Building Self-Esteem in Youth

June 2005

This month’s issue takes a look at the topic of building self esteem in youth. Pam Turner, an authority on youth self-esteem, spoke with Dahlia Miller of Smart Tutor Referrals (STR). Pam is the owner of Elevation Empowerment Training, providing workshops and one-on-one mentoring to help girls actively create the life they want.

“Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-brake on.”
Maxwell Maltz, American author

STR: Can you explain what self-esteem is?

Pam: No one is really able to nail down a solid definition of self-esteem. There is controversy over what it is. From the research I’ve done, I’ve found that there are two types of self-esteem. There’s Global Self-Esteem. This is an assessment of how you feel about yourself. Do you feel good about yourself? Are you happy with the way that you are? Then there is Earned Self-Esteem. This comes from accomplishments and doing well in things. Earned self-esteem builds on itself: the more successes you have, the more earned self-esteem you have, the better you feel about your chances of future successes, the more willing you are to take smart risks and try new things.

STR: In your opinion, is one type of self- esteem more beneficial than the other?

Pam: I think earned self-esteem is the one that is longer lasting and has a bigger impact. We often think if we just tell our kids that they’re good and that they’re doing a good job, that this will give them high self-esteem. But that’s not the way it is. Kids can tell if the praise is earned. If we just tell kids that they’re doing a good job, we take away that incentive for them to do well. In schools, if we just tell all the kids that they’re doing a good job. Where’s the incentive to work hard?

STR: So you’re not really trying to earn someone’s approval. Then what exactly are you trying to earn with earned self- esteem?

Pam: You’re right. It’s not someone else’s approval we’re trying to earn. We earn self-esteem through our own feelings of accomplishment. The sense that: I can do things; I can accomplish things that I set out to do; I have some control over what happens to me and how I deal with things; I can take on challenges. It’s those kind of internals rather than externals that define earned self-esteem.

STR: What sorts of traits are associated with high self-esteem? What does high self-esteem look like?

Pam: There are lots of traits associated with high self-esteem. People with a strong sense of self worth, self confidence, and high self-esteem are typically able to:

  • deal with things as they come up
  • cope with new situations
  • take on challenges
  • have a greater sense of self control
  • be more responsible
  • work well in groups
  • tolerate frustrations
  • overcome setbacks
  • They are mentally strong because they’ve had successes and know they can handle things.
  • Their schoolwork tends to do better. Actually, there is disagreement about which comes first – does high self-esteem come first so students do better in schoolwork? Or is it that students have been successful in their schoolwork, so that helps to build high self-esteem?

STR: Why do you think building self- esteem is so important, especially for teens?
Pam: Self-esteem tends to plummet for teens once they reach puberty and leave the safety of elementary school. They’re really trying to figure out who they are and where they belong in the world. So, everything that we can do to help them through that time, by giving them opportunities to discover what their gifts are and what their skills and talents are, will help them to develop healthy self-esteem.

Teens are also going through a period where they’re very susceptible to what people think. As a teenager, you sort of feel that all eyes are on you all the time – that everyone is watching and analyzing everything that you do. Which isn’t really true, but as teens that’s what we tend to feel. Kids with high self-esteem, are less likely to be influenced by the group; they’re better able to make their own decisions. If they’re with a group of peers, they’re better able to decide what’s right for them and make better choices.

Low self-esteem has been related to suicide and suicide attempts, depression, teen pregnancy, and also victimization by others (obviously if you don’t feel good about yourself, you’re willing to take a lot from other people). It’s also associated with eating disorders and low economic outcomes in young adulthood.

STR: What are some key ways that parents, mentors and educators can help to build self esteem in boys and girls?

Pam: The more opportunities we can give teens to learn new skills and progress toward goals, the more their self-esteem will grow. Giving them opportunities to become involved in things and develop skills is a key. It could be learning a new sport, an art, a new academic subject, or life skill; the challenge is keeping them engaged and finding things that they can continue to be involved in.

  • Community involvement, getting out there and serving others, can help kids to recognize how they can make a difference in the world.
  • Give them a chance to make their own decisions, from family decisions to decisions about their own lives. We need to give lots of opportunities to develop those skills.
  • Help them to develop a sense of purpose, to figure out where they fit into the world. Kids that feel that they have purpose to their lives, tend to do much better. Assisting them in figuring out why they are here, what their unique gift to the world is and how can they use that will help them immensely.
  • Praise definitely has its place, but it needs to be specific. If a student comes home with a high score on a math test, for instance, we could recognize how much work they put into studying for the test rather than saying, “You’re so smart,” we could say, “That was a great improvement,” or, “You worked really hard to understand that topic.”
  • We can help kids to build connections to adults, mentors, other than parents, so they can learn new ways of looking at life.
  • It’s also important that teens realize that they can build assets in their own lives, even if their family or their school isn’t giving them what they need.

“Think highly of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate.”
Author Unknown