For the past few decades we have been taught that high self-esteem is the way to feel good about ourselves. And we want our kids to feel not just good, but great about themselves. It seems plausible that kids and teens with high self-esteem will be less likely to experience depression, treat others poorly, or make bad decisions.
While our culture tells us we need self-esteem, however, it may not be good for us.
In 2005 the respected psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues published a review of an enormous number of scientific articles on self-esteem that appeared in psychology journals between 1970 and 2000. Their review showed the following:
- Increased self-esteem is related to poorer performance on tasks.
- Those with high self-esteem may have more relationship problems because when difficulties arise, they see the other person as the problem.
- Teens with high self-esteem are less inhibited and are therefore more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including sexual activity.
- High self-esteem is linked with aggressive and violent behavior.
- High self-esteem may be related to happiness, but it is not what causes happiness.
The way we define and measure self-esteem may be part of the problem here. Self-esteem is generally defined as feeling like one is a great person. It is about being at least as good as everyone else, perhaps better.
But when we get caught up in defending the idea that we’re awesome, or important, we often make poor choices. This can be seen in Baumeister’s review of self-esteem research. We need to pursue a healthier kind of self-esteem.
When we get caught up in defending the idea that we’re awesome, we often make poor choices.
When we see ourselves as valuable to those we love, and able to work hard and make a meaningful contribution—and we cut out the self-comparisons—we create a more authentic sense of self-esteem. It doesn’t come from being told “good job—you’re really neat.” Rather, it comes from doing good things and being a good person.
That is the kind of self-esteem our teenagers need to overcome the challenges they experience around body image, schooling, relationships, and even alcohol, drugs, and sexuality. But it’s not the kind of self-esteem we see studied in psychology research papers using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Nor is it the kind of self-esteem we build in our kids by using praise, gold stars, grades, trophies, and other external motivators to make them feel good.
Positive psychology has identified several powerful ways that parents can help their teens nurture authentic self-esteem to develop a powerful sense of who they are—without the drawbacks of the typical “feel-good” fluff our kids get too much of. I’ll describe three of them.
First, help your teens identify their strengths. Are they leaders? Do they have a great zest for life, sense of purpose, or capacity to love? If you’re not sure where to start, try the free survey at viame.org along with your kids. Knowing your strengths and using them every day is strongly associated with wellbeing and resilience.
Moreover, among adolescents, research has shown that an increase in strengths like hope, zest, and leadership is associated with a decrease in both psychological distress and behavior problems.
Knowing your strengths and using them every day is strongly associated with wellbeing and resilience.
Second, teenagers with a powerful and authentic self-esteem enjoy a high ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions in their relationships with others. Positive interactions with your teens would include simple things like smiling, saying thank you, telling them you’re glad to see them, hugging them, and responding to their successes with active and constructive responses. Negative interactions include criticism, arguments, raised voices, and expressing anger. Making sure that your positive interactions with your teens outnumber negative ones will build a well-functioning relationship.
Third, the way teens feel about themselves is, to a large extent, built upon the quality of their relationship with their parents. Everyone needs to know, without question, that they are wanted, they are loved, and that even when they’re driving their parents insane, they are still valued. If you can demonstrate these things to your teen, you’ll help them achieve a powerful sense of identity, value, and self-worth that won’t leave them feeling they have to be better than everyone else.
Every parent wants his or her children to be happy and to feel good about themselves and about life. Simply telling them how great they are doesn’t help them, though. Rather, helping them identify and use their strengths, interacting with them in positive ways, and telling them we love them and that they matter to us can create a healthier sense of self—and the physical, psychological, and social resources that accompany that.
Dr. Justin Coulson is the author of What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family. He and his wife have six children. Find him on Facebook .