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Young people and self-esteem

Find out how to work effectively with young people who have low self-esteem.

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is the way that a person feels about themselves: whether they think that they are a good person, capable of success or deserving of respect from others.

While most people will have times when they feel unconfident or disappointed with themselves, particularly when things go wrong, some people struggle with low self-esteem most or all of the time. This can be a vicious cycle: low self-esteem can make it harder for a person to achieve the kind of successes that might improve their self-image, lowering their self-esteem even further.

For more information on self-esteem, visit Mind, YoungMinds or NHS Choices.

How low self-esteem can affect young people

Understanding the effects of low self-esteem can help you to notice the problem and to respond to it appropriately.

Fear of trying new things

If a young person is afraid that they will fail or that other people will think they are a failure, it can make it very difficult for them to try new things. They might be resistant to ideas like taking up a volunteering opportunity or applying for a work experience placement.

Difficulty engaging or asking for help

Low self-esteem can make it difficult to talk to other people, especially about your own experiences, interests or ambitions. A young person with low self-esteem might not want to open up about these, either because they don't think what they have to say is important or because they are worried they will be judged for it.

Focusing on what has gone wrong

Low self-esteem often leads people to focus on what has gone wrong and not recognize or celebrate their own achievements.

Further problems

Low self-esteem can increase the risk of other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. If you think that a young person you are working with is at risk from these Mind or YoungMinds.

Working with a young person who has low self-esteem

As a mentor, tutor or advisor to a young person with low self-esteem, it's not your job to treat the problem, but the way you respond can make a big difference both to the young person's wellbeing and to how much they get out of the relationship. Here are some ways to work as effectively as possible.

Focus on positives

People with low self-esteem often focus on negatives. You can help to provide some balance. Offer praise when they succeed and help them to put any problems or mistakes in perspective.

Challenge them

A person with low self-esteem might find it difficult to push themselves. Being challenged in a supportive way by someone they trust can help.

Be encouraging, but avoid suggesting things will be easy: if something does go wrong, they might feel like they have failed at something that should have been straightforward, and that you will be disappointed with them. Instead, acknowledge that it may be difficult and congratulate them both for trying and for what they achieve.

Be careful with criticism

Low self-esteem can make it harder to deal with criticism, but that doesn't mean you should never offer criticism. If you are helping with something like a CV, you will need to explain any problems. To make sure your criticism has a positive effect:

  • Always include positives as well as negatives
  • Focus on giving constructive, actionable advice rather than saying what they have done is wrong or bad.
  • Avoid saying things like 'You're not very good at spelling', which suggest the problem is fundamental to the person. Instead, focus on specific improvements they can make
  • Remind them that you believe in their abilities and that the problems aren't the end of the world.

Set a good example

When you discuss your own experiences - especially challenges you have faced - try to talk about them in a positive way. Focus on what you learned and how it has helped you to succeed since.