It's a quintessential parenting dilemma: How to build our kids' self-esteem and still help them be self-aware. After spending my career working with teenagers, raising my own, and in my current role as the Dean of Students at a top independent school, I have a couple of insights that might help.
As parents we all want our children to have high self-esteem, but we are not always clear on just how to make that happen. The positive reinforcement we heaped on our young children does not seem to work as effectively during the teen years. Here are some ways to build self esteem, and foster independence, using methods other than tired compliments that often fall on deaf ears...
Four surprising ways to build self-esteem in your teenager:
- Next time they don't get the grade they expected, lose an election, or get cut from the team, resist intervening. Instead, allow them the space and time to feel disappointed. This will help your teen understand the power of their inner resources to recover from a set-back. This in turn breeds resilience, and resilience feeds confidence.
- Praise truthfully and moderately. Kids, especially teenagers, are sensitive to false praise and begin to lose trust in your judgment and your veracity if you hand out compliments they do not deserve. If you give enthusiastic and pointed feedback about a job well done, they will trust you and internalize the compliment.
- When your child shares a situation with you that they perceived as unfair, ask them open ended questions instead of aligning with their frustration. Some go-to lines are "tell me more about that" and "what do you think your next move ought to be?" Not only will your teenagers benefit from being given an opportunity to vent, but they receive the added bonus of believing their thoughts and feelings are unique and important enough that they do not need to be absorbed by their parent’s reactions.
- Allow them to have differing opinions from you…about music, politics, movies, people…and don’t tease them when these opinions change. Their process of discovery may involve trying on a variety of different personas, but developing a self-concept is integral to long lasting esteem and this can only be done through trial and error. They need to pursue this process as part of separating from you, so make every effort to respect their strong opinions and to show interest in their interests.
Raising teens is hard work, so don't forget to ask for someone to rebuild your self-esteem. After all, we all need people to help us feel good about being ourselves.