Two kids hugging
Photo: Annie Spratt


We are in a crisis of low self-esteem – is kindness the key?

Young people are following an unhappy path towards serious mental health conditions, says Sali Hughes. Perhaps it’s time for a brand new approach

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By Sali Hughes on

According to the NHS, young Britons are in a crisis of self-esteem. Their recent survey on the high levels of mental distress among adolescents showed that, since 2007, there’s been a 68 per cent rise in hospital admissions among girls under 17 years old, with self-harming and “low self-esteem” rising at an alarming rate. Almost a quarter of all 14-year-old girls could legitimately be diagnosed as depressed, while depression in boys has almost doubled in the last decade. Young people are feeling bad about themselves – unhappy, unworthy, inferior and, in many cases, this has led them down a path towards serious mental health conditions.

The reasons for this are doubtless numerous, nuanced and complex. But, as the typically anxious mother of a very-soon-to-be teenager, I zoomed in on the notion of low self-esteem, as I have done since my first antenatal scan. Later, having read acres of pop psychology articles and several guilt-inducing and terror-raising self-help books on parenting, I spent early motherhood trying to avoid the disease of low self-esteem, doing what I suspected the parents of my own generation had failed to. So keen was I to have children with healthy self-esteem that I attempted to bolster my two sons whenever I felt their confidence might wane or take a knock. Scribbly drawings were beautiful; screechy carol-singing was angelic; interminable and nonsensical stories were interesting and engaging. I told them they were smart, kind, funny – and I meant it entirely. Like most modern parents, I felt that a child who didn’t feel great about himself would be a fate almost worse than death. Our children would always understand their immense value and thrive happily as a result.

While self-esteem is about valuing where you excel, self-compassion is about giving yourself a break where you fall short, and choosing to shrug off the areas where you’re a bit crap or simply unremarkable

Except the stats suggest that they’re not. Mine was the veritable sunshine generation by comparison. Our feelgood language simply isn’t translating into a sense of wellbeing and self-confidence. If verbally bolstering self-esteem works, then why are girls who spend their lives being gushed over on Instagram and Snapchat feeling so wretched about themselves? When we know GCSE grades have been inflated over time, why do so many straight-A students feel worse than their C-list predecessors? Why did my child say things like, “I’m rubbish at everything,” in response to my constantly telling him the opposite, while I, with not a single qualification and almost zero compliments (or criticisms) from my parents, have always felt broadly confident in my abilities? Innate difference in our personalities aside, I wondered if it was because, while I was trying to raise my sons’ self-esteem, I was focusing on the wrong thing. What I should have been teaching them instead is self-compassion.

While self-esteem is about valuing where you excel, self-compassion is about giving yourself a break where you fall short, and choosing to shrug off the areas where you’re a bit crap or simply unremarkable. It’s about thinking that good enough is good enough, and even no good at all is generally manageable in the long run. It’s in removing the pressure built into the modern myth of “If you work hard enough and want something enough, you can achieve anything”, and acknowledging instead that you simply can’t do anything and everything. When my skinny, tiny eldest son says he hates rugby, I no longer tell him he’s better at it than he thinks, only that he has to get through it until the day he can drop it from his timetable, just as I constantly have to do things I’m no good at and don’t enjoy even a bit. I don’t tell him to shoot for an A in Maths when we both know it’s more useful to scrape the C he needs. He’s really not much of a sportsman and that’s OK, but he is a good friend and that’s vital. To try to convince ourselves or others that we’re special in multiple areas is futile and can only lead to disappointment and distrust – praise everything and you effectively praise nothing. I’d sooner be sparing and wholly sincere in my compliments to my loved ones and myself, and actually stand a chance of being believed. It’s more considerate to accept where someone will never be much cop, letting them know that it’s no hindrance to their overall success nor a stain on their record, and infinitely more empowering.

Whereas the pursuit of self-esteem is addictive, its stakes rising and goalposts moving over time (why did this selfie get only 30 likes when the last got 50?), self-compassion is a kindness to oneself, a reality check, a command to slow down, chill out and build a life from the tools you have. It’s the only sane reaction to the things we can’t change, the talents and looks we weren’t born with, the skills we’ve tried and failed to acquire, leaving us space to work on the really big stuff. Because the most important thing to be good at isn’t the euphonium, algebra or Irish dancing, it’s being a person – empathetic, socially responsible, kind to others and ourselves. Here, we shouldn’t pull punches. If we, a child or a friend is excelling or falling short in those areas, we do no favours in keeping quiet.


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Photo: Annie Spratt
Tagged in:
Mental Health
self esteem

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