Teen daughter with arm around mother, both smiling

Pump Up Your Teen’s Self-Esteem

Developing a healthy sense of self takes work, but the rewards are limitless

Issues around self-image, peer pressure, school performance… they can cause a teen's confidence to plummet in a heartbeat. Add to those triggers the extremely influential effects of online presence and social media, and your adolescent's ego can be powerfully undermined.

While you can’t provide protection 24/7, there are ways you can bolster your child's sense of self-worth – and self-respect. Read on to learn how to help your teen counteract negative self-talk, safeguard against cyberbullying and stand tall in the face of challenges with their emotional state secure and intact.

New School Year, New Pressures

September can be a precarious time for teens, as the school year brings with it not only the reuniting of friends, but also new and unexpected stressors. According to a recent study presented at a conference of the Pediatric Academic Societies, there is a marked increase in suicidal thoughts and ideation when kids return to the classroom.

“When we looked at the number of kids awaiting placement [at our hospital] or admitted at one time, month by month, there was a huge difference,” says Gregory Plemmons, M.D., presenter of the study and an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University. July is the month that sees the lowest instance of suicidal thoughts and ideation, but “we see those numbers creep back up when school starts,” notes Plemmons, who speculates that the prevalence of social media and socialization in general might be attributed to the uptick.

Boost Their Self-Worth

“The teen years can be particularly trying for a young person’s self-esteem. It’s not unusual for even a confident teen to begin to question their abilities or feel inadequate, especially when other stressors, such as demands to do well at school or peer pressure, are present,” says Elizabeth George, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and author of children’s books on gratitude, empathy and conflict resolution. “Parents can help by acknowledging and reminding teens of their capabilities and strengths and praising positive behaviors as a means of counteracting negative self-talk.”

As much as teens need to pull away from their parents as they seek to express their individuality, George advises, “Look for those windows of opportunity where you can spend some quality time together. Even a 20-minute car ride can allow for a conversation where you offer reassurance or a reality check. An impromptu talk like that can help your child feel valued, and allow them the opportunity to share their self-doubts or concerns.”

Just as important is helping your teen find things to do that make them feel successful and capable. While they may be struggling in math class, a strong aptitude for intramural sports, for instance, can help balance the scales of self-esteem. “So many teens find themselves through music, athletics or activism, and develop confidence through these activities,” says George. “Finding a job, joining a club or being given the opportunity to develop a talent can build a teen’s sense of self. Supporting these efforts and offering guidance is where parents can come in and help.”

Strengthen Their Coping Skills

How your child handles external stressors can mean the difference between a strong sense of self and a more fragile one. With girls at greater risk of a suicide attempt and boys more likely to succeed in the endeavor, you want to make sure your teen has the resources and coping skills they need to surmount the pitfalls and pressures surrounding them.

As a parent, of course you want to protect your child against failures, but learning how to deal with them is an invaluable life lesson, one that’s best learned early on. “When your child understands that the world isn’t going to end if they make a mistake, they’re less likely to feel shame and take it as a personal defeat, factors that can undermine their confidence and cause self-doubt,” explains George. Helping your children see that they have options should one course of action close to them aids in building strong internal resources that they can rely upon later. And showing kids that they have your unconditional love and support during trying times shores up the emotional anchor they need.

Protecting your child against bullying, in school or cyberspace, starts with education – your own as well as your child’s. Go online to learn the facts (www.stopbullying.gov/prevention), to PTA meetings to share information with teachers and fellow parents, and start an ongoing dialogue with your teen about what they and their friends are seeing and experiencing.

“Set clear rules to follow and follow up,” says George. “Be aware of changes in your child’s mood or behavior and address them with sensitivity and caring. Reinforcing your values and beliefs will help reground them when they’re feeling destabilized.” Knowing that they always have you in their corner can keep kids on track, even when life throws them a curveball.