How to Develop Positive Self-Esteem in Youth

By Dr. Tim Elmore

Self-esteem for kids has been a hot topic for fifty years. In the 1960s, books were written for educators and parents about the need to affirm young people; for teens to “find themselves,” believe in themselves and express themselves.

As Baby Boomers became parents, we determined we would raise our children in an era of high self-esteem—giving them trophies just for participating; building the family calendar around their events, passing out money just for being part of the family, and telling them they are awesome just for making their bed. We created a Millennial generation who often wasn’t ready for the stark realities of adulthood. (Employers may not have been so quick to affirm them for doing what’s expected).

I believe it’s time to revisit the self-esteem issue. Something has happened that none of us was ready for.

Why Self-Esteem is an Issue Today
While I believe the self-esteem movement went awry, the issue is as important today as it’s ever been, thanks to the emotional highs and lows students now experience from social media. These digital platforms brought several unintended consequences that frequently overshadow their positive benefits.
I’ve written about the negative impact social media has had on Generation Z and cited data on their increased loneliness, anxiety, envy, narcissism, panic attacks and depression, due in no small part to the presence of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and others. The four outcomes I noted are:

+ Teens rely on others’ feedback too much for their emotional wellbeing.
+ Teens buy into cognitive distortions about their worth and identity.
+ Teens gain their sense of identity from information instead of application.
+ Teens see themselves as victims rather than leaders in their interactions.

Four Steps Students Can Take to Build Their Self-Esteem
Given this reality—what can we do as caring adults to kindle healthy self-esteem in our young? Since social media is not going away how can we help them during those hours they are on it and off of it, to develop a robust sense of identity? Here are four ideas for students to practice.

1. Tell yourself the truth.
When something is posted online, it becomes very difficult for a victim to erase it from their memories much less the social media platform. In this scenario, students must learn to fight distorted perceptions about who they are. They must believe the best about themselves and speak the truth about who they are. When I wake up every morning, I say four affirmations out loud to myself. These affirmations are true statements clarifying who I am and the mission I pursue. This practice may need to be preceded by identifying any perceptions they’re embracing, such as: I am a loser. I’m never going to get any better. I always ruin the party for everyone. No one likes me. Helping them think objectively then speak truthfully are essential steps in this process.

2. Focus on others instead of yourself.
Human beings are wired to be happier and emotionally healthier when we target our attention toward others, not just ourselves. This doesn’t mean we fail to practice self-care. It simply means that narcissism is the enemy of happiness. When I begin to feel down about myself on social media, I gain perspective by serving the needs of others or affirming them on those sites. While this sounds like a platitude, it’s actually backed up by research. Dr. Marianna Pogosyan writes in Psychology Today: “Research has found many examples of how doing good, in ways big or small, not only feels good, but also does us good. For instance, the well-being-boosting and depression-lowering benefits of volunteering have been repeatedly documented. As has the sense of meaning and purpose that often accompanies selfless behavior… Moreover, there is now evidence from fMRI studies suggesting a brain link between generosity and happiness.”

3. Use your talent in a way that makes you proud.
When we transition our self-esteem from mere information (my mom told me I’m a good artist or I’m a caring person) to application (I actually created a piece of art or carried an elderly neighbor’s groceries inside) we actually take a big step in building a robust self-image. Actions always speak louder than words. I see too many students who have “artificial self-esteem” because it’s all built on mom’s praise, not on their own achievement. Certainly there is a balance; I am not negating the power of affirmation from others. I just believe that negative comments on social media pale in comparison to the strength of knowing I have actually done something significant. Other’s opinions are less important and false criticism becomes hollow. I take my self-esteem into my own hands.

4. Join an environment that builds healthy self-esteem.
Encourage students to participate in a community that will enhance their self-image. It enables me to choose my sense of identity through the people I have around me regularly. You’ve probably heard the phrase: “You will become the middle of the five closest people you hang around.” There is some truth in that statement. Social media can be overwhelming in a teen’s life. If this is creating a problem in a teen’s life, Sage Day suggests, “there are viable alternatives, like therapeutic and alternative schools for teens. These schools create a safe learning environment, while helping to restore self-esteem, and provide the encouragement and support your teen may need.

About The Author: Tim Elmore is an international speaker and best-selling author of more than 30 books, including Generation iY: The Secrets to Connecting With Teens & Young Adults in the Digital Age, Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenges of Becoming Authentic Adults, the Habitudes® series, and 12 Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid. He is founder and president of Growing Leaders, an organization equipping today’s young people to become the leaders of tomorrow. Sign up to receive Tim’s blog at and get more information on Growing Leaders at and @GrowingLeaders @TimElmore.

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