Dennis Smith was rushing to class at a Christian school, when he met one of his students lingering in the hallway.
"You're going to be late for class."
The student turned away, staring out a window. The young man was crying as he explained to Dennis, "The other guys say I'm not cool. They tell me that constantly."
The final bell rang as they walked toward the classroom and Dennis gave the student a parting word of encouragement. Dennis recalls how he felt after the encounter. "My heart just ached for him. Feeling like he didn't fit in was crushing this kid."
The social struggle
As both a youth associate serving in the schools and as a parent, Dennis has seen firsthand the emotional and social struggles of young people. "Self-esteem is a huge issue," he says. "The young man I met in the hallway — . . . his buddies had berated him for not being willing to use profanity and for never having had a sexual experience."
Whether they're preteens or nearly adults, peers can compromise the otherwise healthy self-esteem of a young man.
And guys are not alone in this struggle with self-esteem. Madison is a ninth-grader who enjoys the support of an affirming family and a healthy church. But Madison says even Christian teen girls feel the pressure to appear beautiful and perfect in every way. "For girls my age, everything is about body image," she says.
Beverly Odom is assistant director of a large student ministry in Georgia. She says, "Teen girls are constantly comparing themselves to each other and to images they see in the media. I often see the body obsession thing linger on into adulthood."
Whether positive or negative, realistic or skewed, the views our kids form of themselves during adolescence stay with them for years. Their self-esteem influences mental acuity, emotional health and behavior. Beverly says, "The pressure on most kids today is just unbelievable. The quest to be accepted goes on 24/7. Even Christian teens can lose sight of all that they have in Christ and can be pressured to do things that, deep down, they know are wrong."
How we can help
How do we help teens arrive at a God-honoring, balanced sense of self? "The kids we've seen flourish are the ones who accurately understand who they are in Christ," Beverly says. "They must draw their identity from Jesus. Parents should try and steer their kids away from allowing peer pressure, social posturing or the media to sour their perspective."
Christian teens have clear and tangible reasons to feel OK about who they are. Their self-worth should be grounded on, and bolstered by, the following realities:
- They are made in God's image.
- Jesus personally cares about them.
- They're worthy of unconditional love in your home.
- They can find a haven of acceptance among other believers.
- God has a plan for their life.
Although these truths can be a great source of encouragement, teens' emotions don't automatically "catch up" to the facts. Self-esteem issues often feed on irrationality. Teens must vigilantly pursue an honest view of themselves, their circumstances and the Lord. Feelings shouldn't be allowed to trump the facts.
A healthy self-esteem isn't grounded in one's strengths or abilities. Of the five points listed above, none leads teens to find their value by comparing themselves to others. Somebody will always come along who is prettier, wealthier, smarter or more athletic. That's inevitable.
Our teens' self-esteem must come from their knowledge of who Jesus is and from the assurance of His love and care. Parents have the privilege of emphasizing these truths as they model acceptance, forgiveness and love. These truths provide lasting purpose and clear direction — even to those traversing the heady and often challenging years of adolescence.