Let me ask a few questions to all the parents out there:
Is your teenager extremely shy or withdrawn?
Is he overly concerned with what others think of him?
Is she highly sensitive to criticism?
Does he fear failure?
Do you find her blaming others for her failures?
Does he demand too much attention?
Does she exhibit a lack of independence?
Is he rebellious or retaliating?
Do you often find her boasting?
Is he often teasing or making disparaging remarks about others?
Is she bullying or threatening others?
Has he been lying, copying or cheating?
If your answer to any one of the above questions is yes, it may be possible that your teenager is suffering from low self-esteem.
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem refers to an overall evaluation of one’s worth as a person. It includes the elements of approval or disapproval and the degree to which an individual considers himself valuable, capable, significant and competent. According to the renowned American philosopher and psychologist William James, "It is the position which a person holds in the world contingent on his success or failure determines his self-esteem".
Low self-esteem in teenagers and its concomitant problems
Self-esteem plays a very important role in building confidence in teenagers and making them successful. However, repeated failures, excess criticism, ridicule and rejection, and lack of recognition, encouragement and praise make teenagers vulnerable to developing low self-esteem. Teens suffering from low self-esteem usually adopt defence mechanisms so that their lack of confidence and competence isn’t apparent to others.
Such teens either end up suffering ridicule and abuse themselves or hurt others, which inadvertently puts off other people in their lives. Hence, such youngsters are usually less accepted by their peers. The less accepted they are by their peers or family, the lower their self-esteem sinks. The lower the self-esteem, the more pronounced is the ridicule and rejection by others. The complexity of the situation runs into circles with seemingly no exit points.
Low self-esteem is related to several psychological problems, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders Low self-esteem is also related to low learning motivation and poor academic achievement in school.
What you can do as parents?
For children of any age, parents are the greatest support structures. There is a lot that parents can do to help their children develop positive self-concept and improve their self-esteem. Here are a few things that you should do:
• Reinforce islands of competence
The first step towards increasing the self-esteem of teenagers is to recognise and acknowledge their strengths and competence. A youngster may not necessarily be good in academics. However, he may be good in activities like music, drama, arts or sports. Typically, however, parents do not allow children who are not good at academics to invest time in the pursuits they enjoy. Consequently, children are robbed of any opportunity to feel good and competent about themselves. This causes a downward spiral of their self-esteem.
So, what can parents do? Instead of focussing on the deficiencies of children, parents should try to find their strengths – the islands of competence. They should provide them opportunities to display their strengths, in whichever area it might be like cooking, painting, music, sports, social welfare or event management. Praise them for their skills and accomplishments. Feeling adequate and competent will enhance children’s self-esteem and gradually give them the confidence to tackle life’s problems in a better way. Shifting energy from ‘fixing deficits’ to ‘identifying and reinforcing strengths’ has a kind of butterfly effect, creating ripples of positive shift in other areas of children’s life.
• Help reduce the gap between the real self and the ideal self
Teenagers suffering from low self-esteem generally have large gaps between the images of real self and ideal self. The real self is the image that is formed as a result of everyday observations, experiences and perceived realities. On the other hand the ideal self is the image that the teenager considers her ideal and wishes to become. The larger the gap between the two images, the lower will be the self-esteem, as the illustration here suggests:
Parents should try to help teenagers narrow the gap between the two images. For this, parents first need to know if their teen holds unrealistic views about her real self and the ideal self. For example, the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl complained, “My daughter keeps feeling miserable because she thinks she is ‘too overweight’.” I advised the mother to talk to her daughter and understand her daughter’s standards – how much she weighs in excess and what is the ideal weight she would like to be that would make her feel good about herself? Once the mother understands her daughter’s perceptions, she can challenge her views subtly and encourage her to make accurate self-evaluations.
However, if the gaps between the two images are realistic and cannot be challenged, support the child to gradually bring her real self closer to the ideal self.
As the gap between the images decreases, there will be an upward spiral in self-esteem, as the illustration indicates.
• Give them unconditional acceptance
It is a parent’s responsibility to support a child who suffers from low self-esteem. If a child is boastful, there is a probability that his sensitive heart is craving for attention and appreciation. If a child is stealing money to treat his friends, he may be trying to win the acceptance of his friends without facing the risk of annoying his parents by asking for money. If a child is consistently withdrawing himself from a task or activity, he may be trying to avoid the risk of failure. In all these instances, the child is trying to avoid rejection!
Parents should address the need to avoid rejection and encourage acceptance, which would motivate children to behave better. Children should receive unconditional acceptance, that brings in a sense of belonging. This gradually helps them to achieve higher self-esteem.
Parents’ acceptance or rejection of children should not be linked to their success or failure, or their behaviour for that matter. If children fail to meet expectations, explain to them how their behaviour affects everyone. Offer them choices to decide and act upon. Acknowledge and appreciate their efforts, however small they may appear to be. After all, small changes pave the way for bigger transformations!
The way forward
A famous quote by Albert Einstein goes thus, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Let us not push our children into believing they are stupid. Let us not judge or criticise them for what they cannot be, or what they are not meant to be. Let us accept them as the unique individuals they are—unconditionally! Let us support them in identifying and working on their genius, and acknowledge their accomplishments. Let us help them in building a positive self-concept so that they can take on the world with confidence, fearlessness and optimism!
Pummy Sheoran is a Counselling Psychologist, Life Coach and NLP Practitioner. She is the Founder of PeaceFiles.