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Health Matters 6/21: Building healthy self-esteem in teens

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By Michelle Reuben, L.P.C.

Few, if any, teenagers escape adolescence without experiencing some feelings of angst along the way.

Like a pop quiz in math or a breakout before the big dance, feeling down occasionally is normal and expected.

However, teenagers who feel bad about themselves more often than they feel good, may have low self-esteem and could be at risk for greater problems down the road. Low self-esteem is often considered a problem primarily for girls, but it affects all genders.

The Adolescent Program at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health helps adolescents develop healthy self-esteem by teaching them how to challenge negative self-talk and identify and celebrate their positive attributes.

Healthy or Low?

In simplest terms, self-esteem is defined as the opinion you have of yourself. In general, teens with a healthy self-esteem:

  • Feel comfortable with themselves.
  • Are proud of what they can do, but don’t need to boast or show off, and recognize areas in which they can improve.
  • Feel OK whether they win or lose.
  • Are eager to learn new things and are confident in their abilities, but also don’t mind asking for help.
  • Can handle criticism.

Conversely, teens with low self-esteem:

  • Feel as if they can’t do anything well.
  • Tend to isolate themselves and have few friends.
  • Avoid trying new things.
  • Are hard on themselves when they make a mistake.
  • Feel as if they are not as nice, good looking or smart as their classmates.
  • Do not take criticism well.
  • Have difficulty accepting compliments.

While most teens will experience temporary bouts of low self-esteem, teens who have experienced emotional or physical abuse, sexual trauma or bullying are at greater risk of having low self-esteem than their peers.

Moreover, with so much access to social media, teens are bombarded with images of their peers that appear as if everyone is having fun, looking great and excelling at whatever they do. This can cause teens, especially those with low self-esteem, to feel left out or as if they don’t measure up.

If low self-esteem is prolonged and persistent it could lead to more serious mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. Additionally, low self-esteem could prevent adolescents from realizing their full potential and could hinder their future success.

Instilling Self-Esteem

Though they may not realize it, parents influence how their children feel about themselves every day. A simple hug or kiss or recognition of a job well done, can help instill a healthy self-esteem.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers these tips for parents to help build their teenager’s self-esteem.

  • Be generous with praise, but don’t be insincere.
  • Criticize when necessary, but constructively. Avoid criticizing in a hurtful or demeaning manner.
  • Solicit your teenager’s opinion. Adolescents enjoy being treated like grownups, and are often flattered when you ask them what they want.
  • Encourage your child to cultivate their talents and interests. Even interests that you may consider frivolous can provide opportunities for success and a safe outlet for peer acceptance.
  • Encourage volunteerism. Studies have shown that volunteering and helping strangers can increase teenagers’ feelings of self-worth.

Additionally, rather that trying to fix a problem or make a child feel better right away, it can be more effective if a parent validates how the child is feeling and guides the child in identifying a solution from within.

An Extra Boost

When low self-esteem becomes entrenched, it can be difficult to overcome without some extra help.

In the Adolescent Program at Princeton House, teens engage in activities designed to provoke thought and inspire discussion. For example, they may be encouraged to list five things that brought them peace on that particular day or three things they love about life. They may practice speaking to themselves using language as if they were speaking to a friend – meaning to treat themselves less critically.

The program provides a safe space where peers can discuss sensitive topics, support each other and build resiliency. Program participants are encouraged to:

  • Notice judgments.
  • Reframe negative thoughts.
  • Validate feelings.
  • Understand its OK to make a mistake.
  • Identify and build on strengths.

The Adolescent Program is offered on an outpatient basis at Princeton House’s locations in Princeton, Hamilton, North Brunswick and Moorestown.

For more information about the Adolescent Program at Princeton House visit www.princetonhouse.orgor call 888.437.1610.

Michelle Reuben, L.P.C., is a licensed professional counselor and the child/adolescent manager at Princeton House Behavioral Health’s North Brunswick site.



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