Writing on Identity, Values Boosts Teen Self-Esteem

Providing teenagers opportunities to affirm positive aspects of their identities can help bolster their self-esteem over time and ease transitions to high school, new Cornell psychology research finds.

In a study involving nearly 400 ninth graders, students who completed short essays every few months about identities or values important to them reported stable or even improved self-esteem throughout the year, on average. Peers who didn't complete the self-affirmation exercises saw average self-esteem drop significantly - a common phenomenon when starting high school.

The results suggest that in addition to values-based affirmations, which have been studied more extensively, identity-based affirmations could be beneficial at a time when teens are forging and becoming more aware of their identities, said Adam Hoffman, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and College of Human Ecology.

"Self-esteem is derived from our social identities in some ways, and teens are starting to be shaped by their social identities in adolescence," Hoffman said. "If we can encourage explicit socialization of their identity and frame it in a positive light, we may see better outcomes in mental health and overall well-being."

Hoffman is a co-author of "The Promise of an Identity-Based Self-Affirmation Intervention in Protecting Against Self-Esteem Declines at the High School Transition," published July 8 in Developmental Psychology, with Hannah Schacter, assistant professor of psychology at Wayne State University.

Though strong self-esteem is linked to better health and academic performance, it is known to stagnate or decline among adolescents starting high school. At that age, Hoffman said, students are developing a more complex and nuanced sense of self, while navigating new social relationships and being confronted with frequent opportunities to see how they measure up, such as through grades and athletics.

"Adolescents' social cognition enables them to have more realistic self-perceptions and understandings of their abilities, and there are many ways to assess themselves in comparison with others," Hoffman said. "We were interested in finding ways to help mitigate those normatively occurring dips that we see in self-esteem."

Although prior research has focused how self-affirmations influence academic outcomes, Hoffman said, the new study is among the first to investigate their effects on psychological well-being, specifically self-esteem. Research to date also has overwhelmingly tested more traditional affirmations of values.

To test the benefits of an intervention affirming identities, the researchers recruited a diverse sample of 388 students from 38 schools in Michigan, averaging 14 years old. Participants completed up to five self-esteem assessments during ninth and tenth grade. Starting in the fall of 2020, as ninth graders, they were randomly assigned to one of three groups that completed a series of three writing exercises.

Responding to prompts every few months, participants in one group explained what they liked about an identity, selected from race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, weight, immigrant status, language, disability, socioeconomic status or "other." Another group focused on a value they considered important, such as creativity or sense of humor. And a control group wrote about that day's morning routine.

The results showed self-esteem held steady for the first two groups, but declined over time for the control group, suggesting that the interventions had a "large effect" on average. That was particularly notable since the study took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, when students and adults were experiencing higher levels of stress, though the authors said additional research should be done in more normal conditions.

The scholars had expected to identity-based affirmations to bolster self-esteem the most. But they noted that teens are concurrently developing both identities and values that could protect them when facing increasing academic demands, difficulty with friends or family, or instances of discrimination.

"Perhaps it is not surprising that having repeated opportunities to positively reflect on anything of personal significance to the self - whether that be personal values or social identities - may offer a method for preserving a sense of self-worth," the authors wrote.

Schools, counselors and parents could provide those opportunities with minimal disruption, the scholars said, to help teens feel better about themselves as they transition to high school.

"This is something that could be done in an English class in 10 minutes, a couple of times a year, and it's super-easy and relevant for kids," Hoffman said. "Any type of affirmation intervention, whether it's based on their values or identity, is showing to help with self-esteem."

The research was supported by grants from the Society for Research in Child Development and Wayne State University.

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) might be of the point-in-time nature, and edited for clarity, style and length. Mirage.News does not take institutional positions or sides, and all views, positions, and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s).View in full here.