Angry? Lazy? Lonely? For parents, youth workers and young people, helping a person improve their self-esteem has a hugely positive impact on their life, their drive and relationships.

By Indy Nottage

A challenging moment

An irate volunteer pleaded with the loudest teenager in the room as they messed around with their friends. The other young people looked up, hoping they could find the courage to join in with the mayhem. The volunteer was at their wits end.

We had not met this group of young people before; it was our first time working with them, and in a new building. This one young man seemed intent on causing trouble and may have become aggressive.

We can all have moments when we lose our temper, at others or ourselves. We have times when we want to disengage or give up on what’s important. Young people also experience this.

Fortunately, by the end of the session, his behaviour had completely changed, he was smiling, focussed, enthusiastic, and leading others to positively engage with the work.

What had caused this behaviour and this complete turnaround? How can we encourage the young people in our lives and ourselves, to make similar transitions?

The answers to these questions are quite expansive, but I’d like to look at one key area; it’s where we at Reach start when helping with behaviour change in people.

This important factor in behaviour is self-esteem.

The impact of low self esteem

We all have times in our life when we struggle with our self-esteem. We may experience low confidence, critical thoughts, or question whether others appreciate our company.

This can cause us to withdraw from others, shy away from challenges, or engage in self-destructive behaviours.

For young people, the problem of self-esteem can often feel very present. They are reframing reality, asking questions, discovering who they are, and who they are becoming.

Negative experiences can undermine this journey for them, creating unhealthy thinking patterns that can take a long time to unpick and sometimes leading to decisions that are later regretted.

How we approach this issue can have a significant impact on the lives young people go on to lead.

What is self-esteem?

Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden, often credited as a father of modern self-esteem thinking, defines self-esteem as; believing that we have a right to exist.

He often challenged his students to stand in front of a group and say the phrase “I have a right to exist”, without shyness, defensiveness or aggressiveness. They had to say it calmly, in a natural, easy way. Most found it profoundly challenging.

He divides his view of self-esteem into two areas:

  • Self-respect; the belief we are worthy of receiving love, friendship, achievement and happiness, and we can give love in return.
  • Self-Efficacy: the belief we can cope with life, that we can think, choose, and make appropriate decisions.

Crucially, self-esteem is what we think about ourselves, not what others think of us.

Developing Healthier Self-esteem

Another, Psychologist Larry Brendtro, known for his work helping ‘at risk’ young people, suggests that self-esteem can be impacted through four areas: belonging, autonomy, purpose and mastery.

If we create an environment for ourselves or others that promotes a healthy self-esteem in these areas, it can have a marked difference on our life and behaviour.

Self-respect: Belonging and autonomy

We need to feel like we belong, that others love us and want us around.

As young people move into adulthood, they naturally seek more autonomy than they had before. These internal drives can be unsettling, so they often search for greater belonging to balance it out. You may see groups of young people behaving drastically differently to the rest of society yet the same as each other.

We can ask someone:

  • Are you ever scared of truly being yourself in front of others?
  • Do you feel like you are part of a group, or on the edge?
  • How can you make an effort to ensure that other people feel like they belong when they are with you?

To create a healthy environment, we can ask:

  • Am I giving this person enough autonomy over their own lives, or am I seeking to control them?
  • Do I trust them and communicate that?
  • Are they safe to belong here just as they are, not as I expect them to be?
  • Do I let them make their own decisions or do I dictate?
  • If they told me their worst problem, what would I say? What would they expect me to say, would they feel safe?
  • Do I regularly communicate that they belong here, with my body language, my tone of voice and words, or do I assume they know?

A young person may not always reciprocate, as they are still learning, but we can take the lead.

Self-Efficacy: Purpose and Mastery

We need a reason to act, a reason to live; we need a purpose.

We need to know that we will get better at things we are trying to do. We need to know we can master what we do.

Even if the mountain stays the same size, we need to know our legs can get stronger with training. And we need a reason to get over the mountain.

When a young person asks, “why do I have to do this?” they may be communicating a sense of a lack of purpose. Helping them to uncover what they really care about, and why this task may be connected, can help them undertake the task on their own.

We can ask someone:

  • What do you really care about?
  • How far have you come already?
  • What do you dream for the future?

We can ask ourselves:

  • Am I holding this person back from their purpose, presuming they are not yet able to undertake the task?
  • Am I preventing them from mastering a skill by thinking they are too young?
  • Am I pushing them too far beyond their ability, so they are overcome by fatigue, anxiety or discouragement, as if mastery is out of reach?
  • Am I allowing them to discover their unique purpose, or am I imposing my own purposes upon them?
  • Do the things I ask them to do have a good purpose, and do they understand what it is? Do they care about it?

When we choose to make a change, it is most sustainable when it comes from within ourselves.

Resolving the challenge

For the loud teenager in my session, I was able to quickly change his environment, from one which challenged his self-esteem, to one which promoted a healthier self-esteem.

I did this by changing his role in the group, through giving him a leadership task. It is not the right action in every scenario, but in this case, it changed our team’s attitude to him, and focussed his attention on giving to others. This gave him a sense of Belonging, and Autonomy, Purpose, and Mastery.

In other situations, I will listen to the young person to see what the problem and solution is. It may be:

  • Asking a shy young person detailed, interesting questions about their hobby (lego, mythical creatures, computer games, ponies, etc). (autonomy/belonging)
  • Giving focussed attention to someone who won’t stop interrupting. (belonging)
  • Asking someone who is looking lost, to take care of another who really needs their support. (purpose)
  • Instead of doubling down on rules, explaining reasons for changing behaviour, which are pertinent to things they truly care about, so they can own the change. (purpose/mastery)
  • Giving a young person who is trying hard, but feeling like giving up, a new technique that can make their goal seem doable. (mastery)

So, next time you meet challenging behaviour, take a moment to ask yourself if a lack of self-esteem might be the cause, and look for a way to encourage the young person.


People to Read

Revd. Dr. Sally Nash,

Larry K. Brendtro Ph.D,