Developing Self Esteem in Adolescents with Disability

Self-esteem is a major key to success in life. The development of a positive self-concept or healthy self-esteem is extremely important to achieve the happiness and success. Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves, and our behaviour clearly reflects those feelings.

People with high self-esteem
will be able to:

  • act independently
  • assume responsibility
  • take pride in their accomplishments
  • tolerate frustration
  • attempt new tasks and challenges
  • handle positive and negative emotions
  • offer assistance to others

On the other hand, a person with low self-esteem will:

  • avoid trying new things
  • feel unloved and unwanted
  • blame others for his own shortcomings
  • feel, or pretend to feel, emotionally indifferent
  • be unable to tolerate a normal level of frustration
  • put down his own talents and abilities
  • be easily influenced

Adolescence being a vulnerable state of body & mind but still supposed to be one of the ‘Life Changer’ phases in everyone’s life and if this state is accompanied by any disability may it be physical or mental has great impact on developing Self Esteem of that individual. Contrary to popular opinion, adolescence is not a time of turmoil and strife for most individuals when the environment meets the psychological needs of adolescents, who are asserting their independence in all ways (physically, socially, cognitively, and emotionally), adolescence can be a relatively "smooth" period of transition between childhood and adulthood. During late adolescence, most young people with average cognitive ability start careers or begin higher education, move away from home, develop their personal relationships, and consolidate their identities. These developments ultimately influence their quality of life, happiness and success in life. Hence developing self esteem in adolescents is an important issue in itself. Adolescents with disabilities have the same desires and aspirations as other adolescents. Most adolescents with disabilities want what all adolescents generally want in life - happiness, meaningful occupation, fulfilling relationships, independence, being believed in, and being accepted by others. However, they will have difficulty in attaining these goals due to prejudice, lack of skills, and their current weak economic conditions.

Following are the factors which may be considered to influence development of self esteem-

  • The external sphere (i.e., employment, education, and independent living)
  • The interpersonal sphere (i.e., marriage and relationships)
  • The personal sphere (i.e., self-esteem and self-concept, social isolation)

External and interpersonal spheres: Compared with adolescents without disabilities, those with disabilities are less likely to have social networks and friends, participate in recreational activities, attend college and live independently. Various studies of adults indicate that only 30 to 50 percent of adults with physical disabilities are engaged in paid employment and no more than 40 to 45 percent live apart from their parents. Thus, adults with physical disabilities face both social and economic disadvantage tell us about what adolescents may face in the future. Personal sphere: On the personal level, research clearly shows that adolescents who have disabilities are at risk for social isolation. Their leisure pursuits tend to be passive and solitary. In a number of studies, females with physical disabilities have rated themselves as particularly low in social acceptance which may lead to social isolation and feelings of loneliness. The basics for helping teens with disability to improve their self-esteem start in the family as acceptance of that disability as different ability by their parents as well as themselves. Whenever necessary they should seek help of the health professional to improve self-esteem. Disabilities are only limiting to the extent that constraints are imposed in the physical and social environments. We need to apply this philosophy to all the rehabilitation services we provide. Thus we need to work in partnership with adolescents and listen to their concerns and needs as well as provide specific types of services in a style i.e. family-centered or client-centered

Two of the key principles of family-centered service are that teens should:

  1. lead the decision-making process concerning the type and amount of support and services they receive, and
  2. be treated with respect.

Rather than trying to "fix" adolescents so that they can meet the expectations of society, we should focus on eliminating barriers in the physical, social, and institutional environments. This involves activities such as educating others and working to change attitudes so that individuals with disabilities are believed in and are accepted by others, as well as advocating for physical accessibility and progressive employment criteria and practices.

Thus, we should accommodate their abilities and needs by working to change disabling environments. Partnerships need to be fostered between rehabilitation professionals and community groups as well (such as attendant care, supportive volunteer groups, transportation services) to address these issues.

Some useful tips for adolescents to improve self-esteem may be

  • Maximize the positive and minimize the negative: Focus on your abilities more than your limitations. Everyone has both abilities and limitations. This is not to say that you don't acknowledge that you have a disability, but rather, by focusing on and developing your abilities you can feel good about all the things you can do.

  • Avoid unrealistic comparisons: Don't get caught up in comparing apples to oranges. Everyone has both strengths and limitations. e.g. A person with a locomotor disability may not be able to compete in Olympic hockey, but he or she can compete in Paralympic hockey.

  • Set realistic goals for yourself: Since everyone has limitations, it is not fair to expect yourself to be able to do something unrealistic. This may mean allowing yourself to take the extra time needed to read material and rewarding yourself for persevering. It may not be realistic to expect yourself to read something in the same amount of time as someone without a reading disability.

  • Do not over-generalize: If there is something that you cannot do as a result of your disability, it is not fair to conclude that you are an overall failure. There are many things that you can do. Don't tie all of your self-worth to any one attribute or event. Just because you might be a lousy cook does not mean that you are a lousy person in general.

  • Avoid getting caught using "should" statements: For example, a student with ADHD says, "I should be able to finish this exam in 50 minutes like everyone else in the class." This is an example of a "should" statement that may not be accurate. Accommodations like extra time on tests are an important tool to create equal opportunities for students to show what they know.

  • Appreciate yourself - all of yourself: This means appreciating your disability too. There may be times when you believe that it is more annoying than appreciable, but focus on the positive aspects of your disability. One way to do this is making a list of your strengths including how your disability, or your methods of coping with it, can be an asset.

Similarly the “Three Fs” of positive parenting (Discipline should be fair, firm and friendly) need to be practiced.

  • Helping the child clarify the problem by asking him questions that pinpoint how he sees, hears, and feels about the problematic situation and what decision needs to be taken to modify the situation.
  • Brainstorming the possible solutions. Usually there is more than one solution or choice to a given dilemma, and the parent can make an important contribution by pointing out this fact and by suggesting alternatives if the child has none.
  • Allowing the child to choose one of the solutions only after fully considering the consequences. The best solution will be one that solves the problem and simultaneously makes the child feel good about himself or herself
  • Later joining the child in evaluating the results of that particular solution. Did it work out well? Or did it fail? if so, why? Reviewing the tactics will equip the child to make a better decision the next time around.

After all we need to remember that adolescents with disabilities are adolescents first. Like everyone, adolescents want to be happy. Adolescents with disabilities may not attain all their goals in life, but it is important for them to try, and for them to understand the obstacles they face. As health professionals we can help to provide this knowledge and guidance to make their life from miserable to pleasurable.


Dr. Mrs Prajakta Kaduskar

Consultant in Adolescent Paediatrics

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Dr. Ajay Kaduskar


Dr. Mrs. Prajakta A. Kaduskar


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