Dear Douglas,

 

I have some questions for you about self-esteem. My daughter’s teacher told my husband and I that she thought my daughter had low self-esteem. It was her explanation for why my daughter (who is 12) was doing only average in school and seems not to have many friends in her class. It seems she keeps to herself at school and appears to her teacher to be shy.

 

We are confused, because at home my daughter is not shy and is happy to be in the midst of whatever social events are going on, often revolving around her older brothers or when we have another family join us for dinner or an outing. Should I be concerned? Should I be doing something different? My husband seems to have little concern about the comment, but I am not so sure that it isn’t something to pay attention to.

 

Mom

 

Dear Mom,

 

Your questions are good. It is often difficult to determine when our adolescents are exhibiting behaviours that are a cause for concern and when it is part of the normal process of growing through the awkward stages that are true in adolescence.

 

Self-esteem refers to the belief a person has about themself as it applies to the way they perform or fit in. Someone with low self-esteem holds core beliefs that they are not “good enough”, either to do the things required of them (like school), or to be loved and appreciated by others. This belief becomes a source of self-judgement and self-criticism and they can look for messages from people around them that re-enforce the belief they have.

 

The difficult part is that it becomes self-fulfilling. The more one believes those things to be true, the more they behave as if it is true and then get feedback that tells them that it is true. The fears, doubts, judgements and criticisms we have about ourselves do influence the person we become. It is a serious concern.

 

Based on what you have told me, I am not ready to conclude anything about your daughter’s self-esteem. There are a number of things I would want to know more about. What appears to be true is that she functions differently in different situations. At school she appears to be shy, while at home she is more outgoing and comfortable to be herself.

 

I would want to explore some things about her personality, specifically whether she is introverted or extroverted. It is not uncommon for introverted people to be interpreted as being shy or less social, when it is really congruent with how they relate to themselves in the context of a social situation.

 

I would also want to know some history. How long has she been in the school she is in and is she behaving similarly to other times in her life? I would also want to know more about her academic performance and how she feels about it. Does she try hard and then fail to learn or is she somewhat disinterested in school?

 

I would also be interested to know how opinionated she is about the world and people around her. It can be part of how we might determine her level of engagement. Sometimes bright people don’t see the value in some of the ways we live life and can withdraw from activities and people that don’t interest them. This can be true of children who have been around older siblings and adults a lot. Someone with low self-esteem is more likely to have fewer opinions and not trust the value of what they think or conclude.

 

The human brain changes a great deal during the stage of life your daughter is in. It seems to create some natural insecurity, being able to understand abstract ideas and hypothetical situations, but not yet feeling experienced enough to trust one’s own perspective. Often that insecurity manifests in competitive behaviours among adolescents, and a social environment which is simultaneously a priority (parents less so) and a difficult environment to manage. Some children opt out or stay around the periphery.

 

What can be done if a child has low self-esteem? The most important thing is that parents and teachers see that a child’s performance is not who they are. We can communicate unconditional love which helps a child see that they are loved and valued no matter what grades they get or what behaviour they exhibit. It can be easy to lose track of that when the demands for grades are high and the belief is that one’s future is determined by the performance now. A child’s self-esteem will have more to do with their life in the future than their grades.

 

With the help of a psychotherapist, adults can challenge some of the core beliefs that are developing in our children, if they are overly critical or hurting their ability to be engaged in life.

 

I hope this is helpful. Wishing you and your family wellness,

 

Douglas

 

Do you have a question you would like Douglas’s help with? You can email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Personal details will not be printed

Douglas Holwerda

Douglas is an American trained psychotherapist, writer of the Dear Abby-esque monthly column in the Word, "Dear Douglas". He holds to the notion that the living of life is a creative endeavour... an eternal adventure without promises. And that we are both shaped by the journey and the shapers of what is possible. Our greatest hope is to find love and connection along the way. Live it all.

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