Progress Is Better Than Perfection: Practical Ways to Boost Teen Self-Esteem

By Lisa Schab, LCSW, author of The Self-Esteem Habit for Teens

Today’s teens are often labeled as narcissistic and lazy, yet show ever-increasing levels of anxiety and depression. One way we can help is by bringing them compassion, strong coping skills, and the expectation that they can learn to take responsibility. Empowering teens to take charge of their lives, their futures, and their emotional health begins by setting the goal for healthy self-esteem, which paints a picture of emotional maturity, not entitlement. Healthy self-esteem encompasses:

  • Knowing and accepting yourself at the deepest level, with all your strengths and flaws

  • Understanding your true equality to others and their equality to you

  • Having compassion for both yourself and others

  • Having the strength to stand up for your own beliefs while at the same time tolerating differences and respecting the rights of others

  • Acting with integrity and self-discipline

  • Using healthy coping skills to handle life’s challenges

  • Being able to both accept your mistakes and celebrate your strengths

  • Taking responsibility for your own health and happiness

Setting out to do a self-esteem overhaul is perhaps too daunting for a new year’s goal, but we can educate teens about the power they have over their own self-confidence. We can also give them a strong body of simple, practical ways to work on it. This makes the goal realistic, achievable, and prevents overwhelm—all necessary components for a teen to succeed, whether they’re dealing with anxiety, depression, relationships, academics, or any other challenge.

Teens may believe their self-esteem is an all-pervasive condition that they’re stuck with. But we can reframe self-esteem as a pattern of thoughts and actions that have become a habit. And since good habits are learned, bad habits or ones that don’t serve us can be unlearned and reformed.

When teens understand their self-esteem is a product of their own thinking patterns and that neurological habits can be changed with simple practice and repetition, they become empowered to take charge of their lives and begin taking the steps that will create that overhaul.

We help teens build healthy self-esteem by:

Listening empathically. Whether or not we agree with what they’re saying, listening closely and intently with compassion and non-judgement help the teen to feel valued.

Responding with the same approach. When a teen says, “I can’t stand being me,” remarks like, “Oh, but you’re such a great person,” fall on deaf ears if the teen themselves don’t believe it. We better help them feel heard and understood when we begin with a reply like, “That must feel awful; tell me what it’s like.”

Providing hope. Explaining that thoughts create self-esteem and neuroscience confirms our brains are “plastic” (ever capable of change) creates hope for the teen that they are not stuck with their current thoughts and feelings. Explaining that every time they even question a negative thought about themselves, their brain cells begin to form new patterns, gives them the hope that increased self-confidence is a realistic goal.

Offering straightforward, viable techniques for realistic and measurable goal-setting. The practice of small, research-based steps, as simple as smiling!, on a daily basis creates powerful and true change over time. “Give a friendly smile to three people,” “Put a positive affirmation on my phone,” “List four things I’m grateful for before getting out of bed in the morning,” or “Classify my thought as a fact or a feeling,” are all under-five-minute concrete ways to begin fostering a shift to mature self-confidence.

Encouraging independent growth through: providing opportunities for independent decision-making and exploration of talents and interests; giving increasing responsibility; setting healthy boundaries and limits with the expectation that they will be respected. When teens experience both negative and positive consequences of their actions, they learn to be the captains of their own ship.

Helping the teen focus on progress instead of perfection. Teach the value of celebrating each positive step taken, whether it worked well or not. Plan reevaluation and trying again as part of the process. When the goal is to move forward versus achieve perfection, it’s more realistically met.


Lisa M. Schab, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with a private counseling practice in the greater Chicago area. She is the author of 16 self-help books including The Self-Esteem Habit for Teens, where you can find more practical ways to build teen confidence.

Sign Up for Our Email List

New Harbinger is committed to protecting your privacy. It's easy to unsubscribe at any time.

Recent Posts

Quick Tips for Therapists