Young teens often feel inadequate and lack confidence. They have new bodies and developing minds and their relationships with friends and family members are in flux. They understand for the first time that they aren’t good at everything. The changes in their lives may take place more rapidly than their ability to adjust to them.
Poor self-esteem often peaks in early adolescence, then improves during the middle and late teen years as identities gain strength and focus. At any age, however, a lack of confidence can be a serious problem. Young teens with poor self-esteem can be lonely, awkward with others and sensitive to criticism. They can also be sensitive about what they see as their shortcomings. Young teens with low confidence are less likely to join in activities and form friendships. This isolates them further and slows their ability to develop a better self-image. When they do make friends, they are more vulnerable to negative peer pressure.
Some young adolescents who lack confidence hold back in class. Others act out to gain attention. At its worst, a lack of confidence is often linked with self-destructive behavior and habits — smoking or using drugs or alcohol, for example.
Girls and self-esteem
Girls often experience deeper self-doubt than boys — although there are many exceptions. This can be for many reasons:
- Society sends girls the message that it is important for them to get along with others and to be very, very thin and pretty. Life can be just as hard, however, for a boy who thinks he has to meet society’s expectations that boys have to be good at sports and other physical activities.
- Girls mature physically about two years earlier than boys, which requires girls to deal with issues of how they look, popularity and sexuality before they are emotionally mature enough to do so.
- Girls may receive confusing messages about the importance of achievement. Although girls are told that achievement is important, some also fear that they won’t be liked — especially by boys — if they come across as too smart or too capable, especially in the areas of math, science and technology.
If your young adolescent suffers from a severe lack of confidence over a long period, she may benefit from seeing a counselor or other mental health professional. This is especially true if she also has a drug or alcohol problem, a learning disability, an eating disorder or severe depression. Most young adolescents will get through the rough spots with adequate time and support.
A theory about self-esteem
Most psychologists now believe that self-esteem and self-confidence represent a range of feelings that a child has about himself in many different situations. Psychologist Susan Harter has developed a theory of self-esteem that considers both a child’s sense of confidence in an area of activity and how important that area is to the child.
For example, adolescents may think about a number of situations — competing on the track team, studying math, dating, taking care of younger siblings and so on. An adolescent is likely to feel more confident doing some of these things than others. She may feel very good about her athletic ability and skill at math, but feel bad about her dating life. She may also have mixed feelings about how good a sister she is to her baby brother.
How good this teenager feels about herself ties to how important each of these areas is to her. If having a very active dating life is the most important area of her life, this girl will feel bad about herself. If being a scholar-athlete is most important area, then she will feel very good about herself.
Check out these keys to good self-esteem >>
Based on this theory, the best ways to help your child to develop confidence include the following:
Provide opportunities for your child to succeed
As teacher Diane Crim points out, “The best way to instill confidence in someone is to give them successful experiences. You need to set them up to succeed — give them experiences where they can see how powerful they are. Kids can engineer those experiences. Part of confidence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”
Help your child to build confidence in his abilities
Encourage him to take an art class, act in a play, join a soccer or baseball team, participate in science fairs or computer clubs or play a musical instrument — whatever he likes to do that brings out the best in him. Don’t push a particular activity on your child. Most children, whether they are 3 or 13 years old, resist efforts to get them to do things that they don’t enjoy. Pushing children to participate in activities they haven’t chosen for themselves can lead to frustration. Try to balance your child’s experiences between activities that he is already good at doing with new activities or with activities that he is not so good at doing.
Assign him family responsibilities
To also help your child build confidence, assign him responsibilities at which he can succeed such as doing the laundry, cleaning his room or mowing the lawn.
Help young teens feel safe and trust in themselves. The ability of adolescents to trust in themselves comes from receiving unconditional love that helps them to feel safe and to develop the ability to solve their own problems. Your child, like all children, will encounter situations that require her to lean on you and others. But always relying on you to bail her out of tough situations can stunt her emotional growth. “We have to teach our children how to cope with the things they encounter, instead of easing the path,” says teacher Anne Jolly.
Talk about fears
Talk about anxieties that are related to school violence and to global terrorism. Many children have seen terrifying images of death and destruction on television and on the internet. You can help your child to understand that although the country has suffered awful acts of terror, we are strong people who can come together and support each other through difficult times. In addition, you can:
- Create a calm environment in your home through your own behavior. This may not be possible if your family has been affected directly by an act of terror or violence. If you are anxious, you need to explain to your child what you are feeling and why. Children take emotional cues from those they love.
- Listen to what your child has to say. Assure him that adults are working to make homes and schools safe.
- Help your child to separate fact from fiction. Discuss facts with your child and avoid guessing, exaggerating or overreacting.
- Monitor your child’s television, radio and internet activity. Help her to avoid overexposure to violent images, which can heighten her anxiety.
- Use historical examples (for example, Pearl Harbor or the Challenger space shuttle explosion) to explain to your child that bad things happen to innocent people, but that people go on with their lives and resolve even terrible situations.
- Continue your normal family routines.
Praise and encourage
Praise is meaningful to adolescents when it comes from those they love and count on most — their parents and other important adults in their lives. Praising your child will help her to gain confidence. However, the compliments that you give her must be genuine. She will recognize when they are not.
As adults, most people have confidence. This confidence comes about through years of experiencing success, but also through years of exploring strengths and weakness and choosing to stress different parts of our lives. Most of us would be unhappy if we had to do only those things that we are not good at.
As adults, we tend to find our areas of strength and — to the extent we can — to pursue these areas more than others. For an adolescent, however, it is difficult to downplay the areas in which they are less confident. For example, it is very hard for an adolescent with academic skills to focus on school rather than on dating, when all of her friends are dating and telling her how important dating is. For a parent this can lead to feelings of helplessness. You know that whether that cute new boy asked out your daughter will have little consequence on her life for the long run, but you also know that she cannot yet see this!