In my previous post I discussed what self-esteem is and some key factors that influence the self- esteem of teenagers. In this post I will look at 5 ways adults can help increase and maintain healthy levels of self-esteem for teenagers.
Focus on Things That Matter to the Individual
Self-esteem is the way someone evaluates themselves as person. Key to this evaluation is personal satisfaction with areas of life that the individual deems to be important. Merely making a teenager feel good or happy does not improve self-esteem, it will just alleviate or mask the presence of low self-esteem. For this reason the most important role adults can play in encouraging a teenager’s self-esteem is to help them understand where they derive their self-esteem from, and to value the spheres of life where they demonstrate competence.
The first step to helping teenager’s self esteem is to understand what matters to them.
For some teenager’s it will be abundantly clear where they derive their sense of worth from. There will be talents or traits, hobbies or pursuits, that the individual will nurture and pursue with enthusiasm and pride. The emotional response to success of failure in these areas of life will be stronger than others. When adults take an interest in these areas and make an effort to praise and encourage the adolescent this will have significant effect in bolstering self-esteem. For other teens adult’s may need to help them explore and discover domains of value and competence in order to help the teenager regain or build their self-esteem.
It can be particularly hard for a teen when a domain of competence that forms a significant part of their value is lost or taken away. Alex is a good runner. He enjoys running and gains a great deal of self worth and confidence from his ability and achievements as a runner. Alex suffers a major knee injury and his ability to run well no longer exists. At this point adults who can help Alex identify other aspects to who he is what he is good at will be very important. This type of loss can have significant impact on a teens self worth and consequently motivation.
Encouraging a teenager about something that is not important to them in how they evaluate themselves is not a bad thing, but it will do little to improve their self-esteem. Jenny may be really good at playing piano. However piano playing is not important to Jenny, because the way she conceives of her value as a person does not stem from her ability to play the piano. Constantly praising and encouraging Jenny about her piano playing will have little effect on how she evaluates herself. In order to bolster Jenny’s self esteem we would first need to understand where she derives her self esteem from and then take interest and be intentional about encouraging that part of who she is.
Provide Emotional Support
There is a lot of talk about the importance of peers to teenagers, and the reason is because peers are important. However one can never underestimate the importance of adult approval and acceptance to a teenager. In previous posts I have documented how significant to teenager’s stable supportive family environments are. Teenagers who receive sincere and genuine adult encouragement – not cheap platitudes- are far more likely to maintain a healthy level of self esteem.
If there is teenager in your life who does not receive the emotional backing required at home, other adults should be encouraged to step in a offer support and demonstrate approval of who the teenager is and the good things they observe happening in their life.
Part of providing emotional support is affirming teenagers when things aren’t going well or they have made mistakes. Commiserating with them, allowing them to acknowledge and own mistakes, validating their feelings when they are hurt or disappointed, all communicate to the teenager that their feelings, and hence they, are valid and valuable
Sitting with teens and acknowledging problems and mistakes, and considering how to deal with then is widely acknowledged as an important step in increasing self-esteem and building resilience for adult life.
Celebrate with teenagers when they achieve! This one doesn’t need much explanation, but it does take a conscious decision by adults make time and put effort into observing and then congratulating the teen. Celebrate and acknowledge the small and the big achievements. Notice particularly when the teen takes a risk, try’s something new, or makes a breakthrough after a lot of effort. These sort of achievements often provide the basis for the most solid value reinforcements.
Remember that a big achievement is one that matters most to the teen, not most to the adult!
Use Words Wisely
Again this one is not hard to understand, but does take some discipline and self control to do. The word’s of adults carry great weight with teenagers – even though they may pretend otherwise. All of us will carry messages from significant adults in our childhood and adolescence for the rest of lives. In some cases these messages are very empowering, in other cases they may prove to be quite destructive.
Monitor the type of words you are using when talking to teenagers. Avoid at all costs using words that label such as ‘hopeless,’ ‘useless,’ or ‘stupid.’ In a similar way monitor how often you say to a teenager something positive about who they are, what they have done , or what how you appreciate them. Positive statements that occur with regularity in the everyday life can construct a much stronger message of value to the teen than occasional praise after a major achievement.
Teenagers will often resist the invitation to part of adult initiated activities, particularly family orientated ones. The path of least resistance suggests not fighting with the teen and just letting them avoid the occasion. Without wanting to generate unnecessary or unhelpful conflict, making a point occasionally of stressing to a teenager that their presence is significant conveys a strong message that they are valued and have a place where they belong.
Inviting teenagers to do things with you as an adult and to learn about your interest is another means of showing the teen that they are of value. Sharing and activity or interest that is valuable to you suggests with the teen implicitly communicates that they are important to you. Allowing a teen to assist you and offer suggestions can be a very empowering and esteem building exercise for them.
Random Other Bits
A couple of important points on self esteem I couldn’t fit in elsewhere, but are worth being aware of.
First remember that when talking about self-esteem the reality being discussed is the teens own feelings or beliefs about who they are the consequent evaluations they make of themselves. These evaluations may or may not be objectively accurate- that is they could be reasonable or unreasonable. For example Tim may feel down about himself because he is fat. If Tim weighs 130kg and is only a short 12 year old then his perception of himself is accurate – he is overweight. If Tim is a tall 16 year old who weighs 58kg then his perception of himself is distorted – he is not overweight at all. In both cases he may have low self esteem, but how it is handled would be different – in one case you would seek to address the real problem, in the other you would need to address the issue of perception.
Second both positive and negative self-esteem can lead to destructive behaviours. Teens who act out may do so out of a sense of frustration and worthlessness, or they may do so because of over confidence and arrogance. Discerning the difference is not always easy, but it is helpful to keep in mind that poor or destructive behaviour can stem from high or low levels of self esteem.
I welcome any thoughts, questions, or insights you might have on teenagers and self esteem.