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Children, young people and families, Education, Mental health

Higher self-esteem benefits adolescents' wellbeing

Self-esteem at age 11 was linked to better subjective well-being at 14 in UK cohort study.

07 December 2022

By Emily Reynolds

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the cost of living crisis looms, more young people than ever are experiencing poor wellbeing. In this context, researchers continue to look for factors that can predict and protect against declines in wellbeing.

Higher self-esteem has been linked to better wellbeing - but the direction of this effect is not really clear, particularly in our teen years. Now a new study, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, finds that higher self-esteem in early adolescence enhances subjective wellbeing a few years later, suggesting that interventions targeting self-esteem could benefit young people.

Data was taken from the Millennium Cohort Study, a longitudinal study that has followed nearly 20,000 young people from their birth. This study focused on the fifth and sixth waves, on 11,231 young people aged 11 and 14.

In both waves of the study, participants answered questions on subjective wellbeing, indicating their satisfaction with schoolwork, school in general, their appearance, family, friends, and life as a whole on a seven point scale. They also answered questions about self-esteem, indicating how much they agreed with statements such as “I feel that I am a person of worth” or “I do not feel I have much to be proud of”.

In their analysis, the team also controlled for other variables which might influence wellbeing or self-esteem. These included gender and socioeconomic background, as well as the children’s experience of bullying, cyberbullying, and feelings of safety.

The results showed that subjective wellbeing declined significantly in early adolescence, between the ages of 11 and 14. This was partly due to a drop in satisfaction in school and schoolwork. The researchers suggest that the transition phase between primary and secondary education potentially has a negative impact on wellbeing.

The decrease in wellbeing was also due to a drop in satisfaction with friends. Previous research has found that peer relationships can encourage the development of a strong self-identity and positive wellbeing in young people, but early adolescence can also be a time when more negative social relationships develop. Consistent with this idea, the team found that bullying and cyberbullying were linked to decreases in wellbeing. Wellbeing proved to be extremely unstable: teenagers were very satisfied aged 11 and very unsatisfied aged 14.

The team also found children’s self-esteem at the first wave predicted their wellbeing at the second wave. However, the reverse wasn’t true: early wellbeing did not predict later self-esteem. In other words, self-esteem plays an important role in wellbeing, but wellbeing does not seem to have as much of an impact on self-esteem. Thus, self-esteem may be an important protective factor against negative wellbeing.

The results show that a number of factors are related to young people’s wellbeing: the transition to new educational environments, social factors, bullying, and self-esteem. Looking at targeted interventions for each of these could prove useful, especially if taking place between 11 and 14 when wellbeing dropped so significantly.

What could a targeted intervention look like for children’s self-esteem? The researchers suggest that teachers could use more praise or make students more aware of their own self-worth. Some research has suggested that exercise can also help; others have found mindfulness to be a useful boost to self-esteem; and cognitive behavioural therapy techniques have also had good results. Research could explore these, and other, interventions.