We hear every day about the crisis of teenage self-esteem. But are we, as parents, helping or hindering? And what can we do better?
Through my 25 years as a parent and step-parent, and my 15 years as a Confidence and Self-Esteem Coach working with children (and parents), I see three main mistakes that parents make – and thus three main things we can do to improve.
The first two of these are about maintaining and supporting their relationship with you, and helping them feel loved and accepted by you – these things are foundational to teenage self-esteem, of course!
And the third is using the most powerful self-esteem tool which you can put at their disposal.
1) Taking Things Personally
Part of a teenager’s job is to push their parents away, to find their own place in the world. And that can lead to some challenging “attitude”! Sometimes as parents it’s tempting to take that personally, to feel sad or angry or upset by their antics, and to feel distant from them as a result.
Solution: But really, being upset at a teenager being a teenager is a bit like being upset at a toddler being a toddler. As the parents of teenagers we all learned years ago that when a toddler throws a tantrum, taking it personally a) is silly, and b) makes it worse! Well, same with teens being teens. So remind yourself of this: that they don’t really, actually mean it deep down, they’re just doing their thing and trying to push your buttons.
And, the more you get that, the more you can focus on what really matters – which is that you do love them, regardless. And let them know that.
2) Over- and Under-Communicating
It won’t shock you to hear that not every teenager will enjoy you gushing in an “I love you so much, you’re so amazing” kind of way (over-communicating). And by the same token, not every teenager wants to be peppered with questions about how their day went, how they’re feeling, how did they get on with the other kids at school today, etc (under-communicating).
Solution: Be less direct.
Instead of gushing, maybe leave them a handwritten note – anything from a post-it to a letter in an envelope and placed on their pillow. You could say something like, “I know that we may not always get on perfectly as you go through your teenage years. You’ll sometimes feel like I don’t understand you, and I’ll sometimes feel like you don’t understand me. I guess you’ll sometimes find me annoying, and it’s even possible that sometimes I’ll find you annoying! And hey, I’m definitely going to make mistakes and not always handle things in the way you’d like me to. And yet, regardless of all that, remember that I love you exactly the way you are, and exactly the way you are not. Whatever happens, however much we’re not talking or we’re getting on each other’s nerves, my love for you will never, ever change – I love you whatever. And I am always here for you. And you can always talk to me, or ask my advice, about anything.”
And instead of peppering them with questions, agree with them that you’ll use Cai Graham’s neat “Three Questions” technique to check in with them each day.
The questions are:
i. What’s your number? (This means, “on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 = suicidal, and 10 = absolutely fantastic, how are you feeling?” Explain the scale when you’re setting this up.)
ii. What’s your word? (One word about how they’re doing or feeling. “Fine” doesn’t count!)
iii. Do you want to talk? (90% of the time the answer will be “no” – and then you must respect that. But by asking this every day you keep the door open, so that on the remaining 10% of days they can say what’s on their mind fairly easily, without having to make a Big Deal out of it.)
3) Comparing Them, and Letting Them Compare Themselves
The biggest driver of low self-esteem for all humans – children, teens, and adults – is our tendency to compare ourselves with others.
All humans do it – we’re hardwired by evolution to do it. And that’s ok in a tribal group of 100 people, where there are only about 15 people of the same age and sex as us. In fact, it’s useful in that context, because it gives us a yardstick for knowing how we’re doing and where we stand in the pecking order.
But in the age of large school years, regional school competitions, and, err, Instagram (!) we actually end up comparing ourselves with many, many millions of people. Because if I compare myself with a movie star or athlete on Instagram, that movie star or athlete is already the cream of the crop in some ways, so I’m comparing myself with the very best of millions. And THAT, my friends, is a recipe for really feeling bad about myself!
Solution: Aside from minimising their time on social media (much recommended), teach your teen the following...
i. We all compare ourselves, as explained above.
ii. That’s a trap and is guaranteed to make us feel bad.
iii. The solution is to:
a. Make a list of OUR top 10 strengths, things that WE are good at (can include school stuff and also stuff that has nothing to do with school, e.g. being a good friend, helping Mum, baking cakes, etc).
b. For each strength, say what percentage we’re in, e.g. top 10% in our year, top 30%, top 1%, etc.
c. Then go down the entire list in one go and ask, “How many people are in the top 10% for that, AND the top 30% for that, AND the top 1% for that, etc?” The answer to this will be, “not many at all!”
d. Discuss how everybody has their own individual list, and each list is unique. So this doesn’t mean we’re better than anybody else. But it also means nobody else is better than us – we all simply have our own unique lists. This is “we’re all different, everyone is unique” made real and tangible. So they really get it.
iv. (Do this exercise for yourself before you discuss it with your teenager.)
I recently had a troubled teenage client who said she was “no good at anything”. It turned out that she had achieved Grade 8 in a musical instrument at age 11. Think about that! This clearly put her in the top fraction of a percent of people in the entire world, of all ages, for this instrument. Once I’d helped her see that she was able to find other things to put on her list. We kept adding to it until she saw that she was, and is, unique. Which was a game-changer for her.
I’d love for every child – and every adult – to be able to do this process. And that happens one child at a time – starting with you and your teenager.
If you'd like me to help your child be more confident in life – at school, with friends, in sport or in music – visit me at www.SkyHighConfidence.com
And if you want to really prepare your child to live a fulfilling life as an adult, take my free online video course in Advanced Parenting at www.ParentingSecretsOfTheOnePercent.com