recommended pursuing interests that don’t involve electronic devices (e.g., smartphones or laptops) and social media.
- Get your teen a gratitude journal. Writing down positive thoughts can help your child focus beyond the struggles or frustrations of life. Pingel said while your son or daughter should not ignore their negative feelings and emotions, it’s important to encourage them to look for more balance by also expressing what they’re grateful for or excited about.
- Help your teen develop positive affirmations. Repeating positive mantras like “I am beautiful” or “I am loved” can help combat the negative thoughts that cause a poor self-image. Pingel said it’s good to know what your teen is struggling with so you can help them find counteractive phrases that build their self-esteem.
- Encourage your teen to set healthy/positive goals. Goals should center around health and wellness, such as practicing good nutrition and getting exercise. Simple ones could include getting 15 minutes of sun each day. As shared in a Harvard Medical School article, exposure to sunlight increases serotonin, the feel-good hormone that boosts mood.
- Help your teen practice mindfulness. Pingel recommended helping your teen learn to be mindful with brief meditation exercises. Mindfulness and meditation, when used consistently, can help your son or daughter develop better self-awareness and emotional regulation, which in turn will improve how they feel about themselves. HeartMath Institute’s QuickCoherence Technique, for example, can help teens release stress and balance their emotions.
- Encourage your teen to work out. Working out is a great way to not only strengthen the body and increase energy levels but also improve mood, according to Pingel. She said it’s a good idea for your teen to try many activities. They may love hiking, kickboxing, or rollerblading but hate yoga or running.
- Suggest your teen use music to feel good. Pingel recommended dancing, singing, and playing music as examples of using songs to build self-esteem. Music is a great way for teens to connect with others and be part of something, helping to create a sense of belonging and identity.
- Encourage your teen to do something thoughtful for someone else. Pingel said doing something nice for someone who isn’t expecting it can be a huge mood booster and make your teen feel valued. HealthyPlace.com, a consumer mental health website, suggested random acts of kindness such as helping carry bags for someone who’s struggling to juggle them.
Pingel said some parents use supportive materials, like The Social Success Workbook for Teens or The Self-Esteem Workbook for Teens, to help their children. The books feature a variety of thought-provoking self-esteem worksheets.
Pingel pointed out there are many workbook options available to help teens look within and walk through their relationships with others. Those books might help a teen consider buried feelings and identify shame messages or negative messages that impact their internal narrative.
Self-Esteem for Teens: Putting It All Together
Without intervention, teens with low self-esteem can struggle with negative outcomes, like substance abuse, anxiety, eating disorders, depression, unhealthy relationships, and risk-taking behaviors.
If your son or daughter is struggling with poor self-image, Pingel said to help them find solutions to build confidence through the self-esteem activities for teens mentioned above. If you’re worried that’s not enough and your teenager needs additional assistance, contact a mental health professional. You can find a therapist near you by using the Psychology Today search tool and filtering results by issues, including self-esteem.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!