Helping Your Teen Find The Pathway Towards Self-Worth

Posted on December 20th, 2014

Nolan Johnson, MFTTherapist at Los Gatos Teen Therapy Juvenile Probation Officer

Teens in modern society have a lot more to combat than those of yesteryear. With the world of social media growing at an insane rate, today’s teens are spending more and more time comparing themselves to reality television stars than to political leaders, educators, and similar inspiring community figures. This has resulted in increased distorted views of what our teens think they should identify with, including “celebrities” who base their self-worth on superficial concepts such as image and popularity. For some teens it has almost become an obsession, basing their self-worth on how many “likes” they receive on Instagram or Facebook. It seems that the days of basing our sense of worth on our own morals and values have long passed.

Here are some facts: The majority of teens who experience depression also express self-dislike. As a mental health provider, this fact is alarming because this correlation can have the tendency to create a “snowball reaction” that is more difficult to move once it finally arrives at the bottom of the figurative hill. Along the same lines, if your teen is experiencing self-esteem difficulties, he or she is also likely experiencing symptoms of depression. However, there are tools available to begin to steer your teen in the right direction while therapy is put into place.

Many teens base their self-esteem on qualities they value highly, such as friends, popularity, intelligence, or even athletic prowess. The problem with this is although these may be things your teen does value, their tendency to magnify imperfections and mistakes can constitute a “personal defeat” in their eyes. In other words, if they are not as popular as the most popular kids at school, or as athletic as the team’s star player, they see themselves as failures. This particular form of distorted thinking creates a “black or white” thinking platform, with no “grey area.”

Most teens suffering from low self-esteem chase a sense of self-worth through achievements. Your teen may feel that if she makes the basketball team, or if she gets a date for prom, she will “feel” better. However, the truth is that achievements bring satisfaction, but not happiness. Your teen can be an attractive young person who is intelligent, athletic, and personable, however, she can still “feel” low because she is missing self-love and self-worth. Having said all this, let’s get to some ways parents can help.

Help your teen identify the “grey area.” Talk with your teen about what he values, and help him begin to identify possible distortions in his thinking patterns. Does your teen have to earn straight “A” grades to feel intelligent? Would earning a “B” mean he should not go to school? Does it mean he will never go to college now? Or is it impossible to be perfect all the time, and could earning a “B” be reframed as a challenge to improve oneself? Most teens who value something enough to be over-critical regarding their personal outcomes will not easily give in to walking away from what is important to them. Help your teen create a counter-argument: Why should he not give up on his dream? This is the starting point of him becoming a “critic” of his self-critical thoughts. This is will be the fuel to the fire when your teen needs to remind himself why he is good enough.

Encourage your teen to self-define her values. Empowering your teen to define her own personalized values will decrease her automatic tendency to rely on what she sees and hears as a baseline. Having this discussion with your teen will help her check automatic thoughts when she encounters what she will nevertheless be exposed to through social media and other platforms. We can’t always stop our teen’s exposure, but we can arm her with a sense of self that allows her to identify the difference between what she values and how she perceives the norms of popular culture.

Talk to your teen about how to work towards an appropriate solution. Does your teen want to make more friends? Does he feel like he wants to improve his body image? Sit down with him and define the problem, and then break it down into specific tasks. Then you both can begin to work on applying solutions that lead to the process of achieving those goals. “Process goals” are action steps your teen can take towards improving himself. Helping your teen link “success” to the “process” of change will help him create a sense of self-worth that stays for a lifetime. Conversely, for a teen wanting to improve body image, focusing on the goal of losing 15 pounds would not be as effective because the achievement would bring satisfaction but not true happiness. A teen who focuses on losing 15 pounds and gains back 10 pounds falls back into a sense of despair, while the teen who focused on the process of living a healthier lifestyle creates sense of self-love and empowerment that doesn’t fade away.

The combination of these simple tools can begin to steer your teen towards improving her feelings of self-worth. With that said, nothing is an overnight fix. The most effective pathway towards modifying a pattern of thinking that evolves over a period of time is practice, practice, practice! The more often teens practice reframing their thought processes, identifying the “grey” area, and challenging automatic thought processes by validating self-values and identifying distorted thinking, the more it becomes second nature and ultimately more effective. While these tools are a good starting point, linking your teen to a therapist that uses cognitive behavioral therapy will allow your teen to learn and practice the tools necessary to efficiently find the pathway towards self-worth!


As a parent, what tools or strategies have you found useful in assisting your teen’s positive development of self worth?

Can you recall any moments, memories, or experiences that were instrumental in the positive development of your self-image?

In the era of cyberbullying, how can social media be used to empower a teen’s definition of themselves?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.

8 thoughts on “Helping Your Teen Find The Pathway Towards Self-Worth

  1. Lindsay Smith

    This is such an important topic and I really appreciate the suggestions you offer about how we can help our teens. I especially like the statement about achievements bringing satisfaction, but not happiness and how focusing on the process helps creates a deeper sense of self-worth. I look forward to hearing about how others have assisted their teens in developing positive self-worth!

  2. Pat628

    Excellent article! What about the teen that seems to be in a chronically state of low esteem and self worth, perhaps 6 months or more? How does a parent know when to intervene? Also, when is medication considered?

    1. Nolan

      Pat, if you have noticed that your teen has experienced chronic symptoms of low self esteem and self worth for an extended period of time, group therapy can be a powerful tool. Connecting to other teens with similar issues can be a starting point to gaining self confidence, and learning effective tools to manage thought processes while increasing awareness of cognitive distortions that are often at the root of low self-esteem and self worth. Consulting with a mental health professional will provide you additional insight as to whether your teen could benefit from individual therapy either in conjunction with group therapy, or on it’s own.

    1. Joy

      Parents having difficulty discussing these topics with their teens is a common problem. However, teens are typically very aware of the actions and role modeling that they observe from their parents, even if they aren’t open to direct dialogue. Perhaps you can first take a look at how you currently are role modeling self-worth with not having black-and-white expectations of yourself, having forgiveness for yourself when you make mistakes, making choices in line with your values, etc. Another great way to reach your teen is by having an adult family friend spend some time talking with your teen. Just don’t take it personally if your teen opens up to your family friend. This is the age when teens are supposed to practice their independence by withdrawing some from their parents. 🙂

      1. Carol Satterlee

        Hey Joy, I appreciate your reply here. I’m also a big proponent of parents reaching out to other supportive adults who their child may have a good connection with. Teens can be quite egocentric, meaning they think they are the only ones experiencing lack of esteem. Once they connect with others, they’ll soon learn they are not alone. And as Nolan suggested above, this is where group work can be so helpful.

  3. Jan

    The idea of process goals is great…I mistakenly thought that positive feedback from all areas of my child’s life would improve her self image..I was amazed to see that she didn’t hear or process what she was unable to believe herself…it fell on deaf ears

    1. Joy

      Very true, it can be easy for a teen (or adult) to discount positive feedback and overly focus on real and imagined negative feedback. Thank you for sharing your insight about your daughter!

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