Are Low Self-Esteem and Depression the Same Thing?

How You Can Help Boost Your Child's Self-Esteem

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Given the association between low self-esteem and depression risk, people sometimes question whether or not depression and self-esteem are similar concepts. While low self-esteem is a risk factor for depression, this does not mean that the two are the same.

Both self-esteem and depression are thought to work on a sort of continuum, or scale, ranging from high to low self-esteem, and no depressive symptoms to debilitating depressive symptoms.

Overview

Self-esteem is the way you view yourself—flaws, positive characteristics, and all. It's developed by your experiences, thoughts, feelings, and relationships. If your child has low self-esteem, they will generally view themselves as highly flawed, think little of their own ideas and opinions, and worry that they are not good enough. They also might struggle to accept positive feedback and see everyone around them as better than they are.

Depression is much more than just feeling sad. It saps your energy, makes everyday activities difficult and interferes with your eating and sleeping patterns. Psychotherapy and/or medication are highly effective in treating depression. There are several types of depressive disorders, including major depression, persistent depressive disorder (PDD), psychotic depression, postpartum depression (PPD), and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

Similarities

Low self-esteem and depression share many of the same signs and symptoms, including:

  • Reckless behavior
  • Sexual risk-taking
  • Substance use
  • Social withdrawal and avoidance
  • Academic decline
  • Aggressive behavior (such as anger and violence)
  • Difficulty with interpersonal relationships
  • Self-consciousness

Differences

Despite the obvious similarities between low self-esteem and depression, research supports the view that they are, in fact, separate and different concepts.

According to experts, it is more likely that low self-esteem is a risk factor for depression in children, as opposed to being one and the same.

Another difference is that some kids will try to compensate for their low self-esteem by trying to please others and be accepted. In these cases, kids might excel in academics and behave well.

Most kids with significant depression, on the other hand, will suffer noticeable changes in behavior and academic performance as well as a loss of interest in social activities and appearance.

The warning signs of self-esteem issues include:

  • Avoiding new things and not taking up opportunities
  • Feeling unloved and unwanted
  • Blaming others for their own mistakes
  • Unable to deal with normal levels of frustration
  • Negative self-talk and comparisons to others
  • Fear of failure or embarrassment
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Low levels of motivation and interest
  • Can’t take compliments and shows mixed feelings of anxiety or stress

If your teen has depression, they may experience all of these signs of low self-esteem as well as the following red flags:

  • Anger
  • Irritability (that lasts longer than two weeks)
  • Inability to sleep (or sleeping too much)
  • Loss of appetite (or increased appetite)
  • Physical complaints (such as stomachache and headache)
  • Feeling tired despite ample sleep
  • Thoughts of suicide, talk of suicide, or suicide attempts

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Boost Your Child's Self-Esteem

There are some small but significant steps parents and caregivers can take to help build a healthy sense of self-esteem in their child:

  • Give them choices. Making their own decisions boosts confidence, but having too many decisions can be overwhelming, so do this judiciously. 
  • Let them know you love them. Do they seem to respond best to hugs, words of encouragement, a token of gratitude, a home-cooked meal, or time alone with you? Figure out what makes them feel loved the most and make sure you show your love frequently.
  • Encourage communication. Talking to them about what's going on in their life shows your child that they are valuable, interesting, and worthy of your time. 
  • Be a good listener. Even if you don't love what your child is telling you, try to remember how you felt when you were their age and respond to how you would have wanted an adult to respond to you. Putting yourself in your child's shoes can help you keep perspective and encourage them to come back with problems, questions, or just needing to vent.
  • Support and encourage their strengths. If they are good at basketball, be their biggest cheerleader. If they show an aptitude for music, get them those guitar lessons they have been wanting. 
  • Be kind. Children, even more so than adults, do not respond well to anger, criticism, and hostility. Choose your words carefully.

Preventing and Treating Depression

A child with low self-esteem may be at risk for a depressive episode, but their self-esteem concerns don't necessarily mean they are currently depressed. For both symptoms of self-esteem and depression, early identification is extremely important, especially for children. A proper diagnosis and preventative treatment can reduce the severity of a child's course of depression.

If your child shows signs of low self-esteem or depression, talk to their pediatrician or other mental health professionals for an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment options. While many parents fear heavy-duty medication, depression treatment for children most often involves talk therapy, or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), to help them identify and change unhealthy thought patterns that contribute to poor self-esteem and depression.

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