CYC-Online 143 JANUARY 2011
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Restoring Self-Esteem in Adolescent Males

Andrea Hendel

When presented with the words self-esteem, it is most common in our society to immediately think of girls. It is not often that people ponder the ejects of body image, athleticism, success, or even friendships for boys. Unfortunately in overlooking these concepts, we are doing a disservice to our male youth. This article addresses the effects of low self'-esteem on boys, clarifies the difference between low self-esteem, over compensation, and egotism, and finally offers ideas on how to identify and address low self-esteem.

The definition of self-esteem being used for this article is taken from the National Association for Self-Esteem: “The experience of being capable of meeting life’s challenges and being worthy of happiness". Self-esteem is fluid; it changes over time and the responsibility of being happy is personal. No one person can increase the happiness or self-esteem of another as we are each individually and personally responsible for how we feel about ourselves depending on our success and expectations. As providers for our youth, it is important to help guide these young people into seeing their own self-worth.

Common signs of low self-esteem include whining, the need to win, trying to over-please others, displaying perfectionism, being self-critical, withdrawing, and blaming others for their problems. Other signs not as commonly associated with low self-esteem include exaggerated bragging, engaging in attention-seeking behaviors, verbal and physical aggression, displays of arrogance, conceit, narcissism and egotism, and displaying a sense of superiority over others, referred to as “pseudo self-esteem."

The common signs are usually identified more easily with females while many males are able to move under the radar in these areas. However, the pseudo self-esteem signs are more common in boys, and unfortunately many of these boys are identified as having behavior problems, being troublemakers, and are in general known as “bad" kids.

The relationship between self-esteem and narcissism has been examined by many in relation to boys” behaviors. A study by Donnellan, Trzesniewski, Robins, Moffitt, and Caspi (2005) found that boys with low self-esteem tend to resemble the behaviors of boys with narcissism in their level of aggression and acting out. Boys with low self-esteem have less a connection to societal norms and rules and feel they have less to lose through negative behaviors, whereas those with narcissism believe they are above the law. Boys with low self-esteem are drawn to peers with negative behaviors and try to increase their level of belonging and fitting in by externalizing their feelings through negative behaviors. When intervening, it is important to pay attention to the above noted signs of low self-esteem in addition to the acting out. Donnellan and colleagues note that aggression tends to increase in boys after the age of 11 and thus self-esteem issues must be addressed by then.

Research shows that self-esteem in males increased until the age of 14. After that time, with the transition from middle school to high school, they tend to have a decline in self-esteem, until at least the age of 16 (Baldwin & Hoffman, 2002). Most self-esteem issues in this age group are school and performance related, especially for males who do not fit the stereotypical model of what it means to be male, like being athletic, strong, independent, or intelligent. Therefore, expression of feelings and emotions is usually not accepted as a male becomes older, so feelings are usually expressed through external means, like fighting. Males also tend to value their personal and independent achievements more and begin to separate from others at this time to find personal success, rather than group success.

Low self-esteem affects many areas of mental health and it is important to be aware of signs of poor self-concept and to pay attention to how boys do express their feelings. The more aware you are of any emotional or behavioral changes and the common and not so common signs, the more help you can offer.

Research by Cheryl Slomkowski, Rachel G. Klien, and Salvatore Mannuzza (1995) found that males with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have lower levels of self-esteem. This finding is due to the fact that these children have lower levels of psychosocial adjustment due to having an extremely difficult time following direction, sitting still, and completing tasks and assignments, thus getting called out in the class more often and getting lower grades. lt is our job to encourage these kids to keep trying and to point out that their diagnosis is posing challenges for them, but this knowledge is not meant to be used as an excuse. These boys need to hear that they can be successful and that what they are experiencing in the classroom is normal for someone with ADHD. Creating an environment of normalcy and helping them to see they are not that different from others will ease their anxiety and increase their level of self-esteem.

Another group of kids who tend to have lower levels of self-esteem include children of alcoholics. A number of factors play into this phenomenon. Often alcoholic parents spend less time at home or less time interacting with their children. This affects boys a great deal as they need that connection to a male role model. Girls are generally more social and are able to get some of those emotional needs met through other people, but boys are discouraged from expressing emotions and do not seek out others in an appropriate manner to get these needs met. Boys try to get these needs met in other ways, like acting out and engaging in attention-seeking behaviors, and thus appear to be the “bad child."

Not all children of alcoholics have low self-esteem, as their negative self-perception can be altered by getting positive attention from others, having a focus on personal strengths and successes early in life, the ability to communicate with others, and to feel understood. It is important that an environment of openness and care is provided for these children in the schools, treatment centers, therapist’s office, and by neighbors in order to give these children an early opportunity to seek out support (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1990).

Depression was once a commonly overlooked diagnosis in boys, but is a major contributor to issues of low self-esteem. In males, depression usually involves social and interpersonal difficulties. A male who is not athletic, does not have positive body image, has few common interests with others, or has poor social skills will have a smaller peer group to rely on for support. Although boys do not commonly express their emotional needs, they are able to get some of these needs met through socializing, sports, and other activities.

In working with many inner city youth, clinical experience suggests that it is common for boys with depression to be involved in gangs. The majority of these gang members appear to have issues with self-esteem and try to overcompensate by engaging in criminal activity. This is one area of inflated or pseudo self-esteem being used to compensate for something that is missing in their life.

Depression does not lead all children to gangs; many boys with low self-esteem will isolate and withdraw from others, thus becoming more distant. If this is a change that occurs with someone you work with or with your child, it must be recognized and pointed out. Many people attribute changes as “kids being kids," but children with low self-esteem develop a sense of hopelessness. In focusing on boys it is important to point out that since they are more action oriented and independent, self-harm, suicide, and even homicide are more common among this group.

There are many things that can be done to work with kids with low self-esteem to help them realize their potential and begin to internalize feelings of hope and happiness. Being solution-focused and strength-based is of utmost importance. These thoughts need to be present in all interactions with youth. It is easy to get bogged down in what the child has done wrong; but the reality is, he knows what he did and, rather than pointing out his failures day after day it is our responsibility to point out what he does well, even if it is the smallest of successes! Then, it is necessary to help him take the next step and teach ways to do things better, so there is an understanding that it is possible to take personal control over his own life.

Realistic praise is an important step (Phelan, 2003). The feedback needs to be honest, genuine, and not manipulative; these boys know when praise is not sincere and unrealistic praise may cause confusion and a lack of trust in others. Be accurate and complimentary in the feedback and point out what has been done well. Encourage him to allow practice and the experience of time to give him the opportunity to do whatever activity he tries even better the next time.

One disservice that can be done is ignoring a boy’s comment of dissatisfaction and brushing over it with another compliment. It is important to acknowledge his feelings and help him plan a better way to do things in the future. In planning future success, point out his skills and talents, not only athleticism or other stereotypical male strengths, but his artistic talent, his ability to be a good friend, or to be helpful at school or home, encouraging him to look at a wide array of success areas.

It is important to set up a supportive environment where all qualities of the child are accepted, good and bad. Make it easy for him to approach you and talk about his feelings. Pay attention to his talents and abilities and be ready to reinforce and nurture his strengths and be able to point out these talents to him. Even though some of these negative or acting out behaviors may be a challenge, it is important to not focus on changing who he is as a person, but to see the behavior in the context of what his situation is. Then you can focus on pointing out and altering behaviors without judging him and his worth. lt is helpful for boys to understand the reasons behind making changes, so again, honesty and openness is important in explaining why some other reaction might be better. We cannot assume these boys know why their actions are troublesome.

As mentioned above, boys” self-esteem tends to decline between the ages of 14 and 16. This is the most profound time for change in physical and emotional development for a boy. This is the time when he is trying to figure out where he fits in and how to deal with awkward changes. Boys need to have encouragement that what they are experiencing is normal and know that all boys will go through similar adjustments. Appearance and hygiene are more significant to boys than others might believe; if his appearance is not the way he would like it to be, this can contribute to poor self-esteem. Thus it is beneficial to provide guidance on hygiene and grooming.

As boys reach this stage in life, communication with adults tends to decrease and the focus starts to be more on peer relationships, moving from same sex to opposite sex interests. Communication is very important here so the boys know that they can continue to come to adults with issues or concerns. The use of specific questions is important, as boys will prefer to give one-word answers if possible. This stage in life begins the emergence of new self-concepts like the need for independence from family and future-oriented thinking. Being future-focused is a positive sign; we must encourage this and nurture these thoughts. Boys with low self-esteem tend to be here-and-now focused and do not have hopes or dreams for their future and thus have no plans. Adults have to encourage looking at the future and help in making plans by again pointing out areas of strength and talent so they might develop more interests and see options for their future.

Another emerging concept is developing a sense of identity and the increased knowledge of who one is in the world. He may need guidance to see what roles he plays and what groups he fits into. Self-esteem is important in this process by asking, “How much do I like myself?" If this question is difficult to answer, esteem tends to be lower. Boys with low self-esteem have a greater tendency to fall into negative peer pressure as a way to fit in and get others to like them or accept them.

Peer pressure can lead to drug use, getting into fights, being aggressive and breaking rules or committing crimes. Helping boys at this stage to find positive role models and build personal relationships is important. Adults need to dispel the myth that boys need to be tough and aggressive. Finding positive adult male role models in the media is tough to do as athletes and music artists increase their presence in the media for negative actions. Boys need help to see that while these media models might be famous, the consequences of their actions must still be realistically evaluated. This helps the boys develop better values and morals.

When a child is speaking, it is important to look at him, stop what you are doing, and pay attention. His non-verbal responses (posture, facial expression, tone) will give a clue as to how he is feeling. Do not get bogged down in the details, but try to figure out the main point of his story, paraphrase, and ask specific questions. It is important not to try to fix the problem, but instead offer support and guidance so he learns how to problem solve and consequently increase his self-esteem. With boys, conversations occur more easily while his hands are busy and he is active. This takes the pressure off having to look directly at you. Some useful action-talk activities include fishing, building, setting the table, and going for a drive.

Limit setting must accompany appropriate trust and relationship building with boys, especially if they have low self-esteem. These kids benefit most from structure, discipline, and accountability. Having these in place sets up a safe environment where the child knows what is expected of him and places limits on what he can and cannot do. Children without discipline and no limits grow up having higher levels of low self-esteem as they become more dependent on others and feel they have less control as their expectations are unknown.

Kids without discipline grow up with the belief they can always get what they want and are not prepared to be disappointed and to hear the word “no." So upon entering junior high and suddenly having strict limits set upon them, these kids tend to have a lot of challenges with teachers and with peers. Discipline does not imply consequences are always in place. The use of rewards for doing things well is another way to teach limits and increase self-esteem. Earning rewards, on occasion, is a motivator to do well and to take the next step of seeking out ways to earn rewards. This teaches independence and will help him learn to care for himself and will provide hope for the future, eventually sending him to live on his own in the world.


Baldwin, S. A., & Hoffman, J. P (2002). The dynamics of self-esteem: A growth-curve analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31, 101-114.

Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., Robins, R. W., Moffitt, T. E., & Caspi, A. (2005). Low self-esteem is related to aggression, antisocial behavior, and delinquency. American Psychological Society, 16(4), 328-335.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, No 9 PH 288. (July 1990). Children of alcoholics: Are they different?

Nunley; K. The relationship of self-esteem and depression. Available at:

Phelan, T. W. (2003). 1-2-3-Magic: Effective discipline for children 2-12. Glen Ellyn, IL: Parentmagic, Inc.

Polce-Lynch, M., Myers, B. J., Kliewer, W., & Kilmartin, C. (2001). Adolescent self-esteem and gender: Exploring relations to sexual harassment, body image, media influence, and emotional expresssion. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 30, 225-244.

Slomkowski, C., Klien, R. G., & Mannuzza, S. (1995). ls self-esteem an important outcome in hyperactive children? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 23, 303-316.

This feature: Hendel, A. (2006). Restoring Self-Esteem in Adolescent Males. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 15(3), p.175

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