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Teasing out factors in teen self-esteem

By Katherine Rowe

Team sports seem to be a plus in teen self-esteem.

As almost everyone who has survived their teens knows, self-esteem can fluctuate widely during adolescence. Low self-esteem during this crucial period of development can contribute to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, destructive behaviors, and substance abuse.

Hoping to tease out some of the potential causes of low self-esteem among teens, researchers in DMS's Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry sifted through the responses from a large national survey. They identified a number of factors associated with low self-esteem and published their findings in the journal Academic Pediatrics.

"We undertook this analysis to better understand how self-esteem in adolescents is affected by a number of modifiable risk factors, since self-esteem is an important determinant of risk behavior," says Auden McClure, M.D., one of the study authors.

Size: Previous such studies have yielded interesting results, but many have had small sample sizes and looked at a limited number of variables. This one used a large, representative national sample of 6,522 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 16. All were interviewed by phone.

The self-esteem measure was a composite of three survey items, including responses to statements such as "I like myself the way I am." Questions about demographics, social habits, sensation-seeking behavior, and school performance were also included. Some questions were addressed to the adolescents and some (regarding income, for example) to their parents or guardians. Respondents could use the telephone touch pad to answer sensitive questions, such as about alcohol use, to maximize honest answers.

Some factors are potentially modifiable and some aren't.

Age: The risk factors identified by the survey can be divided into those that are potentially modifiable and those that aren't. Factors such as age and race, for example, were shown to be important. Older respondents tended to have lower self-esteem, while black respondents (especially girls) had higher self-esteem on average than whites or Hispanics. Higher household income and increased parental education were also associated with higher self-esteem.

But a number of factors associated with lower self-esteem can be modified, including being overweight or obese and watching a lot of television. Participating in team sports and doing well in school seemed to provide some protection from low self-esteem. Parenting style was also a factor; adolescents who felt their parents were attentive and set boundaries were less likely to suffer poor self-esteem.

Risk: The researchers note that bolstering self-esteem among adolescents by addressing these risk factors might help prevent more serious health and social problems later in life—one of the goals of their study. "As a pediatrician and researcher, I am always interested in how we can translate findings into practical advice for clinicians and families," McClure says.

As with many health issues, later problems could well be mitigated by a focus on prevention.

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