New approach to preserving teens’ self-esteem

Child writing in classroom. | Newsreel
Allowing young children to affirm the positive aspects of their identities builds long-term self-esteem. | Photo: Jovan Mandic (iStock)

Teenagers who are encouraged to affirm their own positive attributes have stronger long-term self-esteem and cope better in transitioning to new environments.

A study in the United States followed 400 young students, in the year before entering high school, who completed short essays every few months about their identities and values that were important to them.

Cornell University Assistant Professor Adam Hoffman said the students reported, on average, either stable or improved self-esteem throughout the year.

“Peers who didn’t complete the self-affirmation exercises saw average self-esteem drop significantly – a common phenomenon when starting high school,” Assistant Professor Hoffman said.

He said the results suggested that in addition to values-based affirmations, which had been studied more extensively, identity-based affirmations could be beneficial at a time when teens were forging and becoming more aware of their identities.

“Self-esteem is derived from our social identities in some ways and teens are starting to be shaped by their social identities in adolescence,” Assistant Professor Hoffman said.

“If we can encourage explicit socialization of their identity and frame it in a positive light, we may see better outcomes in mental health and overall well-being.”

He said while strong self-esteem was linked to better health and academic performance, it was known to stagnate or decline among adolescents starting high school.

“At that age, students are developing a more complex and nuanced sense of self, while navigating new social relationships and being confronted with frequent opportunities to see how they measure up, such as through grades and athletics.

“Adolescents’ social cognition enables them to have more realistic self-perceptions and understandings of their abilities, and there are many ways to assess themselves in comparison with others.”

Assistant Professor Hoffman said prior research had focused on how self-affirmations influenced academic outcomes, while this study was among the first to investigate their effects on psychological well-being, specifically self-esteem.

“Perhaps it is not surprising that having repeated opportunities to positively reflect on anything of personal significance to the self – whether that be personal values or social identities – may offer a method for preserving a sense of self-worth.”

He said schools, counselors and parents could provide those opportunities with minimal disruption to help teens feel better about themselves as they transition to high school.

Read the full study.