Skip to Content

Teen Self Esteem

This section was contributed by Jay LaRico at
Low self-esteem is a critical issue facing teens in America. It has been proven that low self-esteem affects learning and can lead to such problems as delinquency, unhealthy relationships, eating disorders, drugs and suicide.

Some facts:

Eating Disorders: In the United States, the National Eating Disorders Association conservative estimates indicate that, after puberty, 5-10 million girls and women and 1 million boys and men are struggling with eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or borderline conditions.

Anorexia: The Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) reports 33% of respondents reported the onset of Anorexia between the ages of 11-15 and 43% reported the onset between the ages of 16-20.

Obesity: A 2003 survey reported 13.5 percent of high school students as obese. Overall obesity reported in high school boys was 17.3 percent, nearly double that of girls, which was 9.4 percent.

Suicide: reports that teen/youth suicide rates have tripled since 1970. reported that teen suicide is becoming more common every year in the United States stating that only car accidents and homicides (murders) kill more people between the ages of 15 and 24, making suicide the third leading cause of death in teens and overall in youths ages 10 to 19 years old.

Bullying: According to the CDC, approximately 864,000 teens report staying home one day a month because they fear for their safety. In a report issued by Angela Huebner, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Human Development and Erin Morgan, Research Associate, Human Development; Virginia Tech, between 20-40% of U.S. teenagers report being bullied three or more times in a year. Between 7-15% report bullying others three or more times during a year. With one in three teens affected, bullying is considered a major problem today.

In a recent newsletter by the National Association for Self-Esteem, “Young children typically base their self-esteem primarily on the feedback they receive from others, with the parents exercising the greatest impact. After age 4 they begin to consider their competence at different activities. By age 7 children typically base their self-esteem on three domains: academic success, social acceptance, and physical prowess. As they enter adolescence they shift from the importance of feedback from parents to feedback from peers. At this age their level of self-esteem is normally based upon six domains or contingencies: inherited endowments, social acceptance, feeling unique and worthy of respect, feeling in control of one’s life, moral virtue or integrity, and one’s accomplishments, including academic success. How one appears to others, athletic prowess, and popularity become particularly important at this age, though these are all external sources for self-esteem.”

“At some time in our lives, each of us struggles with low self-esteem. We feel like we’re ugly, too fat, too skinny, too short, too tall and just not good enough,” said Betty Hoeffner, president and founder of the teen self-esteem building nonprofit organization, “Teens today are bombarded with high expectations from nearly every aspect of their lives. Parents expect, teachers expect, friends expect and the celebrity obsessed culture we are currently experiencing sets the bar of expectation at an unrealistic level.”

And it’s not as if this issue goes hand in hand with puberty and pimples. Many times children begin to develop image issues as early as 5 and 6 years of age. In America, parents are so busy trying to make ends meet and teachers are under tremendous pressure of overcrowded classrooms, mandated learning standards and not enough school funding.

As American youths find themselves in the abyss that lies between childhood and adulthood, complicated paths must be traversed in order for them to reach their destination successfully. What to wear, who’s cool, who’s not, how much weight is too much, how much weight is too little, are all distractions on their road to adulthood and a healthy self image. It is imperative that they begin this quest armed with positive self worth in order to avoid, or at least contend with, the obstacles that lay upon their path.

“Teens are in dire need of a safe environment to learn how to respect and value themselves as unique gifted and lovable youth,” explained Hoeffner who pointed out that the UGLY in Hey UGLY is an acronym meaning: unique gifted lovable you. Hoeffner explained that they choose the name “ugly” because it is one of the most negative, words in our vocabulary. “It is a word that teens use to describe others, and more significantly, themselves,” she said. “When they label themselves ugly or call a fellow student ugly they are unleashing a powerful force of negative energy. When teens see the conversion of ugly to Unique Gifted Lovable You, they start calling each other, and themselves, U.G.L.Y. with a whole new perspective. The negativity is gone and in its stead is empowerment.”

It is important in helping teens develop good self-esteem to teach them the concept of “turning negatives into positives. created an annual acronym contest, asking teens to take words like Geek, Dork, Stupid, Loser and Fat and turn them into positives. As an example, one of their contest winners converted “Geek” into Gifted Enchanted Educated Kid. A teen in Texas converted “Loser” into Love Others Show Everyone Respect. “One way to help teens is to actually teach them how to feel good about who they are,” said Hoeffner who has worked with PhD’s in education to create a 16-week in-school self-esteem building curriculum, called eM-POWER. This self-esteem building curriculum incorporates mandated learning standards in areas such as math, English, music, art and social studies. It is geared to junior high and high school aged students and is free to teachers and organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, Boys and Girls Scouts of America. “The goal is give our teens the tools they need to never feel “less than” again.

As an example, Hoeffner told this reporter about their class on Judgment. The class is divided into three sections. The first asks the students if they have ever been judged before. The middle section encourages them to fess up about their judgments about others and the third, and most important part, asks them to recognize the judgments they have for themselves. It then gives them tools to recognize and, more importantly, stop negative judgments of themselves and others. On a recent Oprah Show Salma Hayak said, “I think we all have something that people point out to you especially when you are growing up when you’re a kid and then you point it out to yourself nonstop.”

The teenage years should be the last bastion of fun and freedom before the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood arrive. As adults we need to do our part to arm the next generation of American adults with the positive power they need to succeed now, and more importantly, to carry those lessons learned into the future for themselves and their children.

Jay LaRico is a freelance writer who focuses on articles regarding current events, education, and geriatric issues. He is currently working on a book chronicling his experience as a full-time caregiver for his mother called: The Choice Of Angels – An Alzheimer’s caregiver shares his thoughts.

Next Section: Learning English as a Second LanguageEducation in America: Chapter HomeLife in the USA Home Page.