by Andrea M. Darcy
It’s a hard thing for a parent to notice that their teen has low self-esteem. What can you do to help?
[For a general overview on what low self-esteem is and its symptoms, see our Guide to Self-Esteem.]
How to Help Your Teen With Low Self-Esteem Problems
Try these steps to ensure that your support is constructive over destructive.
1. Halt the Advice.
You love your teen. You want him or her be happy. So you might be offering them non-stop advice on how to lead their lives.
Psychologist Erik Erikson, who identified the eight stages of psychosocial development from birth to adult, called ages 12-18 the time of ‘identity vs. role confusion’.
It’s important for your teen’s psychological growth that they are allowed the space to explore what they think, feel, and believe in.
This naturally means most teens don’t want to be told what to do. So advice can lead a teen to shut down, or can even lower their self-esteem as they still feel like a child.
TIP: Replacing advice with listening can help your teen can find his or her own answers. Take a good look at your listening skills. How could you honestly improve them? The next tip can help with this.
2. Ask good questions.
Questions are actually a form of listening, because you have to listen carefully to know what to ask.
Done right, you might be surprised how much your teen starts opening up to you.
TIP: Go for ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions (why questions tend to leave people feeling judged or interrogated). Read our piece on “Asking Good Questions” for more on this.
3. Cull the criticism.
Parents can say on one hand they want their child to have self-esteem, and then in the next step be teasing their teen about their ‘baby fat’, or turning a blind eye as a partner lays into their son or daughter for one dropped grade, or a sibling taunts them.
Nobody is perfect. And parenting is hard. But if the dynamic in your family is not supportive, it has to be admitted to and looked at. If the criticism feels out of control, consider family therapy.
If you aren’t sure if your household is or is not a critical one, look for the following:
- If someone does something wrong or that isn’t approved of, is their name calling?
- Do you or your partner compare your children in front of them?
- Does your family have in jokes or nicknames that aren’t actually that nice?
- Is it acceptable in your family to project your needs onto others in ways that could be seen as criticism, such as saying, “you are being annoying’ instead of ‘I need some quiet time?”
- Is there a family story that is told to others that might humiliate a child even if it’s funny?
4. Stay honest.
Stopping criticism does not mean laying on false praise. Telling a teen ‘you look great’ or ‘you are not overweight’ if they really are having issues with self-care or actually are obese might seem loving, but it can backfire.
A teen knows what is what. And white lies will lead to him or her not trusting you, which will lead to feeling like nobody is on their side, which will lead to lower self-esteem.
TIP: Give fair feedback. Show empathy for the negatives, point out the positives, and suggest options. For example, “Yes, your skin is breaking out lately, I can understand you must feel uncomfortable to look in the mirror. On a good note, a lot of your friends are going through it too, and you are a teen and often it’s just a phase. But we can see a dermatologist, or talk to my friend who is a nutritionist.” Then let them decide (see the next step for why).
5. Step back.
Self-esteem is connected to responsibility. We feel good about ourselves when we figure things out and do things for ourselves.
If you are a parent who is micro-managing all the time your teen has no room to grow their self-esteem through taking the responsibility of finding their own answers.
TIP: Take all that energy you were putting into managing your teens life and manage your own life. What can you do to raise your own esteem that bit higher? Take up a fitness class, learn to say no to others more effectively? Live by example.
If control is your misguided way to show your teen you love them, what would happen if you just told them you loved them instead? Yes, many teens cringe at the words. Deep down we all desire to know we are loved. And we all have more esteem if we are loved for who we are. Real love, when spoken, always helps.
6. Support what they are good at (not what you want them to be good at).
Spoken about or not, your teen will know full well if you want them to be better at sports or higher up the academics rankings and it will affect their esteem. Counter this with acceptance and support of what your child is good at and enjoys.
Ask good questions, help them find ways to improve the skills and talents they have, and do enough research you understand your teen’s passions.
TIP: As a parent you want things for your teen. Compromise can make for a win-win (and helping your teen to learn compromise can be good for growing their esteem). An honest heartfelt conversation is the best start here. How can you support what your teen loves in return for your teen helping you feel you’ve done a good job as a parent?
7. Get real with your own self-esteem levels.
We influence others most by example. If your teen’s self-esteem is a worry, but you are constantly putting yourself down? Then perhaps the best way to improve your teens esteem is to take charge of your own.
TIP: Also note that it can be hard on a teen to watch a parent be put down. If you are in an unhealthy relationship where your partner constantly and publicly criticises you, it might be time to seek counselling. (Not sure? Try our free quiz, “Are You in a Healthy Relationship?”).
When low self-esteem is a danger sign
The changes and challenges of adolescence mean that many teens suffer with low self-esteem.
But if your teen’s self-esteem is sudden and very out of character, or there was a marked change they never bounced back from, it is possible they have had a traumatic experience such as bullying or some form of abuse.
Worried because your teen does not want to talk? It can be an idea to ask if they would like to try counselling. This has to be done in a very sensitive way or can backfire. We highly recommend you read our article on “How to tell Loved Ones they Need Counselling” first.
Need someone who helps with self-esteem for teens? Harley Therapy connects you with therapists for teens and children and also family therapists, that work from several central London locations.