5 Causes of Low Self-Esteem in Teens

5 causes of low self-esteem in teens and how to help.

low self-esteem in teens

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

Confidence and self-esteem are particularly important during the teenage years. Self-esteem allows teens to feel good about who they are, capable, and worthy of love.

Numerous studies have shown just how important self-esteem is for adolescents. Teenagers with high self-esteem are happier, calmer, and more likely to bounce back from failure. Teens with low self-esteem are at increased risk for poor mental health, poverty, and even drug use.

We all want to like ourselves, prove ourselves, and have reasons to believe that our virtues and talents are recognized. We want others to see us as likable, competent, and trustworthy.

Harvard Medical School

It’s clear that self-esteem in teens is crucial. So why do so many teenagers struggle with it? And what can we do to support them?

Here are 5 common reasons your teenager has low confidence and self-esteem, and some simple ways to boost it:

Social comparison

At times, it’s natural and even healthy to compare ourselves to others. Concern with how others view us, and taking their perspective, is part of how we learn to behave.

This is especially true during the teenage years, a time of intense change and uncertainty. Teens look to their peers for crucial feedback on everything from their appearance and social standing to their abilities in order to develop a self-identity.

Teens also sense an “imaginary audience” that can feel as if everyone is watching or looking at them. The heightened self-consciousness that results can be damaging to self-esteem.

Here are a few key ways to help teens avoid social comparison:

  • Focus on individual growth and improvement 
  • Take a break from social media
  • Praise their effort versus the outcome (focus on the work and effort that goes into a task rather than their achievement or results)

Another key way to help teens stay out of the comparison trap is to point out when you see it happening:

Your teen may not be aware of how much they do this. Teach your sons and daughters how to tune into their thinking and catch it when they start comparing themselves to others so they can be vigilant in noticing this habit. The first step is tracking how often they fall into the trap.

Parenting Teens and Tweens


Bullying behavior is characterized by aggression, repetition, and an imbalance of power. It can happen anywhere from the playground to the internet and is unfortunately common among teens.

A 2017 study revealed that 20 percent of students ages 12-18 had been bullied. Other research by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention showed that 19 percent of high school students had been bullied on school grounds during the previous year.

Sadly, bullying is associated with a host of negative outcomes for victims. Lasting effects include mental health problems like depression and anxiety and decreased academic achievement. Self-esteem can also suffer.

Bullying and self-esteem become a big problem when bully victims who are submissive and insecure don’t know how to defend themselves or how to tell the bullies to back off and stop it.

Marina Wildt, The Bully Shield

Thankfully, there are many ways to bully-proof your teen and protect their self-esteem. 

You might consider:

  • Teaching positive self-talk and affirmations
  • Practicing assertive communication by saying “no” and expressing needs
  • Staying hopeful about the future–making plans and goals for future possibilities

Also, be sure to model confident and assertive behavior for your teen. Speak up respectfully when your needs aren’t being met, and set boundaries and limits with others. To raise confident teens, we must communicate assertively in our own lives too.

Unrealistic expectations

When teenagers strive to be perfect in everything they do, they fear to make even the smallest mistakes. Unfortunately, this style of thinking is pervasive and damaging to self-esteem.

If your teenager has difficulty turning in assignments on time, experiences test anxiety, or avoids taking healthy risks, he may be struggling with perfectionism. These students attach their self-worth and value to how well they perform.

Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.

Brene Brown, professor and author

So how do we help our teens overcome the unrealistic standards and expectations they set for themselves?

Discuss the concept of growth mindset–the idea that our brains grow and learn from challenges and even mistakes. Emphasize the importance of effort and practice rather than the final outcome, which we may not have control over. And praise this effort whenever and wherever you see it.

When teens recognize failures and mistakes as inevitable and even part of the learning process, they’ll be less afraid to tackle the challenges in front of them. Encourage them to journal about the process of trying and failing, and trying again!


Surprisingly, attractiveness and self-esteem in teens do not go hand in hand. A 2010 study found that hundreds of teenagers rated as attractive actually had lower levels of self-esteem over a 5 year period. 

This finding is key–parents should recognize that even teenagers deemed physically attractive are vulnerable to low self-esteem and confidence. These can manifest in various ways, from inability to accept compliments to self-critical comments.

So how can we cultivate positive body images in teens?

Start by encouraging regular physical exercise. Recent research showed that physical activity in and of itself improves the self-concept and self-esteem of adolescents. Consider yoga, dance, and intramurals as ways to empower your teen.

Encourage your child to focus on what her body can do rather than how it appears. Teens can cultivate gratitude and awe for the incredible abilities their bodies have. Consider how many muscles and nerves are involved in the simple acts of hugging, running, or writing. 

Also, be sure to focus on your teen as a whole person. Talk about her writing skills, her sense of humor, or the way she helps others. By commenting on who your child is rather than how she looks, she will learn what you value and what is truly important.

Disconnection from parents and caregivers

Teens naturally begin pulling away from parents and caregivers as they forge new, independent identities. This is the developmental task of the teenage years but can make for complicated family relationships.

Nevertheless, maintaining a close connection to parents and families is critical during this time.

…[T]eens are beginning to make decisions about things that that 

have real consequence, like school and friends and driving, not to 

speak of substance use and sex. But they aren’t good at regulating their 

emotions yet, so teens are prone to taking risks and making impulsive 


Rachel Ehmke

Be sure to show your teen you love her, no matter what. Only 22 percent of high school seniors describe their communication with parents as positive–the simple act of listening with an open mind is all that’s required for your child to feel supported and loved.

Schedule regular family meetings or rituals like volunteering together or cooking a meal. Prioritize eating dinner as a family, and set aside daily time–even a few minutes–just to check in with each other. It may feel like your teenager is pushing you away when really all they want is more time and attention from you.

Recognizing your teen’s growing skills and independence can also strengthen your bond as well as their self-esteem. Show trust in your teen’s developing abilities by asking them for a favor or help, pointing out their good decisions, and even praising their honesty in difficult moments.

By maintaining a strong connection, your teenager will benefit from improved self-esteem as he learns to trust and appreciate himself in the same way you do.

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