Help Your Teen Build Self-Esteem

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A  pimple used to put a wrench in my entire day. That one little red spot would cause all kinds of insecurities. I would head to school feeling ugly even if, just hours earlier, I had felt like a movie star. It’s funny how perspective is drastically different during the teen years. Today, I just slap on concealer and forget about it.

Insecurity about physical appearance is not the only esteem-downer for teens. Other issues can cause your teen to feel less than valuable, and some may have long-term effects. Being cut from the team, a break-up with a significant other or rejection from the college he’s hoped to attend since the second grade can be catalysts for self-loathing.

Your teen’s mood is all over the place to begin with, so what’s a parent to do when her teen’s esteem seemingly plunges into a black hole?

Reflection in the mirror

Many teens believe that “fitting in” is synonymous with “looking like.” This is why many adolescents try to conform to a desired crowd by physically dressing and acting like those in the group. Others might try to emulate fashion models or movie stars. Both of these scenarios can be destructive if taken too far.

“Wanting to fit in and look like other kids is part of adolescence. However, this desire can lead to stress and to unhealthy behaviors,” warns Wendy Grolnick, professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids (Prometheus Books, 2007).

Parents need to help their teens put appearance in perspective. “Parents can help their teens by stressing and modeling the importance of a healthy lifestyle – healthy eating and exercise,” Grolnick suggests.

Also be a good role model. Mothers who constantly complain about their looks or their weight are setting a bad example for their young daughters. Parents with positive self-images help their teens learn by example. This is much more powerful than merely telling your teen to feel good about herself.

Build up and don’t push too hard

All parents want their children to be the best they can be. However, parental expectations and criticism can be damaging to a teen who is already unsure of himself. Remember to build up, not break down, by focusing on a teen’s accomplishments, not failures.

“Given our very competitive environment, teens are under immense pressure to live up to their own and others’ standards. This pressure can lead teens to ultimately question themselves and their adequacy,” Grolnick says.

Parents shouldn’t add pressure to their teen by pushing too hard. Instead, Grolnick suggests the following to encourage a positive self-image:

* Help your teen formulate realistic expectations – an important life skill.

* Focus on the process of your teen’s endeavors, rather than the outcome.

* Teach your teen multiple ways to be successful.

* Limit activities if overload is causing stress.

Facing failures

It’s inevitable that your teen will experience disappointments and failures. How she learns to deal with failure is what’s important. Teach her how to put failure in perspective and that learning from failure is a path to becoming a better person.

Constructive criticism is effective if you focus on the action, not the person. You might say, “I know you could have done better on that exam if you had studied more,” instead of, “You have no work ethic.”

Encourage “reachable” goals. An average varsity baseball player who hopes to make the major leagues will have a difficult time when reality strikes. Be sure your teen understands that there is no such thing as perfection. Instead, communicate that putting in your best effort is a goal worth attaining.

Grolnick says that decreased engagement in pleasurable activities, increased time alone, frequent stomachaches or headaches, and persistent negative self-statements could be signs that your teen’s negative self-image has spiraled out of control. Parents who believe this to be the case should seek professional help.  n

Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer and columnist specializing in parenting issues and child and adolescent development. She is the mother of two teenagers.

“This is what I tell my girls: Instead of putting yourself down, think of five things that you like about yourself.” – Joan Larkin Bullock, Hopkinton, Mass.

“I give my teenage sons choices and ask for their input so that they are involved in decision-making. The more they are invested, the more they are likely to make a good choice for themselves. I firmly believe that giving them the freedom to make choices gives them confidence in their decision-making ability – a life skill!” – Sherry Hallenbeck, Woodbury, Conn.

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