Does Your Child Have Low Self-Esteem or Depression?

How You Can Recognize the Signs

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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.


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 others as better than they are.

Depression is much more than just feeling sad. It saps your energy, makes everyday activities difficult, and interferes with eating and sleeping patterns. Psychotherapy and/or medication are 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). 


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

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


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

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

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

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 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.

Boosting 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:

  • 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.
  • Be kind. Children, even more so than adults, do not respond well to anger, criticism, and hostility. Choose your words carefully.
  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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. 

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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.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Depression.

  3. Nguyen DT, Wright EP, Dedding C, Pham TT, Bunders J. Low self-esteem and its association with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation in Vietnamese secondary school students: a cross-sectional study. Front Psychiatry. 2019;10:698. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00698

  4. Lyness D. Your child's self-esteem. Nemours Foundation.

  5. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Men and Depression.

  6. Hosogi M, Okada A, Fujii C, Noguchi K, et. al. Importance and usefulness of evaluating self-esteem in childrenBioPsychoSocial Medicine. 2012;6:9. doi:10.1186/1751-0759-6-9

By Lauren DiMaria
Lauren DiMaria is a member of the Society of Clinical Research Associates and childhood psychology expert.