Young people with a positive, secure and integrated sense of themselves have positive self-esteem (they feel valued and worthwhile) and an established sense of self-efficacy (they have a sense of their own personal power and believe that they can achieve). They have accepted and adjusted to the physical and sexual changes of puberty. They have a healthy, developing sense of independence and the ability to make appropriate decisions and accept their consequences.

People search for their identity throughout life; however, the quest for identity and the need to understand and define social roles are crucially important during adolescence.

This emphasis on self-identity is partly due to the physical, sexual, emotional and intellectual changes that accompany puberty. Increased levels of estrogen in girls and testosterone in boys leads to the onset of secondary sex characteristics, including menstruation in girls (average age is 12). In both sexes, sexual maturity leads to changes in body shape and structure, for example, increased muscle mass in boys and increased fat in girls, voice changes, organ changes, additional body hair and (the dreaded) acne. Physical development in adolescence is often rapid and uneven, leading to awkwardness. Boys and girls who mature later or earlier than their peers can feel different and not ready to handle changes associated with their developing sexuality.

Family and socioeconomic influences, gender and culture all exert an influence on identity development. It is difficult for adolescents to discover their uniqueness under constant pressure from peers and parents to conform to their expectations. At the same time, young teens need and want direction, support and rational boundaries from the significant adults in their lives.

To develop a positive, secure and integrated sense of who they are, young people need opportunities to make choices, to try out different activities and roles, and to interact with a broad range of people, including adults outside the home and peers of both sexes. They also need an environment they can predict – with well defined, appropriate limits, and relationships with people who are dedicated to their well-being.

Strategies that promote a positive, secure and integrated self-identity help young people develop:

  • positive self-esteem (feeling valued and worthwhile)
  • a sense of self-efficacy (a sense of personal power and a belief that they can achieve)
  • an acceptance of the physical and sexual changes of puberty (and a recognition of sexual identity)
  • a healthy, age-appropriate sense of personal autonomy and independence.

Gender and culture are important influences on identity formation. Adolescents growing up in immigrant, refugee or indigenous families may experience a crisis in identity due to a lack of continuity with past traditions. Sometimes, immigrant parents fear or resent their teenager's assimilation with Canadian ways; this can become a source of continuing conflict. Young people need to understand and be involved in their culture of origin while still being free to go through many of the same experiences as their peers.

The 1992 report on the Health of Canada’s Youth and numerous studies have shown that adolescent girls are more likely to have lower levels of self-esteem than adolescent boys. (249) One large study of 3,000 children found that at age nine, a majority of girls are confident and assertive, and feel positive about themselves. By the time they reach high school, however, fewer than one-third of them feel this way says the American Association of University Women.

Girls are more likely to exhibit emotional distress than boys. Between the ages of four and seven, 3 percent of girls are "worried"; this increases to 8 percent between ages eight and 11. (93) Girls are more likely to attempt suicide but fail, while boys are more likely to succeed at committing suicide. Boys are more likely to drop out or be expelled from school. (277)

Percentage of Canadian students who say...
Male %
Female %
I have trouble making decisions myself
I like myself
I have confidence in myself
I often wish I were someone else
I would change how I look if I could
I need to lose weight
I need to gain weight
Source: The Health of Canada’s Youth, 1992. (246)

The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Children and Youth showed clearly that poor children who are well parented do as well or better than middle class or wealthy children who are poorly parented. Thus, the quality of parenting influences young people's development and behaviour more than family income per se. However, poverty has a strong indirect effect in that it places the parents under stress. This aggravates individual and psychological problems of the parents and interpersonal problems within the family. Problems such as substance abuse, parental distress and mental illness, conflict and violence (that may be provoked or made worse by poverty), have a strong influence on the development of psychiatric disorders in children and youth. The effect of multiple risk factors is cumulative and more than just the sum of individual risks. (271, 194, 244, 4, 245, 110)

It is true that children from poor families typically face increased barriers and stresses that make it difficult to develop a positive sense of self. It is, however, more likely deprivations such as homelessness, neglect or family violence — which may or may not coexist with poverty — undermine competence and do the most damage to self-esteem. (244)

Influences on the positive outcome: Age-appropriate social skills

Supportive home environment

Support of significant others


Supportive learning and living environments


Note: These influences are also listed in the drop-down list above. Please use this menu to navigate within this page.

Supportive home environment

Adults in a parenting role have a significant impact on the development of self-identity and self-esteem in childhood and adolescence. Children who grow up in families that can and do voice their feelings and talk openly about their emotions are better able to define and describe their own feelings. Parental support, interest and involvement is particularly important. When parents are uninvolved, children are more likely to develop negative self-images. Indeed, indifference has been found to be more damaging than physical punishment or rejection. (247)

In homes where parents provide affection, respect, challenge, opportunities for success and freedom to make choices within clearly defined limits, children and adolescents are likely to develop positive feelings of self-worth and competence. In homes that lack empathy, communication and trust or where children experience neglect, unresolved conflict or abuse, they are deprived of their most important source of praise and comfort. They are likely to feel unimportant and negative about themselves. This makes it difficult to establish a positive self-identity in adolescence.

One of the most difficult challenges for the parents of preteens and young teens is the matter of discipline. Part of an adolescent’s quest for independence is challenging limits, experimenting and arguing with parents. Parents need to allow age-appropriate freedoms to their children while applying discipline techniques that are firm but not coercive, without bullying or shaming the child. Despite adolescent’s complaints, they know in their hearts that imposing reasonable limits is another way of expressing care and concern. For some helpful reading on living with adolescents, see recommended reading for parents.

Helping children adjust to the physical changes of puberty is also important. Children who mature later than their peers can feel different and inferior. Children who mature earlier than their peers may be exposed to social and sexual situations that they are not yet ready to handle. Preoccupations about body weight and size can lead to serious problems such as inadequate nutrition and eating disorders.

Children experiencing a growth spurt need access to healthy nutritious foods, opportunities for enjoyable physical activity, information about the sexual changes they are undergoing and a listening ear for the feelings that accompany these changes.


Help your children feel secure by providing a safe home, building trust, managing conflict and establishing well-defined limits. (248)

  • Establish limits or boundaries of acceptability. These may be related to the treatment of others, the value of honesty, respect for other’s property, and expectations for completing chores, homework, etc.

  • Acknowledge feelings of anxiety in times of family crisis, for example, separation or divorce. Encourage your children to talk about their feelings and reassure them that they are loved. Seek help for yourself and your children if problems persist.

  • Seek help immediately if you or your children are exposed to family violence and/or abuse.

Help your children build a strong, positive sense of self-esteem.

  • Encourage and praise them often. Don't dwell on negatives; acknowledge the positives.

  • Recognize their strengths and efforts.

  • Show affection, love and respect.

  • Encourage realistic self-evaluation.

  • Provide opportunities and support for participation in sport, physical activity and skill-building activities. These activities have been shown to have a positive effect on self-esteem. (252)

  • Avoid gender-stereotyping and comments such as "don’t act like a girl!"

Help your children develop a sense of belonging. (248)

  • If depression or other problems interfere with your ability to be involved with your children, seek help.

  • Enjoy family activities together — vacations, picnics, swimming, family rituals and work projects you do together.

  • Be a good role model. Be tolerant and accepting of other people. Don’t allow family members to discriminate against others on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity or sexual preference.

  • Encourage children to build relationships with peers and other trustworthy adults.

  • Encourage children to join groups at school, places of worship and in the community.

  • Encourage children to participate in activities related to their language and culture of origin and to learn about cultural traditions.

  • Provide opportunities and support for participation in sport, recreation and group physical activities.

Help your children develop a sense of personal competence.

  • Be involved in your children’s school and encourage learning activities at home. Contact your local home and school association for help. They may have a parent resource kit project designed to help parents assist with their children's schooling.

  • Set reasonable, age-appropriate expectations for behaviour and achievement. Involve young teens in helping to define these expectations.

  • Help your children develop short-term, achievable goals and praise them when they succeed.

  • Provide advice but do not tell your children exactly how to pursue a set goal.

  • Help your children learn to deal with stress and to feel in control of their emotions when they are under pressure.

Find a balance between demanding and giving.

  • Do not provide unconditional acceptance. This portrays the message "It’s okay for you to behave however you want. No matter how you behave, you are just as acceptable." This sets a child up for social failure outside the home since other children and adults will not be as unconditionally accepting.

  • Be willing to give as much as you demand.

  • Use discipline that is firm but not coercive – do not bully or shame children or withhold age-appropriate freedoms. Harsh, coercive parenting is associated with antisocial behaviour, academic problems, peer rejection and depression. (247)

  • Confront conflicts directly and use negotiation to resolve them.

Help your children adjust to the physical and sexual changes of puberty.

  • Talk with your children about the physical and sexual changes of puberty. Listen to their concerns and answer their questions honestly.

  • Reassure children who mature later than their peers that this is normal and that they will catch up soon. Do not belittle their concerns about this.

  • Talk with children who mature early and prepare them for encounters related to their developing sexuality. For example, girls and boys who mature early tend to date earlier than their peers.

  • Do not emphasize weight or physical appearance. Compliment your children on other accomplishments.

  • Provide healthy food choices and information about healthy eating but let teens decide what they eat (within limits).

  • Encourage your teens to accept their bodies and to be physically active.

  • Teach your children to respect and be sensitive to the physical and emotional changes occurring in peers of the opposite sex.

  • Talk with preteens about sexual identity and the need to respect individual sexual preferences.

  • Provide opportunities for parents to be involved in their children’s schools.

  • Give parents suggestions for learning activities that they can do at home with their children.

  • Sponsor parent groups and events where parents can learn about normal changes in adolescence, how to recognize signs of distress and how to support the development of positive self-esteem.

  • Make sure that every child is known to at least one adult in the school.


  • Help young parents learn to parent. Provide information and parenting support through mentoring and informal support networks, family resource centres, family service centres, parent groups, libraries, recreation centres, telephone information lines, drop-in centres, community organizations and homevisiting programs.

  • Provide parenting programs and courses to enhance family functioning.

  • Provide opportunities for families to strengthen cultural ties. The Dene Yati Project is one example of how a community in the Northwest Territories helped young people and families strengthen their common cultural identity.

  • Implement programs to prevent child abuse and family violence. See Hawaii Healthy Start for an example of a successful initiative.

  • Provide safe and supportive transition homes for parents and children dealing with family violence.

  • Strengthen the foster care system and ensure that foster parents have the training and ongoing supervision they need to meet the needs of children in foster care (329). Try to link children with foster families who share a common cultural, geographic and economic background. One example of this is the Inner City Foster Parents Program in downtown Eastside Vancouver.

  • Provide family-friendly policies to allow parents to spend time with their children, for example, flexible hours, work-at-home arrangements and job sharing.

  • Invite speakers and agencies to talk with parents about child development and the transition to adolescence at lunch time sessions.

  • Provide employee assistance programs (EAP) that include counseling on parenting practices and help for parents in situations involving family violence.

Support of significant others

When parents are unable to provide the support children need, children can still thrive if a responsible person steps in to meet their developmental needs. Teachers, older adolescents, adult leaders, such as coaches, Scout or Girl Guide leaders, activity instructors, or spiritual leaders and adult friends of the family can have a positive influence on a young person’s self-esteem and developing sense of independence. Extended family members, such as aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers can also have a positive influence.

Children may benefit from a stable, supportive bond with a caring adult who can bolster their self-esteem and help them prepare for social roles, route them to needed resources and encourage them to stay in school. This is often called mentoring. Older citizens who offer sustained support may be particularly good mentors. Mentoring a child is not an easy task but it can bring new meaning to the mentor’s life as well.

Peer mentoring and peer counseling offer young people an opportunity to form meaningful attachments to peers and helpers who are slightly older than themselves. A peer mentor is not a therapist but can provide advice and emotional support and sometimes, assistance with academic subjects. Peer mentoring can take place in the school or the community. In both cases, it is important to provide peer mentors with proper training and supervision. For more information about peer mentoring, see The Peer Helping Annotated and Indexed Bibliography. Self-help and support groups can also help young people talk out issues related to self-esteem.

  • Be available and spend time with a child in your extended family who needs the attention of a caring adult.

  • Be a positive role model for children in your extended family.

  • Encourage your children to spend time with other family members and trusted adults in the community.

  • Encourage your children to join activities at school and in the community that are led by trusted adults and peers.

  • Ensure that teachers and coaches understand child development and the importance of mentoring.

  • Encourage teachers and coaches to serve as positive role models.

  • Provide opportunities for peer counseling and peer mentoring. The Cultural Program at Joe Duquette High Schoolin Saskatoon brings peer teachers and elder mentors together to teach skills and traditional ways to grade nine students.

  • Collaborate with business and community organizations to set up mentoring programs. For example, in Hamilton, Ontario, the Big Brothers Association, the Bank of Montreal and two school boards have teamed up to offer a mentoring program to inner-city schoolchildren under the Industry-Education Council initiative.

  • Communities in Schools develops partnerships that bring resources from business, social agencies, foundations and volunteer organizations into the school to serve youth at risk for dropping out of high school.

  • Make sure that every child is known to at least one adult in the school.

  • Support, evaluate and monitor mentoring programs such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
    Ensure that staff of youth-serving programs and agencies understand the importance of mentoring and how children form a positive self-identity.

  • Support intergenerational initiatives that link children and older citizens.

  • Support peer-led activities and provide training for peer leaders.

  • Collaborate with workplaces and schools to set up mentoring programs. For example, in Hamilton Ontario, the Big Brothers Association, the Bank of Montreal and two school boards have teamed up to offer a mentoring program to inner-city schoolchildren under the Industry-Education Council initiative.

  • Encourage mentoring programs among multicultural and Aboriginal groups.

  • Consider setting up a mentoring program between retired or current staff, and children who have an interest in the your business’ area of work.

  • Collaborate with community agencies and schools to set up mentoring programs. For example, in Hamilton, Ontario, the Big Brothers Association, the Bank of Montreal and two school boards have teamed up to offer a mentoring program to inner-city schoolchildren under the Industry-Education Council initiative.

Supportive learning and living environments

A caring society provides children and adolescents with learning and living environments that value and respect young people. When governments, businesses, schools and communities work together to support young people and families, children have the best chance of growing up with a positive, stable and integrated self-identity.

To enhance children’s sense of belonging in the broader community, schools need to become an integral part of the community and to forge partnerships with parents and community organizations. This requires new ways of working together — among parents, schools, school boards, ministries of education, community governments, municipal recreation departments, health and social service providers and other providers of youth services.

Schools, communities and governments need to involve young people in making decisions, and give them responsibilities and opportunities to develop leadership skills.

They need to address underlying causes of conflict including racism and sexism harassment, bullying and verbal and physical abuse. They need to give girls and boys equal attention and implement gender equity policies in all aspects of programming.

Culturally sensitive programming in schools and communities may be especially important for Aboriginal children and youth, who tend to drop out of school more often than non-Aboriginal students.

Make school an integral part of the community.

  • Involve parents and other members of the community in school life.

  • Develop partnerships with community agencies that serve youth. Offer coordinated services whenever possible. The Sparrow Lake Alliance's Guidelines for Interagency Collaboration provides guidance to school principals and social agencies as to why and how to integrate such partnerships.

  • Provide before- and after-school programs that are integrated with the school program and share common standards.

  • Use the school as a centre for community activities such as Girl Guides, youth clubs, etc.

  • Integrate volunteerism and community involvement into school-based projects and assignments. This helps children feel useful to others.

Promote positive mental health.

  • Create a school environment that promotes optimal growth, self-esteem and positive mental health.

  • Introduce courses at the grade five level on the importance of decision-making in areas such as sexual behaviour and the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

  • Invite mental health professionals to support teaching staff and guidance counsellors.
    Provide mental health counselling for students who are feeling depressed and confused, experiencing violence or exhibiting signs of eating disorders and other problems related to self-identity.

  • Work with community partners to ensure that students have easy access to mental health support and services.

  • Emphasize the strengths of a multicultural society and provide culturally sensitive education.
    The International Children's Institute has developed extensive curricula and guides for teachers related to supporting immigrant and refugee children.

  • Create a climate where racism, sexism, harassment and discrimination based on religion, sexual preference and ability are seen as abhorrent and unacceptable. Deal with students who step outside these boundaries in a way that enables them to learn alternative attitudes and behaviours.

  • Adopt gender equity policies and apply them in all in-class and extracurricular activities.

Promote positive self-esteem.

  • Teach children about the physical and emotional changes associated with puberty and encourage them to talk about how this affects them.

  • Provide opportunities and support for participation in sport, physical activity and skill-building activities.

  • Ensure that teachers and coaches understand child development and how to support positive self-esteem through clearly-defined limits, appropriate discipline techniques and the liberal use of praise and encouragement.

  • Provide a safe, trusting and non-violent school environment that supports student’s well-being at all times.

  • Provide opportunities for student involvement and leadership development.

  • Encourage a sense of ownership and belonging.

  • Provide opportunities for academic and social success.

  • Provide help to students with reading problems or other academic difficulties. Early interventions with children who are experiencing learning difficulties have an important effect on school adjustment as well as on academic success. Early academic success in school leads to further academic successes, more positive attitudes toward school, more positive self-perception and in boys, fewer juvenile offenses. (87,53)

  • Help children set short-term, achievable goals and praise them when they succeed.

Actively involve young people and provide them with opportunities to develop leadership skills and roles.

  • Include youth in the development and operation of community services. The City of Vancouver Civic Youth Strategy involves youths as active partners in the development and delivery of civic services that have a direct impact on young people.

  • Involve youth in community planning and the operation of community facilities. In Surrey, British Columbia, young people helped to design Bear Creek Park and will be in charge of running it.

  • Provide leadership training activities for children and youth.

Cooperate with schools to create an environment both in and outside of school that builds positive self-esteem in young people.

  • Partner with schools to provide after-school programs and opportunities that allow students to participate in meaningful community activities.

  • Make mental health counselling and other services easily accessible to students, children and parents, either at the school or in the community.

Create a safe, welcoming community.

  • Work with children, schools, police and others to ensure that playgrounds, schools, community centres, malls and other places children and youth go are safe.

  • Ensure that children can safely get to and from community activities.

  • Minimize or eliminate user fees for recreation programs so that all families can enroll their children.

  • Adopt policies that promote gender equity, and make racism and discrimination abhorrent and unacceptable in all community programming. Deal with young people who step outside these boundaries in a way that enables them to learn alternative attitudes and behaviours.

  • Provide cultural activities that help children identify with their cultures of origin.

Provide accessible, fun skill-building programs.

  • Provide accessible, fun, skill-building recreation programming for all young people (physical activities and non-athletic activities).

  • Ensure that staff understands child development and that early or late maturation can influence success in athletics and relationships with peers.

  • Ensure that disadvantaged children and youth are not excluded from mainstream activities because they cannot afford the equipment or registration fees. The Ehrlo Program in Saskatoon is an example of how a community agency helped Aboriginal children participate in hockey and other activities.

  • Girl Power is an example of a girls' camp that addresses the self-esteem of young women aged 11 to 15 and encourages them to participate in activities they would not otherwise be involved in.

  • Sponsor science fairs and community activities for children that are challenging and rewarding.

  • Sponsor sport teams and other community activities for children and youth (money and staff involvement).

  • Adopt and enforce gender-equity policies and policies prohibiting discrimination, and harassment of any kind in services and activities involving children and youth.

  • Actively involve youth in decisions, policies and programs that affect them; provide them with opportunities to develop leadership skills and take on leadership roles. Child Friendly Calgary’s Youth Volunteer Corps and Youth Advisory Council to the Mayor gives young people a voice in civic affairs.

  • Offer funding incentives to create after-school programs that help children make a successful transition to adolescence.

  • Support/fund opportunities for youth-serving agencies, schools and parent groups to work together. See the Sparrow Lake Alliance's Guidelines for Interagency Collaboration for more information on how to do this.

  • Provide a social safety net that ensures the basic needs required to build self-esteem among young people and their families are met.


Television, movies, music, media and computer games increasingly pervade the lives of children as they approach adolescence. By mid-adolescence when television viewing peaks, young people will have spent more time with the television set than with their teachers. Because the media can influence children’s expectations and values, it can have a powerful effect on their developing sense of identity. Two areas of particular concern are sexist treatments of male and female roles and the glamourization of violence.


  • Monitor and restrict viewing of sexist material on television, music videos, computer games and movies.

  • Discuss with your children how the media portrays unrealistic ideals of beauty, femininity and masculinity. Less than one percent of people have the looks and body shape of models and rock music stars.

  • Communicate your disapproval when media portray stereotypes and unrealistic images that influence young people. Praise media outlets that show teenagers in a positive light and that show the community values young people.

  • Provide media literacy programs that teach children to critically examine media messages and to discount unrealistic expectations in the media for "perfect body types", and stereotypes about gender roles, gays, lesbians, ethnic minorities, older people and people with disabilities.

  • Advocate media coverage that portrays healthy young people with a variety of shapes, looks and levels of ability and does not reinforce unrealistic images of masculinity and femininity.

  • Protest media coverage that is sexist or stereotypes minority groups.

  • Encourage and support media outlets that show teenagers in a positive light and show that communities value young people.

  • Encourage media personalities to act as positive role models for young people.

  • Provide guidelines for programming directed at children and youth and encourage the development of guidelines regarding gender stereotyping and the portrayal of violence in the media industry.

  • Sponsor media campaigns and programs that portray youth in a positive way and that encourage the development of realistic, positive self-identities.

  • Use positive messages for youth in advertising and programming produced by government departments. Use non-sexist language and a broad range of images of young people in all communications.

Aware of any innovative programs, legislation or initiatives that are relevant to this positive outcome?
This is your chance to let us know!

We are always on the lookout for specific strategies proven to be successful (or showing promise), that illustrate work done in this area. After reading this section of the site, click on the icon below and share your ideas.

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