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6 Expert Tips to Build — & Protect — Your Teen’s Self Esteem

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Most of us have heard about self-esteem. Most of us could agree we’d like our teens to have healthy self-esteem, and we know self-esteem can be fragile during those formative teen years. And yet, self-esteem remains a vague concept, especially as it relates to our teens.

Enter National Teen Self-Esteem Month, which kicked off at the beginning of May, alongside Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s sponsored by I Am Worth More, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to help teens build their self-esteem by connecting them to the right resources and presenting positive entertainment influences.

In recognition of National Teen Self-Esteem Month, SheKnows spoke with Jill Emanuele, Ph.D., Vice-President, Clinical Training of the Child Mind InstituteKen Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, Founder and Director of the Center For Parent & Teen Communication; and Lena Derhally, Licensed Psychotherapist and Author of The Facebook Narcissist, to help parents understand what might impact a teen’s self-esteem and how to help them to build it back up.

Teen Self-Esteem is Impacted by the World Around Them

Teen self-esteem is affected by everything from the type of social media they interact with to the kind of friend groups they’re surrounding themselves with, according to Dr. Emanuele. Likewise, how they’re doing academically, what activities they’re involved in, their overall mental health, whether they’ve suffered abuse or trauma, and whether they’ve faced any significant life events (like moving or parental divorce) can impact self-esteem.

A less obvious factor to impact a teen’s self-esteem: a teen’s parents. How parents model self-esteem and how parents interact with their teens can be crucial to a teen’s self-esteem.

Low Teen Self-Esteem Is Associated With Negative Activities

2014 national report found that 75 percent “of girls with low self-esteem reported engaging in negative activities like cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking, or disordered eating. This compares to 25% of girls with high self-esteem.”

Dr. Emanuele echoes this idea, noting that common behaviors associated with low self-esteem in teens, in general, include negative self-thinking, depressive symptoms (including withdrawal from activities or friends, sadness, fatigue, irritability), drug use, struggling academically, and difficulty with interpersonal relationships.

Negative self-talk is another sign parents should look out for, according to Derhally, who notes that this can manifest either through disparaging comments or choosing to hold back from expressing themselves authentically.

Expert Tips To Build And Protect Your Teen’s Self-Esteem

Be Present

The most important thing parents can do to build and protect their teen’s self-esteem is to be there for them and to love them unconditionally, says Dr. Ginsburg. “A parent knows you better than anybody, they know all that’s good and right, know your problems. When they still decide you’re worth loving, what that really translates into is a human being knowing that they’re worthy of being loved. When a young person knows they’re worthy of being loved, they have a natural shield against those external forces saying that they’re not good enough.”

“Parents can’t always affect kids’ self-esteem,” says Dr. Ginsburg, “but they can deeply affect their sense of self-worth. Self-esteem might be something they’re feeling in the moment, but self-worth is something they carry for a lifetime.”

Model Healthy Self-Esteem

As it turns out, how parents model their own self-esteem significantly impacts how a teen will develop self-esteem. “Kids don’t exist in a vacuum,” notes Dr. Emanuele. “They are a product of their environments and world. If a parent is struggling with self-esteem, that’s being modeled, and the child is picking up the same thought patterns and behaviors.”

Keep Communication Open

Be regularly engaged with your teen. Ask questions. Ensure that they know they can tell you absolutely anything. “Don’t push but check in regularly, and eventually, if you’re really trying to connect, they will talk,” Dr. Emanuele assures.

When it comes to comments that seem tied to low self-esteem, Derhally encourages parents to mirror back what they’ve heard from their teen (as in: “I heard you say…”), validate their thought (as in: “That must be hard to feel that way about yourself…”), and then empathize.

Teach Your Teens How to Solve Their Own Problems, Then Give Them the Freedom to Do So

Give kids the tools to problem-solve, then step back to let them do it. When kids make their own choices and feel competent in social and academic situations, they feel better about themselves. That means parents must pull back the urge to micromanage their teens or fix situations—whether social or academic.

“I see a lot of parents trying to solve problems for kids, and that doesn’t teach them how to do it. It’s hard to let them make mistakes,” notes Dr. Emanuele, but ultimately, it’s a crucial part of helping them realize their self-worth. She encourages parents to let teens “own their own decisions and opinions rather than telling them what they’re thinking,” and then to celebrate the effort rather than the outcome.

To add to that, Derhally encourages parents to normalize failure. It’s a part of life, after all, and the sooner kids learn how to handle it successfully, the better off they’ll be.

Monitor Social Relationships

Related to the above, Dr. Emanuele encourages parents to be aware of who their teen’s friends are and what kind of relationships they have. “Don’t over-monitor,” she cautions, but do help them recognize problematic behavior if it exists and show them how to problem-solve. “Point out that you don’t like the way X is treating them, then get [your teen’s] point of view on it. Talk to them about how they can problem-solve themselves.”

Be Aware of Social Media

When we think of low self-esteem, many of us point instantly to social media. We’re not wrong—there’s certainly a correlation. We’re also not right.

“Social media has been an absolutely wonderful thing for self-esteem and absolutely terrible thing for kids’ self-esteem simultaneously,” says Dr. Ginsburg, who highlighted that social media can be positive, especially when it allows kids who feel like outliers to connect with others outside of their community.

However, social media begins to negatively affect a teen’s self-esteem when it becomes a place where the message is you’re not good enough. Thanks to the pervasiveness of filters and photoshopped images, teens are consistently bombarded with images of perfection, which aren’t real. Their self-esteem may begin to suffer when they can’t reach these false ideals or rack up a certain number of likes.

It’s difficult for adults to process the barrage of information, says Derhally, and when it comes to teens, it’s even harder. “Teens don’t have the brain development or life experience to process it.”

When Should You Seek Extra Support?

Parents who need more support should always reach out to an expert. “It’s never too soon to have your child evaluated,” notes Dr. Emanuele, but especially “if you’ve noticed a change in behavior or the way they usually operate that’s gone on for a couple of weeks.”

At its core, self-esteem is tied to self-worth, whether we feel worthy of being loved by our family and friends. Our teens are constantly attempting to figure out their self-worth, and they’re doing so by absorbing the messages around them. This means the best thing parents can do is be informed, aware, and present. That might seem like a small thing, but it’s undoubtedly the most important.

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