Rethinking young people and ‘low self esteem’

These Young People have just such low self esteem!  

This week I have been attending a 3-day block of lectures on Psychology and Christianity as part of my MA course at Durham University. It has been absolutely fascinating. During the three days each of the 17 of us in the room have been given the chance to present to the others a 20 minute presentation on a recent paper in psychology and relate it to ministry, again, fascinating the variety, and even if many of my colleagues applied their papers to other work and ministry, what was insightful was being able to reflect on what it might mean for working with young people.

One paper, and an accompanying lecture on Self Esteem was i thought worth reflecting on further.

Firstly, a few points about Self-esteem. Self-esteem is contested. However, Self-esteem and the Self have been part of the ongoing conversations in Psychology from almost the dawning of Psychology itself.  For James (1890) Self-esteem can be linked to our nature, can rise and fall as a function of achievement and set-backs and notably, not all successes and failures have the same effect on self-esteem. There can be a ‘State’ Self-esteem (one that fluctuates as a person ‘feels’ about themselves) and also a ‘Trait’ self-esteem – almost like a ‘resting pulse’ its the normative state, but how such a resting state of self-esteem exists is open to debate.  There is an element of cognition required for self-esteem, for it depends on the person in their ‘mind’ to interpret themselves in light of the events to then make assessments of themselves, against the situations. One of the functions of self-esteem which is valuable to youth workers is how self-esteem helps a person to achieve their goals, to indicate self-determination and also maybe realise dominance over others. Self-esteem that fluctuates is highly linked to contingencies of self-worth  (CSW) – which have been researched, albeit in America by student samples, to include things like appearance, others approval, competitiveness, academic competency, love and support of family, virtues and also relationship with God (again, American students) – this study was done in 2001, and was with a predominately white student population. But Some of these CSW are important to reflect on as these can be filters to look through ‘life goals’ through, as well as be motivations in themselves.

So, enough with the definitions, the thing that caught my eye was from one of the presentations by a colleague…

In an academic paper which had brought together a large number of data regarding the changes of Self esteem along the lifespan, Robins and Trzesenski in 2002 produced the following graph that makes a stab at trying to bring a uniformity to the conversations about self esteem as it changes through the ages.

I have taken a photo of it, and so the quality isnt great, and im aware that you might not be able to access the paper without permissions, but here it is.

From left to right is the age of people from 9-12, 13-17, 18-22 and right the way through to 80-90. The scale is based on an accumulation of data sets from a large range of previous papers. The data sets are the shapes, and a trend line is plotted through them.

Yes there are caveats with taking data from a cumulation of other samples.

But as a youthworkers, this is interesting isnt it?  How the level of self esteem changes through the ages.  There are reasons why it changes, and changes dramatically at certain points, they’re sort of obvious (linked to the description above)

We need to recognise a ‘change’ in self-esteem – but is it actually a ‘low one’? 

Of course, because everyone is different, making comparisons between young people might cause us, teachers or others to compare levels of self-esteem. But what is noticeable (aside from the distinction between males and females) , is not that young people have ‘low’ self-esteem – it is that there is such as significant change  in self esteem, for virtually all young people.

What we need to do, as youthworkers is to be aware of a ‘change’ in self-esteem levels with young people, that might feel like ‘low’ self-esteem. 

Actually – by telling a young person they ‘have low self-esteem’ is hardly going to make them feel better about themselves anyway is it?  The only thing this might do, is increase the propensity that our work as a youthworker or programme might have to be heroic to increase it. The reality is that it is far more complicated.

Maybe as youthworkers and youth practitioners it is more helpful to talk about a drop, or a change in a young persons self esteem -caused by the cognitive capacity increasing to consider themselves in respect to the CSW’s above ( ie “am i good looking, am i successful, am i important”) and do against their goals of being important, successful or attractive.

The graph is interesting though on a number of levels.

Yes there is a drop at 13-17- but it is hardly low. And the lowest point for many young people isnt 13-17, its 19 – when they leave home, and go to university. Especially indicated and ‘support or love of family’ is important, as recognised in the student surveys. In what way then, might youth workers who work with 15-year-olds help them to prepare for being 19 and this shift. And, as student life kicks in in regard to alcohol, socialising and being away from home, what strategies might there be to help them to cope in that time, learned from when they were 13…?

The reality is, then that may 15 year olds, probably have on average about the same level of self-esteem as many youthworkers- aged between 25-40. And its probably higher if that youth worker is worried about job security, is away from home, is overworked and stressed or their goals arent being realised.  There is a case for 50-60 year old youthworkers, those who have high self esteem and might have better capacity and confidence to help others. When 30 year olds are still ‘trying to make it…’

Maybe we should forget ‘low self-esteem’ and reflect on ‘changing’ self-esteem in people, not just young people, though young people often get tarnished as having ‘low self-esteem’ the easiest. It might not be the case… and either way its not helpful.

Just a few thoughts on Young people and self-esteem i thought were quite useful and worth sharing, it is such an important aspect of a young person and how they construct a view of themselves, and us, their parents and others, so reflecting further on self-esteem might be important in that changing positive relationship we have with them.

Id love to know your thought – and please let me know if this is helpful, especially in work relating to young people and mental health, in terms of young people as leaders, school achievement, alternative provision or mentoring type situations.


Self-Esteem Development across the Lifespan Author(s): Richard W. Robins and Kali H. Trzesniewski Source: Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Jun., 2005), pp. 158-162 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of Association for Psychological Science Stable URL: Accessed: 15-02-2017 18:52 UTC

James (1890) The Principles of Psychology

Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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