How Parents Can Shape Teenage Self-Esteem
When we think of parents and their child’s self-esteem our thoughts tend to focus on how parent’s praise or criticise their kids. Such thinking is understandable, as the words parents use do have significant impact. However parents can have a much greater role in shaping their teen’s sense of self worth and esteem.
There are multiple factors that will affect a teenager’s self esteem, but by far the most significant factor in determining a young person’s self-esteem is the relationships in their lives. How teen’s think about themselves is informed by how others respond and relate to them.
For all of us; our relationships define who we are. Our understanding of self is in reality shaped by others. Therefore relationships have a major impact on our self-esteem.
Understanding the key relationships and how they affect your teenager’s self evaluation is crucial to effectively nurturing your teen’s self-esteem. Your teenager will have hundreds and thousands of relationships. Some of them will be close and highly influential i.e. parents. Other relationships will be less significant, i.e. the 500 Facebook friends they have never actually met. As a parent you have a role to play in all these relationships – and it’s not the role of interfering.
We can group the type of relationships in your teenager’s life into 4 spheres. The relationships within each sphere will impact your teenager in different ways. Therefore your role as a parent in monitoring and guiding these relationships will be different within each sphere.
The 4 spheres of relationships that shape a teenagers self esteem are family, peers, organisations, and culture.
Family – The most significant set of relationships for adolescent self-esteem. Obviously these are the relationships parents have the most control over. So we consider them to have a direct IMPACT on the family sphere.
Friends –Peers become increasingly important in shaping self-esteem during adolescence. Parents can’t control or manage these relationships to the same degree as the family sphere, but they can INFLUENCE their teenager’s choice of friends.
Organisations– Schools, sporting clubs, youth groups, part-time jobs, are spaces in a teenager’s life where they will either develop or loose confidence and self-worth. There are times when parents can try to generate more favourable outcomes for their teenagers by directly INTERVENING in how their teen is being affected or treated by members of the organisation.
Culture– The impact the broader society has on young people’s self concept is often hard to pin down but we know it is significant. The messages teens pick up from mass media about what is or isn’t acceptable, beautiful, valuable, or desirable can have very real ramifications for self-esteem. Parents can temper this effect by acting as INTERPRETERS of the messages being received and helping teens consider what messages they choose to take on board.
The rest of this post will expand on each of these spheres and the roles parents can play in helping to actively nurture their teen’s self-esteem.
FAMILY- Have an IMPACT
By far the most direct impact parents have is in the sphere of the family. Parents are the ones who set the tone for the way a family relates. Parents are also the most influential relationship for a teenager in regards to their self esteem. Here are several ways parents have a direct IMPACT on the teenager’s self esteem within the sphere of the family.
Teenagers will respect themselves when they are brought up in a culture that values respect. As parents you set the tone for how people respect themselves and others in the family home. It starts with how you speak to, and relate to others in the family and also how you allow yourself to be treated. How you speak to your teenager is just as important as the words you say. Similarly how you allow them to speak to you is also important.
Respect is more than just talk however. Honoring your commitments, respecting personal boundaries, and considering the needs and preferences of others are all means of conveying respect.
The amount and type of criticism
Criticism can be very damaging if used in a haphazard manner. Never giving your child criticism is not the goal! Teenagers need critical feedback. Only giving praise creates as many problems as not giving any. However for cricitism to be effective it needs to be used sparingly and intentionally.
Some basic guidelines for offering criticism
- Ciriticise less than you encourage or praise. Positive reinforcement has been shown to be more effective at promoting change than criticism.
- Be specific about what you are criticising. Don’t use names or labels, speak about specific behaviours or outcomes.
- Be fair in your criticisms. Don’t hold your teen to an unrealistic or inequitable standards.
- State what you do want. Don’t just point out what is wrong or short of the mark, clearly articulate the preferred outcome or goal.
- Don’t critcise or embarrass your teen in the presence of others.
- Never use comparison to another sibling as a from of criticism i.e. “Why can’t you be more like brother or sister name”
- Speak calmly. Yelling is not effective criticism, neither is sarcasm.
How you listen
Communication is about much more than the words we say. How you listen to your teenager will communicate a lot about how much you value who they are and their opinions. Listening is a lot more than receiving information, it is also about acknowledging and responding appropriately.
Some basic rules of listening:
- Make eye contact when your teen is speaking to you.
- Respond with some degree of interest and emotion to what is being said.
- Ask questions to illicit more detail and find out how your teen is going.
- Don’t talk over or constantly interrupt your teen.
- Actively seek out their opinion – even if you know you will disagree.
How you affirm
Lots of parents use positive labels for their kids. We say things like; “Your so beautiful… clever… smart… good… polite.” And while there is nothing wrong with this it can be more effective at times to praise and demonstrate a more nuanced appreciation for who your teen is and / or what they achieve.
Some basic affirmation tips are:
- Tell teens when you are proud of them. A simple formula is ” I was really proud of how you action that made you proud when whatever the incident was happened”
- Praise effort as well as results
- Encourage your teen about who they are not just what they are good at
- Instead of just congratulating your teen on an achievement ask them about how they did it
Nothing builds a teenager’s self esteem more than other people, particularly parents, showing faith in them. Try to consciously demonstrate that you trust your teenager and give them more responsibility. Of course if trust is abused then you will need to re-assess, but on the whole try to give your teen responsibility as you think they are ready.
FRIENDS – Exert INFLUENCE
During adolescence peers take on a unique level of significance in relation to how young people develop and evaluate their sense of self. A good peer group with supportive friends can be highly protective of your teenagers self-esteem, but a dysfunctional or destructive peer group can create serious esteem issues for teenagers.
Teenagers give their peers a great deal of power in relation to how they evaluate their own self worth. So if your teenager has a good friendship group with a strong sense of belonging, the risks of developing low self-esteem are significantly reduced. If they are in a group where relationships are more toxic then the risks to self-esteem are greatly increased.
As parents you can make a difference by INFLUENCING who your teen has as friends. By encouraging and nurturing those friendships which are positive and healthy for your teen, and discouraging those friendships which are unhealthy and damaging, you can do a lot to promote a healthy self-esteem in your teen.
It is important that you seek to influence your teen’s friendships in an appropriate way. Influence suggests subtlety and gentle persuasion, not domineering commands and constant interference.
Some basic steps to influencing your teens peer group choices:
- Know your teenager’s friends. Learn the names and faces of your teenager’s friends. Listen to the stories about them, and when you get the opportunity try to talk to them directly.
- Develop good relationships with your teenager’s close friends. Be proactive about getting to know your teen’s friends. Don’t pry or be embarrassing, but take a healthy interest in their lives.
- Encourage your teen to spend time with peers who are good for them. If possible encourage your teen to invite the positive friends over to spend time at your house. Conversely don’t encourage them to invite or spend time with those peers who are not helpful or have a toxic influence on your teen.
- Talk to your teenager about what “good” friends are like and what “healthy” friendships are.
- Never ban your teen from spending time with someone else. More often than not it will have the reverse effect and prompt your teen to spend more time with the wrong type of people. If you are concerned speak honestly and calmly about what worries you regarding the influence of the person in question.
ORGANISATIONS- When to INTERVENE
Organisational relationships and involvement are important for teens developing a well rounded sense of who they are. The more areas or domains of interest your teenager has the more robust their self-esteem is likely to be. Being able to function to a standard they are content with at school, sport, youth groups, or work has a positive effect on your teen’s levels of self confidence and self worth. The more important or significant an activity is to your teen the bigger the impact of perceived success or failure will have on their sense of worth.
Yours teens capacity to achieve and enjoy their organisational involvement is not only impacted by their abilities but also by the environment and culture they are participating in. Talented, enthusiastic young people can become very discouraged if the systems they are involved in are negative, disorganised, toxic, or abusive.
As parents knowing what is happening in these organisations enables you step in to minimise the risks posed to them if the organisation is not helping your teen in the way it should be. Such an awareness also gives you great peace of mind when things are going well.
Some basic things parents can do:
- Meet your teen’s school teachers and discuss your teen’s progress -even if their marks are good.
- Know your teenager’s coaches, tutors, group leaders etc.
- Ask your teen regularly how they are enjoying the various activities they are involved in. Be sure to ask about their enjoyment, not just their achievement.
- When you notice your teen is upset, avoiding, or agitated about attending be sure to explore what is going on. As much as possible give your teen choice (this can be hard with school). If they choose not to go, find out if it is about the activity or how they were being treated.
- If your teen tells you they are being mistreated or feeling uncomfortable, follow up with those responsible. Seek first to get the full story.
- If the situation and response is unsatisfactory actively work with your teen to find an alternative. Let your teen know by your words and actions you have got their back!
CULTURE – Help to INTERPRET
Teenagers today, more than ever, are immersed in a never ending stream of mass media. Our digitally networked world means teenagers have access to the main carriers of pop culture messages 24hours a day. Not only is there a constant stream of content to digest there is also a never ending call to participate in discussing, reviewing, and having the ‘correct’ opinion on the latest movie, song, TV show, You Tube clip, TV ad, Facebook post, or social event via the multiple communication channels available.
Amidst all this noise teens will pick out and be influenced by the various types of subtle, and not so subtle, messages. Adolescent opinions and beliefs on issues such as body image, relationships, sexual ethics, gender roles, drugs and alcohol, lifestyle, fashion, family and much more are shaped by this never ending stream of images, sounds, and opinions. The beliefs and ideals teens adopt or have reinforced via these cultural mediums have a very real effect on how teenagers evaluate and measure their own worth and value.
Teenagers need adults to help them discern, evaluate, and critique these messages. As parents we can have a real impact on how our teens view themselves in relation to the world around them by helping them to consider and be selective about what values and norms they choose to take on board.
Parents can help teens interpret the culture they live in by:
- Knowing what music, movies, and TV shows your teens are into
- Taking time to ask them why they like certain pop stars, movies, shows etc
- Watch some shows with them as ask questions about some the of values portrayed in those shows
- Listen and watch out for your teen adopting unrealistic or unhealthy standards or values
- Being proactive in presenting your own views on issues of body image, sexuality, drug use etc to your teen from an early age. Don’t wait until they are 16!
This post is an edited abstract from my book on Teenage Self Esteem & Resilience and how parents can make a difference called “Raising Resilient Teens”. If you would like to know more about helping build your teen’s self esteem click on the image below.