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Teenagers go through many physical changes in a very short time. The most dramatic take place in puberty and continue until the brain completes the transition to its adult form at around 25 years old.
Emotional and identity changes are just as, if not more dramatic. Teenagers go from complete dependency on their parents or guardians, through trial and tentative independence, to full independence, with many parent-teen conflicts along that route.
They experience social extremes, too. For example:
- They go from feeling the need to conform and fit in, to following the crowd to the opposite extreme, wanting to assert their uniqueness.
- Today’s best friend is tomorrow’s worst enemy.
- The ‘must have’ hairstyle of now is ‘so last year’ next month.
Who they are and who they want to be, for a few rare young people, is determined from an early age. For most, their teenage years are an exploration of many roles and identities, some being adopted and tested for a few hours or days and then replaced when another identity is tried on.
Few teens remain well-balanced throughout the rapid and apparently never-ending changes happening in every aspect of their lives: physical, social, emotional, sexual, identity, role, and more.
To answer the question: what effects do those changes have on self-esteem? we first need to know: what is self-esteem?
Although there is no widely agreed definition, we need one to progress. Here is my explanatory definition: ‘Self-esteem is a person’s regard for themselves. It is the worth the person attributes to themselves. Too much self-esteem can lead to problems such as narcissism. Too little self-esteem can lead to difficulties such as depression.’
As with many aspects of life, there is a high-functioning sweet spot; an optimum level of self-esteem. As an aside, self-esteem seems to be independent of many other variables,such as morality. That is evidenced by the number of high self-esteem, psychopathic people in positions of power who have inflicted immeasurable damage on countless millions of innocent people.
People of all ages draw their self-esteem from many places, but when everything in life is changing so quickly, as with teens, where can self-worth be reliably found? Many mental health professionals advocate that teenagers, and others, ought to have multiple sources of self-esteem; they should not depend on any one area of life to draw their self-worth.
That seems wise. If a teen draws self-esteem through their appearance and teenage acne takes hold, their self-esteem will be challenged. If their self-esteem is drawn from sporting skills, and injury changes that (as happens to many teens), then self-esteem is impacted.
The same applies to teenage friendships; they change so quickly that drawing self-esteem from such transient alliances is likely to end in self-esteem damage. Drawing self-esteem from such capricious external factors is likely to cause extreme shifts in their levels of self-esteem. It seems wisest to draw self-esteem mostly from internal factors.
Both low and high self-esteem have self-perpetuating cycles. For those starting with low self-esteem, a vicious cycle is started and perpetuated:
- Low self-esteem leads to
- Negative thoughts about any given task or context
- Negative thoughts generate negative emotions
- Negative emotions and thoughts lead to poor decisions
- Poor decisions lead to dysfunctional and disempowering behaviour
- Counter-productive behaviour leads to poor outcomes
- Poor outcomes lead to reduced self-esteem
- And the cycle continues
For those starting with high self-esteem, the cycle is virtuous:
- High self-esteem leads to
- Positive thoughts about any given task or context
- Positive thoughts generate positive emotions
- Positive emotions and thoughts lead to good decisions
- Good decisions lead to constructive and empowering behaviour
- Productive behaviour leads to favourable outcomes
- Favourable outcomes lead to increased or maintained high self-esteem
- The cycle continues
The next point may go too far but is made to illustrate: successful lives may be self-fulfilling prophecies, starting with high self-esteem.
For example, a child grows up in an environment that encourages them to develop skills and understanding. They absorb an expectation that if they set out to achieve something, with focus and persistence, they can. That expectation of success, when confirmed by results and positive reinforcement from role models, builds self-esteem.
Many people with low self-esteem consider those who have high self-esteem to be arrogant and have delusions of superiority. Such delusions seem present for narcissists and those with a superiority complex but not for the well-adjusted. People with optimum self-esteem think words to the effect of, ‘I can achieve if I put my mind to it, and you can, too. I have value, and you do, too.’
Alas, people who grow up in low self-esteem environments, who have only common self-esteem role models to ‘guide’ them, are less likely to develop the self-fulfilling prophecy from optimum self-esteem.
The greatest gifts that can ever be given to a young person are:
- The expectation that they can achieve success if they put in the time and effort,
- The development of optimum self-esteem sets them off on a lifetime of the virtuous cycle.
How can the expectation of success be developed in teens? The adage applies: ‘Success breeds success.’ When young people are nurtured, guided, encouraged, and supported, to achieve something (almost anything), they believe in themselves.
That boosts their motivation when they want to achieve their next goal. When young people are treated with respect and dignity when their nurturers have favourable expectations of them, young people raise their game to realise their expectations.
In the famous Rosenthal experiments, teachers were told whether each of their students did, or did not have, high learning potential. When the follow-up was conducted, those students with the highest potential had improved most, and those with the lowest potential the least.
In reality, the students had been randomly allocated to the high and low potential groups. The entire experiment had been designed to determine whether teachers’ expectations affect the performance of students.
It did. It does, have a huge effect. The expectation of parents, educators, and other role models may be the most significant factor in developing young people’s self-esteem.
Of course, peer influence also plays a part. Young people are subjected to peer pressure and compare themselves to their peers. If they compare themselves unfavourably; if they make inferences about their relative inadequacy in any given area, or if they already have low self-esteem, such comparison will lower it further.
By contrast, if a teen accepts that we all have different capabilities in every aspect of life and that it is something to be appreciated, their self-esteem is not damaged by comparison.
How are teens to adopt that more mature way of enjoying differences? Through the role modelling of their educators and their parents. If their teachers treat each person with dignity and with respect, whatever their ability, and explain why they do so, teens will copy that example. Teens can be encouraged, by example, to support each other to develop optimum self-esteem and self-responsibility.
Expectations of success coupled with optimum self-esteem then make their future success more likely, which builds and maintains optimum self-esteem.
Optimum self-esteem seems to have at least two sub-components: self-efficacy and self-responsibility. People are more likely to take self-responsibility when they have optimum self-esteem and vice-versa. Equally, people tend to have a sense of higher self-efficacy when they have optimum self-esteem and take optimum self-responsibility.
Some years ago, I taught a group of teachers how to help teenagers who had been excluded from school. The objective was to equip teachers to develop self-responsibility, self-efficacy, and self-esteem in the excluded students. The programme that the teachers delivered lasted two weeks.
Normally, five in six children excluded from school remain so. After the (brilliant) teachers took the excluded groups to the point of self-responsibility and boosted their self-esteem, five in six returned to school.
The teachers leading the programme were selected for their own levels of self-efficacy, self-esteem and self-responsibility; they understood, the relationship between those elements.
Accordingly, they had high expectations of the excluded students and role modelled optimum self-esteem, and self-responsibility, which the students copied, and applied. Some years later I wrote a book on the techniques to take people to the point of self-responsibility.
If we are to equip teens with optimum self-esteem, the best we can do is to have high expectations of them and be a role model of self-efficacy, self-responsibility, and self-esteem.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.
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