A Healthier Kind of Self-EsteemJUSTIN COULSON
While our culture tells us we need self-esteem, it may not be good for us.
While our culture tells us we need self-esteem, however, it may not be good for us.
In 2005 the respected psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues published a review of an enormous number of scientific articles on self-esteem that appeared in psychology journals between 1970 and 2000. Their review showed the following:
The way we define and measure self-esteem may be part of the problem here. Self-esteem is generally defined as feeling like one is a great person. It is about being at least as good as everyone else, perhaps better.
But when we get caught up in defending the idea that we're awesome, or important, we often make poor choices. This can be seen in Baumeister's review of self-esteem research. We need to pursue a healthier kind of self-esteem.
When we see ourselves as valuable to those we love, and able to work hard and make a meaningful contribution — and we cut out the self-comparisons — we create a more authentic sense of self-esteem. It doesn't come from being told “good job — you're really neat.” Rather, it comes from doing good things and being a good person.
Positive psychology has identified several powerful ways that parents can help their teens nurture authentic self-esteem to develop a powerful sense of who they are — without the drawbacks of the typical “feel-good” fluff our kids get too much of. I'll describe three of them.
First, help your teens identify their strengths. Are they leaders? Do they have a great zest for life, sense of purpose, or capacity to love? If you're not sure where to start, try the free survey at viame.org along with your kids. Knowing your strengths and using them every day is strongly associated with wellbeing and resilience.
Moreover, among adolescents, research has shown that an increase in strengths like hope, zest, and leadership is associated with a decrease in both psychological distress and behavior problems.
Second, teenagers with a powerful and authentic self-esteem enjoy a high ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions in their relationships with others. Positive interactions with your teens would include simple things like smiling, saying thank you, telling them you're glad to see them, hugging them, and responding to their successes with active and constructive responses. Negative interactions include criticism, arguments, raised voices, and expressing anger. Making sure that your positive interactions with your teens outnumber negative ones will build a well-functioning relationship.
Third, the way teens feel about themselves is, to a large extent, built upon the quality of their relationship with their parents. Everyone needs to know, without question, that they are wanted, they are loved, and that even when they're driving their parents insane, they are still valued. If you can demonstrate these things to your teen, you'll help them achieve a powerful sense of identity, value, and self-worth that won't leave them feeling they have to be better than everyone else.
Every parent wants his or her children to be happy and to feel good about themselves and about life. Simply telling them how great they are doesn't help them, though. Rather, helping them identify and use their strengths, interacting with them in positive ways, and telling them we love them and that they matter to us can create a healthier sense of self — and the physical, psychological, and social resources that accompany that.
Reprinted with permission from the Institute for Family Studies and the author.
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