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Most educators and treatment professionals agree that low self esteem is rampant among adolescents and is linked to numerous other issues such as underachievement, learning disabilities, poor self-care, depression and even violence. But while these issues may be clearly linked, it’s not always clear which causes which. Is low self esteem a cause of other problems or an effect of those problems? Recent studies indicate that low self-esteem is often both.

While one may correctly assume, for instance, that being overweight impacts self esteem, a 2009 study from King’s College of London shows that the reverse seems to be true as well. Childhood emotional difficulties, including low self esteem, seem to increase the likelihood of adulthood obesity. With this knowledge, it’s easy to see how low-self esteem can be a vicious cycle. Another recent study showed that many teens use violence to increase their social standing and deal with a poor self image. Among teenage girls, this behavior often takes the form of relational violence—i.e. non-physical behaviors calculated to isolate or ostracize the victim. A seperate 2010 study showed that being the victim of this kind of violence can lead to lower self-esteem. Together, these studies indicate that, on the one hand, low self-esteem drives certain external behaviors and, on the other hand, certain external behaviors and experiences cause or exacerbate low self-esteem.

But while the causes and symptoms of low self esteem are complex and intertwined, research consistently points to high quality adult and peer relationships as the single best solution for low self esteem. Students with supportive adult and peer relationships tend to have better self esteem. Students with healthy self esteem are less likely to engage in compensatory behaviors such as eating disorders, violence or isolation—behaviors that, in turn, can further degrade self esteem.

So if your child is suffering from low self-esteem, providing an environment that maximizes high-quality peer and adult relationships may be the best thing you can do. The following seven strategies can help you maximize your child’s chances of developing positive, self-esteem boosting relationships:

  1. Teams and Clubs: Sports teams and club involvement—especially in areas of interest to your teen—can create additional opportunities for positive adult and peer relationships.
  2. Family Therapy: Often relationships at home can be improved greatly, leading to increased self-esteem. Family therapy can help all family members better understand and improve their relationships with each other.
  3. Small Classrooms: Selecting a school with small classrooms maximizes the opportunity you’re your child to benefit from teacher support and close peer relationships.
  4. Mentor: Providing your child with a mentor can create another opportunity for a non-judging, positive adult relationship
  5. Individual Therapy: Many young people find sharing difficult unless they trust that what they share will be kept confidential. A good therapist can help create a safe, supportive relational context for sharing and connection.
  6. Relationships with Teachers: Proactively forging positive relationships with your child’s teachers, mentor, therapist, and other caregivers may help foster increased support and attention for your child.
  7. Autonomy: Studies indicate that a sense of connection should be balanced with a sense of autonomy. Seek out an environment in which adult and peer relationships are close and supportive, not controlling or smothering.