I was a volunteer counsellor on a parents' helpline. I have taken courses in Non-Violent Communication, Mindfulness, and The Sedona Method.
Do you think you should be different to how you are: be better at sport, at school or maybe have more friends? Do you look at other teenagers, the confident ones, and wish you could be more like them?
If so, you may be surprised to discover that many of the teens you admire often lack confidence too.
The teenage years, possibly more than any other time in life, are a time of major change. You no longer feel or look like a child; but you don’t feel like an adult either. If you are a young teenager, your body is going through big changes and in a few years your life will also change: you will go to university or get a job. If you are an older teenager, you are already going through life changes. Almost all teenagers occasionally feel lacking in confidence and self-esteem. Some hide it more than others.
What’s “normal” and what’s not: when it’s time to seek help.
While it’s normal for teenagers to feel low occasionally, if you feel this way most of the time or sometimes wish your were dead, do not try to struggle on alone. Talk to your parents if you feel able to. If not, or if they are abusing you it is important to talk to someone else. No one deserves abuse, and you can get help.
Friends are not always the best people when you feel really bad: even though they care about you, they are also going through change and may not know how to help. If possible, talk to an adult, such as a school or college counselor. If this seems impossible, contact a helpline. I have included some links at the end of this article, including one to a helpline that is staffed by young people, trained to listen. If you are reading this because you are worried about a friend, encourage them to talk to a safe adult or helpline.
Realizing how you came to develop self-esteem can be the first step to feeling better, so let’s now look at some major factors.
Why do teenagers so often have low confidence and self esteem?
As well as being a time of transition, during the teenage years hormones fluctuate, which can account for some mood swings. While other factors that contribute to low self-esteem vary from person to person, some common ones are:
(1) feeling that your emotions are wrong, and trying to squash or hide them.
(2) having parents who have low self esteem
(3) trying to match up to what appears to be society’s expectations and ideals
(4) serious or prolonged illness.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
People often try to escape from emotions as if they might drown in them
Thinking Emotions Are Wrong
I’ve placed this at number one because it has such a deep impact. It’s not just teenagers who believe emotions are wrong; many adults and younger children also do. We think people won’t like us if we show anger. If we admit to being afraid they will think we are a wuss. If we cry they will think we are a loser.
While it can feel as if you are the only person who has ever felt this way people have struggled with emotions for hundreds of years. I’m sure you will have heard the words: “Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone.” These come from a poem, Solitude, written in 1883 by Ella Wheeler. She wrote it after trying to comfort a weeping woman on a train journey. She realized how alone the woman must have felt and composed the poem.
When we think our emotions are not acceptable to others, we try to pretend to be something we are not. We feel “fake,” and that leaves us lacking confidence and thinking we are not good enough. When we realize almost everyone feels the same way, emotions aren’t so frightening.
Although we often say, “I am sad,” or “I am angry,” in truth you are not your emotions. Emotions come and go but you remain. So no matter how bad it seems you feel right now, it can change. And it will. Some suggestions for dealing with emotions follow later in this article.
You might not think your parents’ low self-esteem has anything to do with you, but it is important for two reasons.
- Up to the age of about six children develop views about the world by absorbing information from parents and other people. (If you have younger brothers, sisters or cousins you can observe this for yourself: notice how often they copy older children or adults.) This means that if your parents constantly criticize themselves you learn to do the same. A 7-year-old boy once said to me, “I have so much to do, so much to do.” And then he rushed off to organize his toy soldiers. Of course he was copying his parents. The beliefs that create stress aren’t “ours” but are passed on. Sometimes realizing this can be enough to let them go.
- If your parents don’t feel good about themselves they are more likely to criticize you – however hard they try not to. (And truly, parents don’t enjoy criticizing their children!)
While it might be tempting to blame your parents for how you feel, remember they learned by watching their parents too. Just as importantly, it won’t help you feel better. Blaming others for our emotions actually leaves us feeling powerless and it stops us from making changes that could help us. No matter how bleak it seems right now, you can makes changes to how you feel.
Trying to match up to what appears to be society’s expectations and ideals
As far as body image goes, studies have shown that for girls in particular, self-esteem peaks at nine. But more and more, boys are affected by poor body image too. With images of beautiful models in magazines and on television, it’s easy to lack confidence in your appearance. But be aware that models don’t look so good when they have just got of bed! The images you see are of models after several hours of make-up (and sometimes after the Photoshop “healing brush.”) Watch an episode of America’s Top Model to see what I mean!
While your confidence is likely to increase if you are fit and healthy, you don’t need to be stick-thin to achieve this. In fact, if you compare top athletes to models, some of them look huge! Aim for fitness rather than slimness.
Serious or prolonged illness
While most teenagers quickly bounce back after a cold or headache, repeated or serious illness can cause a dip in confidence. If you are facing a serious illness, a hospital counselor can support you.
Even if the illness is not serious, if it is repeated you may start to feel that you can’t do activities other people take for granted or that you will never be well again. Adam* told me he couldn’t swim or run fast because he got asthma. He was surprised to learn that many top athletes also have asthma. Cecily* caught a strep infection. As well as the pain from the illness, she developed a reaction that caused inflammation in her feet; so painful she could hardly walk. After being off school for weeks she felt depressed and worried that she would have fallen behind, but every time she thought about going back to school she imagined feeling ill and not being able to cope.
Wouldn't it be nice to feel this confident again?
How to boost confidence and self-esteem.
Whatever has led to your low confidence, let’s look now at ways to get it back up. Try to be patient with yourself, because it may take time.
Allow yourself to feel the way you do.
This is the most important thing you can do for yourself. Eileen Tracy, a coach who supports students to overcome study problems, says that if students follow her techniques without first dealing with their underlying feelings the techniques are less effective. Sometimes students even end up feeling worse, because now not only are they not good at studying they can’t even follow techniques! Or so it seems.
Humans all have basic needs. As well as physical needs for food, air and shelter we also have emotional needs. Some of these are: for connection, love, to choose our own dreams, to feel authentic or “real”, to have fun, to experience peace. A supposedly negative feeling is just a sign that a need isn’t being met. ** You could see those feelings as a “call to action.”
Sometimes we avoid telling others how we feel because we expect them to say we are wrong. It’s not hard to see why: if you are sad, people often say things such as, “Cheer up!” Or when you are afraid they say, “Nothing to be scared of!” This seems to mean that you are wrong for feeling the way you do. All it really means is that people often feel uncomfortable with “negative” emotions, or think they should help you but don’t know how.
So, if you feel unhappy, you could think about what you need, and ask your parents or friends for that. For instance, you might say, “I’m feeling really sad just now and I need someone just to listen to me. I don’t need cheering up, just to know someone knows how I feel.”
Ironically, allowing the uncomfortable emotions is often enough for them to dissolve. By allowing I don’t mean wallowing in self-pity, but simply noticing that you are having an uncomfortable feeling and reminding yourself it’s okay to feel that way. It’s also okay to let the feeling go.
Some other ways to boost self–esteem
Question the beliefs that keep you feeling low. Think “out of the box.”
For instance, you may think that you don’t have skills that employers would want. But you have been preparing for the world of work all your life. (And I don’t mean by getting good grades at school.) When playing, did you ever organize games? If so, you know how to manage others, and will be an asset to any company. If, on the other hand, you were mainly the kid who joined in, employers need people who can work as part of a team. If you spend a lot of time doing things on your own rather than with friends, there are many jobs where being able to work alone is necessary. I am a writer and I work mostly alone, though I do sometimes “chat” to people around the world. Other jobs that suit people who like to spend time alone are librarian, artist, computer programmer or driver. You could even be an explorer!
See how when you question beliefs they begin to crumble? What else do you believe that lowers your confidence?
You may think your beliefs are true, and yet, as we’ve already seen, beliefs are learned. This means we can learn new beliefs instead. Many people hold similar beliefs that lead to low self-esteem. Some common ones are:
I’m not good enough.
There’s something wrong with me.
I don’t deserve good things (eg happiness, success, wealth)
I need to do everything perfectly.
I’ll mess up and then people will think I’m stupid.
What if those thoughts aren’t true?
Let’s take a closer look one of those beliefs: “I need to do everything perfectly.”
Many people avoid doing things for fear of making a mistake. They fear that people will judge them for it. Ironically, trying to be perfect usually leads to feelings of failure because nothing ever seems quite good enough. The temptation then is to give up and say, “I don’t care.” We might fool other people with this, but deep down we don’t fool ourselves.
Here’s a way my 14-year-old daughter has found to deal with her desire to do well at whatever she does: focus on doing well in some things, and don’t worry about the rest. For subjects that she enjoys and feels capable at she works really hard. The subjects she doesn’t feel so good at she sees as opportunities to relax, and to not worry about perfomance. This does not mean she messes about in class, just that she doesn’t feel any pressure to excel. You could try the same, or find you own way.
Find the way that works for you
In fact, finding your own way to do something is a great boost to confidence. A few days ago my 13-year-old daughter Lolo*, had an essay to write. She kept putting it off and playing “Minecraft” instead. But she felt guilty, and snapped at me when I asked if she needed help – because to her it felt as if I was saying she should be doing it. I, in turn, felt frustrated because I wanted to share knowledge of how to write that I knew would help her. Lolo was using Google Docs to write the essay and she hit upon the idea of sending the link to me so I could read while she worked. I could then make suggestions in the chat section, and let her know when I thought she had done well. This felt much better to her than when I was sitting next to her. She wrote more in 10 minutes than she had in 2 days.
Paddle your own canoe (Find your own way!)
A word of caution: finding your own way is not the same as “having you own way.”
Notice that my daughter found a way to get the task done. If she had been trying to “have her own way” she would not have done the essay at all.
It’s very easy to think that to find our own way we need to rebel against what parents or other authority figures say. We think our only options are conform or rebel. But being against others does not mean we are “for” us. It just means we are reacting. It also means we aren’t able to listen to our intuition.
Instead of thinking you either have to conform or rebel, stop to consider what you’d really like to happen in the long term.
If Lolo had rebelled and not written her essay she would have been left with a sense of failure – and possibly a detention. By completing it she learned new skills that she can apply when writing essays in different subjects, and just as importantly she learned that she can do it. She developed confidence in her abilities.
Probably more than anything, confidence comes from having a sense of accomplishment.
If you think you aren’t good at anything – think again. A few years ago a teenager I knew said she wasn’t good at anything. She didn’t excel at sport nor was she exceptional at school. But she had overlooked that she was good at amusing younger children and could chat to anyone. While at university, during her summer breaks she began working in an old folks’ home – and of course she excels at helping out there.
Do what terrifies you!
Do something you fear
Charlene* and two friends planned to go surfing for the first time. At first Charlene was keen, but as the time grew closer she felt terrified. It didn’t help that her friends, who were both younger than her, just seemed to be excited and not afraid. She wanted to pull out, but the instructor explained that he would be in the water with her and encouraged her to give it one try. She felt terrified, but she went. Afterwards she felt exhilarated. When it was time to go again the terror came back – but she went back onto the waves. She was amazed to realize that even though she felt afraid she still wanted to go again. Fear doesn’t mean you have to avoid things.
You don’t have to take up surfing to feel more confident. Any form of exercise makes our bodies produce endorphins, which are nature’s way of making us feel good. So even if you just walk to school each day you are helping yourself.
Take care of your body.
Taking care of your body shows healthy self-respect. Get to bed early enough for a good night’s sleep and be sure to eat healthy food. You’re worth it.
Combine several strategies.
Finally, let’s return to Cecily, who was afraid to go to school after illness. Her mother let her know it was okay to feel scared, and reminded her this didn’t mean something bad would happen. They talked about the images that came into Cecily’s mind when she thought about school, and Cecily realized these were what she was afraid of, not school – since she was afraid even though she was at home. Her mother arranged for Cecily to go to school for a few hours each day at first, and gradually her time increased back to normal. So, it took several strategies for Cecily to feel better about herself: she reached out for support, she faced her fears and she took action.
If you feel as Cecily did, try to be gentle on yourself. Give some of the suggestions in this article a go and see what works for you. It took Cecily a while to feel really good about herself, but taking those first steps made a huge difference.
I am mother to 2 teenagers, and used to teach teenagers, including some who had social and emotional difficulties. I was also once a teenager with low esteem.
However I is not a health professional, and if you are a teenager who feels very depressed or are the parent of one, seek professional help.
* Names have been changed.
**This understanding of human emotions was developed by a man called Marshall Rosenberg, and from it he created a way of communicating called Non Violent Communication that is used around the world to resolve conflict.
Website that can help you
For anyone up to the age of 18 Child Helpline International has a list of agencies that can help you in 133 countries around the world.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Jennie on October 20, 2017:
I feel like my daughter doesn’t have confidence because she doesn’t have some of the knowledge and skills to be confident… does anyone know a good way to help kids be more confident… I’m not even sure what she needs exactly or what to do??
John on August 28, 2017:
Thank you for sharing, a very useful article, the building of self-esteem is very important, before I struggled with his low self-esteem, and then I read some books to build Self-esteem in which the self-esteem book of jeremy's book is very good starts to build self-esteem.
Hazel Abee from Malaysia on June 29, 2015:
Great hub ... I have been exploring similar topics myself .... great insights ...
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 15, 2012:
Thanks HoneyBB, I wasn't a very confidence teen myself once and so it's nice to think this might be useful to someone.
H Lax on October 15, 2012:
Your suggestions and insight hit all the key areas of gaining confidence and feeling comfortable with who you are. Excellent hub and helpful, too.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on August 24, 2012:
tillsontitan, you are right, parents often aren't aware of the questions teens have and often don't know how to deal with emotions either. I worked for a while on a helpline for parents and most calls were from parents of teens. They often felt completely lost and lacked confidence in how to help their kids.
I'm glad you found this to be useful and thanks for your comment and vote up.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on August 24, 2012:
Kelley thanks so much for such a kind comment. I do hope my hub can be that much help for teens going through a difficult time.
Mary Craig from New York on August 24, 2012:
Another hub that needs to be in that teenage handbook! Teenagers have so many questions and don't always receive the answers....often parents aren't even aware their teenagers have those questions....even if they know, sometimes parents don't know how to answer or handle those questions or problems....your advice and suggestions are ecxcellent for both! Excellent hub!
Voted up, useful, awesome and interesting.
kelleyward on August 24, 2012:
I enjoyed reading this Melovy! This is a useful resource for any teenager or parent of a teen. The teenage years can be so challenging, they need articles like this to help them see, the light at the end of the tunnel. Voted up and useful. Kelley
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on August 23, 2012:
Kitty, it surprises me, and yet doesn't to realise how young children's self esteem dips when it comes to body image. My older daughter watched several episodes of America's Top Model earlier this year and at first I thought it wouldn't be good for her, but then I realised she was getting to see that they looked ordinary without make-up, had pimples and bad hair days too.
Thanks for vote up and for sharing!
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on August 23, 2012:
toyatoy2tt, thank you for your kind comment.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on August 23, 2012:
Carly, from what I've read of your work, I think we are both looking from the same perspective. Compassion is what leads to change being possible.
Thanks very much for your comment.
Ann Leung from San Jose, California on August 23, 2012:
This a must read hub, both for teenagers and their parents, which including me. Thank you for addressing the body image issue in teens. Voted up and useful and shared!
email@example.com on August 23, 2012:
Your hub is very informative and thorough. Great writing.
Carly Sullens from St. Louis, Missouri on August 22, 2012:
This is a wonderful, necessary hub. Your attention to detail and sensitivity regarding teenagers low self esteem is compassionate as it is noteworthy to offer parents or anyone else who is around teens. I appreciate you taking the time to make this hub and address this very important topic.