Winter 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA5

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Self-Esteem of Rural Teens


Anita M. Hall
Extension Agent
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

George P. Rowe
Associate Professor
Department of Human Development and Family, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Teenagers' feelings of self-worth affect all aspects of their lives and strongly influence the realization of their potential. In Nebraska, two Extension priority initiatives, Youth at Risk and Strengthening Individuals and Families, focus on enhancing self-esteem, an essential ingredient for healthy personality development.1 As a basis for program development, a central research question was asked. What are the family characteristics of young teens who display feelings of high self- esteem compared with teens who struggle to feel good about themselves? Research supports the correlation between high self- esteem and positive personality traits. Youth high in self-esteem are more emotionally mature, stable, realistic, and relaxed with good frustration tolerance.2 Adolescents with a low self-worth and personal identity tend to be dependent, conforming, and frequently reflect the personalities of those with whom they associate.

Research relating family background to adolescent self- esteem indicates it's not the structure of the family, but rather the degree of discord within the family that influences self- esteem. Raschke and Raschke3 report that the greater the perceived happiness of the parent(s), the higher the children's self-concept. It's conflict rather than family structure that makes a difference in self-esteem. Family types and adolescent self-esteem were correlated by Kurdek and Sinclair.4 Teens from two-parent families, stepfather families, and mother-custody divorced families were examined. Generally, adjustment was negatively related to family conflict and was positively related to the family dimensions of cohesion, expressiveness, and personal growth. These findings were sustained across all three types of families.

Approach to Problem

Our research studied self-esteem of young adolescents in Boone County, Nebraska.5 The study examined the relationship of adolescent self-esteem to: source of parental income (farm vs nonfarm), father and mother employment outside the home, and family type (two-parent, single-parent, and step-family).

Self-esteem scores were calculated for each individual using the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (SEI). It consists of 50 statements concerned with the subjects' self-attitudes to four subgroups: peers, parents, school, and personal interests. Examples of statements include: "Things usually don't bother me." "I'm a lot of fun to be with." "There are many times when I'd like to leave home." Teens were asked to read each item and decide whether that particular statement was characteristic of how they felt about themselves. The inventory was scored with a key for each subgroup. The sum of the four subgroups composed the total self-esteem score. These scores were compared with the following independent variables: (1) male vs female, (2) farm vs nonfarm family income, (3) family type, and (4) employment of father and mother outside the home. The Fisher t-test and analysis of variance were used.


A total of 108 out of a possible 200 students (54%) completed the SEI and family characteristics' questionnaire. These were administered through the four school systems of the county. Prior permission had been received first from the school administrators and secondly from the parent or guardian of the teens. There were 42 males and 66 females who participated in the study. All were seventh and eighth grade students ranging in age from 12-15 years, with a mean age of 12.8.

The majority of the parents' income was derived from nonfarm sources rather than from farming and ranching (65% vs 35%). A total of 68% of the subjects' mothers worked for pay outside the home, while 32% of the mothers were full-time homemakers. Of the subjects' fathers, 51% were fully employed off the farm, 30% were full-time farmers, and 19% farmed-but also worked off the farm. The majority of the subjects came from two-parent families composed of both the biological mother and father (82%). The remainder was split between single-parent families (9%) and step- parent families (9%).

Total self-esteem scores ranged from 16 to 96 out of a possible score of 100, with a mean of 64.98. The Fisher t-test didn't show a significant difference between males and females on their self-esteem scores. No significant differences were found between adolescent self-esteem scores and farm versus nonfarm employment of the father and between adolescent self-esteem scores and maternal employment outside the home.

Self-esteem scores were analyzed by family type (two-parent, single-parent, and step-parent). As shown in Table 1, scores weren't significantly different between adolescents in two-parent and single-parent families, nor between adolescents in step- parent and single-parent families. Self-esteem scores approached statistical significance (.1) when comparing teens from two- parent families with step-parent families (lower scores).

Table 1. Mean self-esteem subscale and total self scores by family type.
General Social Home School Total
Two-parent family 17.1 5.8 5.3 4.8 66.3
Single-parent family 14.9 5.3 5.5 4.9 60.6
Step-parent family 15.2 4.7 3.4 4.6 56.2
Maximum possible scores are: general self, 26; social self, 8; home, 8; school, 8; and total self, 100.

The SEI gives a total self-esteem score, and is further subdivided into subscales-general, social, home, and school. Analysis of variance was performed comparing each of these subgroups by family type. The home subscale approached statistical significance (.075). This suggests the possibility that the area of the home and relationships with parents may be negatively related to adolescent self-esteem. Mean scores for the "home" subgroup were considerably lower for step-parent families than for the other family types.

Implications for Extension Programing

Our research has several implications for Extension educators in developing family life education programs. First, we need to keep in mind the changing circumstances of rural audiences. This research supports other studies showing that off- farm employment of mothers and fathers doesn't lower self-esteem of children. The belief that single-parent homes lead to children with lower self-esteem must be reconsidered. Extension must support single-parent families and show them as a viable family structure in our publications and programming.

Programs are needed for parents to use to help children feel more accepted, and children need help learning to accept new step -parents. Step-family support groups and programs facilitating step-family identity during the transition period must be implemented. We must also find ways to improve self-esteem at home. Parents need help with positive parenting skills for children of all ages, but especially when parenting teenagers. We can help by conducting parenting classes specifically for parents of teens. 4-H events and projects that bring parents and teens together in open communication can foster a greater understanding and higher self-esteem for both generations.

We as Extension educators have a responsibility to help each individual with whom we work to develop a positive feeling of self-worth. Teens, just by the nature of their transition status, are especially vulnerable to experiences that may alter their self-esteem for the rest of their life. We must accept this responsibility in all of our programming areas.


1. J. Kizziar and J. Hagedorn, Search for Acceptance: The Adolescent and Self-Esteem (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979).

2. D. J. Stanwyck, "Self-Esteem Through the Life Span," Family and Community Health, VI (No. 6, 1983), 11-28.

3. H. J. Raschke and V. J. Raschke, "Family Conflict and Children's Self-Concepts: A Comparison of Intact and Single- Parent Families," Journal of Marriage and the Family, XLI (No. 41, 1979), 367-74.

4. L. A. Kurdek and R. J. Sinclair, "Adjustment of Young Adolescents in Two-Parent Nuclear, Step-Father, and Mother- Custody Families," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, LVI (No. 56, 1988), 91-96.

5. Anita Hall, "The Relationship of Family Characteristics to Early Adolescent Self-Esteem" (Master's thesis, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1989).