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Self-Esteem and Self-Image are issues that all youth have to address. During the teenage years, the primary developmental task for youth is discovering their identity, their life purpose, their mission in this world. Youth are asking the question, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”

One step to helping your church youth deal with these critical questions is in understanding some of the primary issues that influence a young person’s self-esteem or self-image.

Here are seven primary factors that effect a youth’s self-image.

1. Age that Youth Physically Mature
Youth progress to different stages of maturity at different speeds. Guys tend to be a little behind the girls in maturity, but every youth is different and growing and maturing at a different rate. In relation to their peers, there will always be some youth that are a little behind their peers and some that are a little ahead. Interestingly this is often tied to their physical maturity. If they mature physically earlier than their peers, because they look more like adults, people often treat them more like adults and these youth tend to generally develop a fairly positive self-image. Youth who mature physically a little later than their peers, still look more like children and are treated by adults as children. These youth who mature a little later often feel misunderstood and more likely to have negative self image and maladjusted behavior.

Implications and Ideas for Youth Ministry
Don’t treat youth differently based on physical maturity. Treat everyone of a specific age group the same as mush as possible, both in leadership responsibilities as well as in other interactions. Don’t single out those who are a little behind in physical maturity, not give all the leadership and responsibilities to those who are more mature.

2. Physical Appearance
Youth are very peer conscious. They are always comparing themselves to their peers. While some may strive to be different, most prefer to hide in the crowd, to blend in with their peers. For most youth, If they look different from their peers they see themselves as being strange and potentially inferior. This is especially true for the primary sexual characteristics such as body hair, breast development in the girls and muscle and genital development in the guys. Even if they are more attractive because of their male physique or feminine curves it can still lead to a poor self-image simply because they see themselves as different from their peers. Physical differences such as a large nose, or bigger than usual ears or even being too thin or simply a little bigger than their peers can lead to inferiority issues. When it is a physical defect or even simple things like acne or rashes it can still have a negative impact on their self-image. The more embarrassing or unusual he difference, the greater the impact.

Implications and Ideas for Youth Ministry
Do not draw attention to physical differences among youth, especially if it is something that could lead to embarrassment of any kind. Try to avoid activities that highlight the differences and always be affirming to youth regarding their appearance.

3. Sex-Appropriateness
Sex-appropriate characteristics are essential for a healthy self-esteem among youth. This includes appearance, interests, and behavior. Guys that appear a little more effeminate and girls that appear too masculine tend to have problems in self-estem. Youth have nicknames for them such as a “sissy” for a less masculine guy and “tom-boy” for a less feminine girl. Some youth have more trouble forming a healthy self-image if they aspire to occupations that tend to be dominated by the opposite sex. For example, hair dressers are often seen as a woman’s job and construction work is often seen as a man’s job. Finally there might be specific mannerisms and interests that again are commonly associated with the opposite sex. These can also be hurdles for them to overcome in developing a positive self-image.

Implications and Ideas for Youth Ministry
Try not to reinforce stereotypes for jobs and behaviors. Avoid masculine / feminine comparisons and instead treat everyone as brothers and sisters in Christ. Always affirm youth for who they are and for what they do as an individual rather than as simply a guy or a girl. Always try to include sports and activities that balance out the need for both guys and girls on each team. Always try to have a variety of positive role models serving within your youth ministry team including singles, couples, and people from a variety of occupations and walks of life.

4. Names and Nicknames
Youth are sensitive and embarrassed if their peers judge a nickname unfavorably or if they are given nicknames that are meant or even implies ridicule. Nicknames can often stick with a person for life.

Implications and Ideas for Youth Ministry
Nicknames and labels are to be avoided at all costs as they tend to highlight the negative. If you hear a youth using negative labels or nicknames, encourage them to use more positive ones. Set the example yourself by using positive labels that affirm the positive qualities in each youth.

5. Family Relationships
Teens who have very close relationships with a particular family member will identify most closely
with this person. As such, they tend to desire similar personality traits. This can be positive or negative. They say that if you want to know how a guy will treat his wife, look at how he treats his mother. If you want to know how a girl will treat a future husband, look at how they treat their father. At the same time, this desire to be like the most-liked parent can be detrimental if it goes over the line of causing sexually ambiguous behavior and characteristics. Lack of positive family relationships and positive role models can also cause problems for youth regarding their self-image.

Implications and Ideas for Youth Ministry
Have a variety of role models serving on your youth ministry team. Singles, dating couples, young couples, couples with children, couples with teens, and couples that have been married for a long time all help youth in affirming their own identities and coming to a positive self-image. Provide opportunities for youth to form significant bonds with others outside their immediate family. This gives them a broader perspective on things to appreciate in their own families as well as helps them to have a variety of models in choosing how they will develop their own relationships and their own identity in those relationships.

6. Peers
Peers place a primary role in the identity formation of youth. During the teen years they start looking outside the immediately family for keys to their own identity. Peers influence a youth’s personality in two primary ways. First, what a youth believes about himself is often a reflection of what he perceives that his peers believe about him. Second, a youth is often under a lot of pressure to conform to the personality traits and behavior that is approved by his peers.

Implications and Ideas for Youth Ministry
Try to create an environment with yourself, your volunteers and the rest of the youth that is affirming and supportive for the youth. While peer pressure can be negative, it can also be very positive. Affirm youth as leaders and who are good role models. Help to mentor those who need a little more help. Make affirmations and recognition a regular part of everything you do in youth ministry. And when possible, without embarrassing the youth, make that recognition public to the rest of the youth.

7. Level of Aspiration
Everyone has dreams and goals and aspirations. Youth are often asking the question, “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose in life?” “What is the meaning behind my existence?” But this is also a tricky area when it comes to youth with fragile self-esteem. They need to have big dreams and goals to drive them forward, but if the dreams are too big they can experience failure and great disappointment. Mistakes and failures, if not handled just right can lead to anxiety and feelings that they are not good enough or even the thought that “I am a failure.” At the same expectation that are too low leads to mediocrity and become without purpose, wandering through life without direction. It has been said that the bigger our dreams, the bigger we become. But also has a greater risk of failure. We need to help youth to be realistic in their aspirations, but at the same time not to be complacent to live only in their comfort zone. Youth who are realistic about his or her abilities will gain greater self-confidence with each success and, with it, a better self-concept.

Implications and Ideas for Youth Ministry
Always challenge youth to dream big but also be realistic dreams. Youth need champions in the youth ministry, people who will cheer them on in their dreams and support them and encourage them in both success and in failure.

By the way, this is not only useful for youth, but it’s great information for parents of youth to consider as well.


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