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How to boost the self-esteem of your teen

Learning how to boost the self-esteem of your teen is a challenge if you aren’t sure where to start. As a parent you want the best for your children. You want them to filter out everything negative and only accept the positive. You focus on praising them and telling them they can be anything and do everything they set their mind to. Then your child hits puberty and starts doubting themselves either because of a teacher, another adult, the media, a peer, a bad experience… The list goes on and you realize just how fragile a child’s sense of self can really be at that age. You struggle seeing your child, full of potential, withdrawing, dropping activities, or worse self-harming and/or contemplating suicide.

I often have parents ask me this question when they feel lost and worry about making things worse. I’ve seen parents increase the control in their teen’s life only to push them further away and I’ve seen parents disengage, find a counselor, and pray for a miracle. Either extreme isn’t helpful. In order to answer this question, we have to look at the source of their doubt. Is it due to their surroundings outside the home, within the home? Is it due to a negative experience like failing at an activity/hobby, trauma? Gender is also an important factor and what they learn to value (e.g. appearance, strength).

Here are steps you can take to help build your teen’s self-esteem

When they do well, praise them while also emphasizing the importance and value of the experience not just the achievement

If you focus on performance you send the message that the goal is to excel which if internalized can lead to anxiety, low self-worth, and depression. There is no such thing as perfect whereas good enough is attainable.

Show interest in their activities while also acknowledging that they are a whole person outside of their hobbies

They are not just a “football player, or a photographer.” It’s easy for parents to get so excited about their child’s interests that they go overboard and unintentionally put pressure on them (e.g. calling them “my artist”). If they decide to no longer pursue that interest their sense of worth and value may struggle.

Give them space to make mistakes without expectations for perfection

Trust your teenager with clear expectations on what you will allow and not allow. I have worked with parents that are so afraid of their child making mistakes that they restrict their movement even though the child is getting all A’s and stays home. The parent is then surprised to find that their teen is keeping secrets and refuses to share their day-to-day events with them.

How will your child learn if not through mistakes?

I urge parents to keep open communication with their child accepting that their child will mess up. I would even go a step further and share stories of mistakes you’ve made and lessons you’ve learned. This will encourage open communication with your teenager.

The key for a parent is to be seen as a safe resource of trusted and reliable information so that your teenager relies less on their peers, who lack the experience and who might have wrong intentions.

That’s not to say that you should give your teen free rein. Boundaries are still crucial, however not allowing your child access to the internet because you worry they will come across something “awful” sends the message you don’t trust them. Why should they trust themselves when their own parents don’t? Instead turn that topic into an open educational conversation.

As a parent, model healthy self-esteem habits

  • Are you preoccupied with what others think about you?
  • Are your standards realistic and are you accepting of your mistakes?
  • Do you emphasize the importance of superficial goals such as weight, status, or money?
  • Do you focus on your need to know all the right answers and be perfect?
  • Are you emotionally available and able to show your vulnerabilities?

These are subtle messages that we send to our children about how we place value and expectations on ourselves and others. I was working with a teenager who struggled with her physical appearance. Whenever she had acne she would avoid her sport practices, games, friends, and skip school because of how “ugly she felt” and because she worried her friends would talk about her behind her back.

It wasn’t surprising to find that her mother also struggled with her appearance, focused on losing weight, went on diets, and made critical remarks of others based on their appearance.

This mother thought she did a good job at hiding her own self-esteem issues with her body and didn’t realize that her daughter still got the message that her value depends on her appearance.

Unfortunately, the message “Do as I say, not as I do”, does not work with our children. They look to us as guides for how we take the messages imposed through the media; culture, peers, and family and how we either reject or accept them. That’s not to say that parents are 100% at fault if their teenager struggles with low self-esteem. What I’m saying is that parents do play a powerful role in laying down the foundation.

I would love to hear your ideas, questions, or thoughts on ways to help boost the self-esteem of your teen. Leave a comment below.

Here is a short video demonstrating how a girl’s parents and peers influence their self-esteem.