Teens and Low Self-Esteem: Four Ways Parents Can Help Build It

From supermodels to social media, kids these days are bombarded with images of “perfect” – perfect bodies, perfect families, perfect lives. As adults, most of us have come to realize that this perfection doesn’t actually exist, and that most of what appears in the media or on Facebook is a completely edited, polished version of reality. But kids, whose brains are still developing and who are still incredibly impressionable, often times try to live up to society’s impossible – and even dangerous – standards. Failure to measure up can sometimes leave teens feeling inadequate and insecure, which can lead to low self-esteem. Consequences of Low Self-Esteem The consequences of low self-esteem cannot be understated. Having a poor self-image can lead to lifelong problems including developing a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder ; hindered social relationships; self-destructive behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, or self-injury; or even antisocial behaviors such as bullying, lying, and cheating. Why Is Healthy Self-Esteem Important? Erik Erikson was an influential psychologist who theorized that all humans go through eight stages in life in which they face a developmental crisis. Success led to positive growth while failure led to a negative sense of self. During adolescence, Erikson proposed that teens (ages 12-18) face the challenge of “identity versus role confusion.” It’s during this crucial – yet often awkward – time in a child’s life that they are learning to become their own person – challenging the beliefs and values of their parents, relying more on peers, and experimenting with self-image, be it with piercings, funky hair styles, or choice in clothes. Caught between being a child and an adult, this is often a tumultuous time where their bodies are changing, sexuality is being developed, and fitting in with – or standing out from the crowd is important. The messages teens receive from family, friends, teachers, and society at large can have a tremendous impact on whether they develop a healthy, positive sense of self (identity) or confused, negative sense of self (role confusion). While you can’t control many outside influences, parents do have a lot of power when it comes to developing their kids’ self-esteem – for better or worse. Four Ways to Raise Confidence in Teens
  1. Encourage Authenticity. I remember the day I chopped my long brown hair off; I’m pretty sure my mom cried. I ditched the dresses and bobby socks for jeans and a ball cap. It was official – I was a teenager. They may not have always liked it, but my parents let me experiment with my look over the next several years. Would you believe at one point this 40-something, average looking therapist used to have spiked hair, 20 piercings, and wore combat boots? The point is I was encouraged to discover who I was by experimenting with who I was, and I turned out okay. You can’t expect your kids to be a replica of you anymore than you wanted to be a clone of your parents.
  2. The Bank Account. Imagine if every time you went to the bank, you withdrew funds. Five dollars here, 100 dollars there – unless you also make deposits, your account will eventually shrivel up. The same goes for kids and their self-esteem. Every time we criticize them, we make a withdrawal from their emotional bank account. Over time, these criticisms can become internalized to the point of hindering healthy self-esteem development. As a parent, it’s crucial to also make deposits, in the form of praise. This is not to say that you shower your kids with insincere compliments – they’ll see right through you. But make it a point to notice and catch them doing good, and let them know. Be specific; instead of saying, “you were a big help today,” say, “you were a big help today when you (fill in the blank).”
  3. Criticize the Behavior, Not the Person. Psychologist Dr. John Gottman suggests that criticism is a sure fire way to damage relationships. Keep in mind that being critical of your teen is different than expressing a concern. Voicing a complaint might look something like this: “I need you to help out the family by doing your chores like we discussed.” You’re stating a need without causing hurt or shame. Criticism, on the other hand, cuts to the very core of a person: “You are so irresponsible. You never do any of your chores – you don’t even care about the family.” Name calling, using the word never (or always), and implying that the person doesn’t care are all withdrawals from your teen’s bank account and will chip away at their confidence.
  4. Empower Teens. As adolescents get older, it is parents’ responsibility to help them learn how to become mature young men and women. With age comes more freedom, but also more responsibility. Help raise your teen’s confidence by providing opportunities to be self-sufficient and contributing members of both the household and society. Establishing age-appropriate chores such as babysitting younger siblings, helping out with cleaning or shopping, or yard work can (despite the pushback you might get), help kids to feel more independent and useful. Consider taking it a step further and have them engage in volunteer work with a cause they care about. Doing so not only builds self-confidence, but can lower the risk of depression, increase social skills, reduce stress, and help teens to feel empowered to create positive social change.
  • By Jennifer Blough, LPC