How Teens Define Self-Esteem

I love to ask teen girls to define self-esteem. Some of them give very poignant definitions of self-esteem. They mention how they feels about themselves and how others view them as well. They use words such as self-image, self-love, respect, confidence and dignity. Others talk about self-esteem in relation to what it is not. As in, it’s not putting yourself down, telling yourself that you are fat, doing what others tell you, and it’s not letting people walk all over you. Some of the girls are more comfortable giving examples of how they see self-esteem in their life instead of giving me a definition. Some tell me stories related to positive self-esteem. I hear stories of doing well on a test, having a boy like them, or scoring a goal during a sporting event. While others relay stories about negative self-esteem. These stories usually start with the phrase “let me tell you about the worst day of my life” and usually end with somebody fighting, crying, lying to a parent, throwing up/passing out at a party and/or all of the above. A few have told me how their self-esteem depends upon the situation they are in and therefore couldn’t give me one concrete definition. A chameleon approach. As in, with their academics they feel more confident, but when it comes to fitting in with their peers they feel less comfortable and have lower self-esteem. And lastly, some girls simply used free association to define self-esteem and say words like: body image, maturity, respect, confidence, and liking yourself. What I find so surprising is that they can articulate that the core concept of self-esteem comes from within, yet when trying to build that self-esteem, they look externally. To friends, to trends and most likely to boys. Obviously, some of these answers vary depending upon the girl’s age, life experiences and ability to articulate self-esteem. However, by and large they seek outside themselves for validation of self-esteem. We need to challenge their thinking and offer them ways of approaching self-esteem internally. To focus inward and give useful feedback, tools and techniques that can help build their self-esteem today, tomorrow and the next no matter what life throws their way.

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Megan’s Story: Finding Self-Esteem after Anorexia and Depression

Megan is a 17 years old teen girl who sees her self-esteem as moderate to low.  She was an obese child in grammar school and lost 40 pounds by eating healthy and swimming regularly. She was bullied and teased relentlessly because of the weight. That had a very damaging effect on her. She then swung the pendulum in the complete opposite direction and between eighth-grade and freshman year of high school she became anorexic.  As an anorexic, she counted calories and every chew. To this day she needs someone to distract her when she’s eating or she will count the calories and not eat enough. She also suffers from depression, which was obvious to me from the start of the interview. I’d say Megan was the saddest girl I interviewed for this book. She smiled once during the whole interview, and that was when I asked her what made her happy. Her response to me was “food” with a dreamy smile on her face.She has an unhealthy love affair with food. Her family situation is far from ideal, like many girls her deal with eating disorders. She has no relationship with her father, literally. Her parents are still married, although it seems they shouldn’t be based on her story. They all live in the same house, which seems to act like a prison for her mother.  It seems to be a very depressing environment.  She said that she learned a long time ago that it’s not worth trying to please her dad because it’s impossible. For years she tried and only failed over and over again in her father’s eyes. She clearly identifies the eating disorder and depression as directly related to her father.  Or rather, the lack of relationship with her father. She talked about how cruel kids can be and how she would never bully anyone because she knows what it feels like firsthand. She identifies and hangs out with a group of girls who “could be” considered bullies at her school. I’m assuming this is a strategy or defense so that she herself would never be bullied by them. She still struggles with her relationship with food and has very poor body image. When she looks in the mirror she still sees that obese child. She sees a therapist weekly and takes antidepressants. She still laments for the time when she was anorexic.

Sexual Harassment at Schools | AAUW

The American Association of University Women is one of those great organizations dedicated to helping women. They offer annual reports on research that they have conducted, they post insightful  articles, offer scholarship and fellowship funding for young women to attend college and just all around serve as a very credible source of information for women today. Having worked on college campuses for the past 16 years, they were always a source of information for me. Their most recent report is about sexual harassment on high school campuses. Prior to reading the report, I had no idea how prevalent sexual harassment was among high schoolers.  In addition, the report break down the differences between bullying and sexual harassment so that we have a clear understanding of the two and how they differ.  Harassment occurs in all forms; boys harassing girls, boys harassing boys, as well as girls harassing girls. The AAUW also describes  in this report the different forms of harassment that occur today among our youth in detail with proven statistics.  I highly encourage educators of middle school and high school students to read the report.  The more informed we are, the better prepared we become to handle these situations and take care of our youth.

Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at Schools | AAUW.