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Why Teens with Low Self-Esteem Become Depressed as Adults

When low self-esteem lingers it is important to take action

The link between self-esteem and depression has been established in many studies. But does depression cause low self-esteem or does low self-esteem cause depression?

Scientists have hypothesized two potential models to explain the link between self-esteem and depression:

The Vulnerability Model assumes that that having low self-esteem makes people less emotionally resilient and therefore more vulnerable to depression (you can read about the other ways the link between self-esteem and psychological vulnerability impacts our lives in my article Does Self-Esteem Funtion as an Emotional Immune System?).

The Scar Model assumes that having depression has a negative impact on how people feel about themselves which results in low self-esteem (that can linger even once the depression lifts).

In 2008, researchers from the University of California, Davis and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign tested these two theories by using data collected when subjects were between the ages of 15 and 21. The results indicated that having low self-esteem at ages 15 and 18 was a risk factor for developing depression by age 21. However, being depressed at ages 15 and 18 did not increase people’s chances of having low self-esteem at age 21. In other words, the findings supported the Vulnerability hypothesis not the Scar hypothesis--having low self-esteem made teenagers less emotionally resilient and more likely to develop depression as young adults.

Since self-esteem tends to fluctuate throughout our lives, scientists were curious about whether changes in self-esteem, specifically steady declines during adolescence, were also likely to lead to an increased risk of being depressed as adults. That is, would teens be at risk for depression if their self-esteem started out high but slowly declined? And if so, would those effects be evident further into their adult lives?

In a 2014 study, researchers from the University of Zurich and the University of California, Davis looked at data sets which spanned two decades. Self-esteem was assessed annually when teens were between the ages of 12 and 16 and then again two decades later at age 35. The researchers looked at both a global measure of self-esteem (how participants felt about themselves in general) and two measures of specific self-esteem that are highly important to adolescents—how they felt about their physical attractiveness and their academic competence.

The results replicated and expanded the findings of the 2008 study. Teens whose self-esteem was low were more likely to be depressed two decades later at age 35. This held true both for the teens’ global self-esteem and the more specific dimensions of how they felt about their physical attractiveness and academic competence. In addition, teenagers whose self-esteem was initially higher but then declined over the four years of measurement (from age 12 to 16) were also more likely to be depressed at age 35.

These findings indicate how important it is for parents of teenagers and teens themselves to pay attention to their self-esteem. Adolescence is a tumultuous time both emotionally and psychologically and many teenerss will struggle with low self-esteem at certain periods. However, when a teenager's self-esteem remains low for extended periods or shows a consistent decline, it would be wise to take action to increase their feelings of self-worth in order to reduce their risk of developing adult depression.

This is not to say parents should immediately drag their teens to psychotherapy, as there are ways to boost self-esteem that do not necessarily require the services of a mental health professional. Parents and teens would be advised to become informed about science-based self-help techniques for improving self-esteem such as self-affirmation exercises and self-compassion.

Those seeking a more in depth discussion of these techniques should also check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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