February is National Boost Your Self-Esteem Month. Boosting one’s self-esteem is something that everyone has surely dealt with at some point. Even adults struggle with issues of self-esteem and self-worth from time to time. For teens, self-esteem, or the lack thereof, can greatly affect social and emotional development.
Merriam-Webster defines self-esteem as, “a feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities; a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” I consider self-esteem to be closely related to comfort level—how comfortable am I with my person as a whole? The tricky thing about self-esteem is that it can take decades to develop a strong sense of self-worth. Even then, once achieved, the comfort level is not concrete or guaranteed to last. Perhaps the most interesting thing about self-esteem is its plasticity or fluidity. Similarly to happiness, self-esteem can and will fluctuate throughout one’s life. You can be a happy person, and still experience low moments in the same manner that you can be a confident person, but still have periods of insecurity or low self-esteem.
This fluidity is especially important when discussing self-esteem with adolescents. The important thing to teach teens about self-image and confidence is that it can and will develop as we age. Furthermore, there are strategies that we can personally employ to build self-esteem.
Exercise positive self-talk: At any point throughout the day, teens are conversing with themselves using “self-talk.” This internal dialogue that we all employ from time to time has the ability to sway our moods and affect our self-perception. Almost like a chain reaction, what we think influences how we feel, which then influences how we behave. A teen that engages in negative self-talk is setting a self-fulfilling prophecy into motion. When people constantly put themselves down about their appearance or abilities, they orchestrate their own obstacles. Instead, encourage your child to engage in self-praise. Model that behavior by engaging in your own positive self-talk. Ask your child what he believes is his best personal trait. Ask him if he has any hidden talents or unique skills. Simply discussing the positives can alter your teen’s self-perception.
Discuss reasonable expectations: Self-esteem is more often compromised when we experience some sort of failure or rejection. It is important to talk through these disappointing moments with teens. Let your child know that failure is an important part of learning and growing that everyone experiences. Think of these moments as setbacks, an opportunity to simply begin again with more knowledge this time around. Also discuss the idea that perfection does not exist—there is no perfect athlete, artist, or musician. The perfect face and body are fantasies, as well. The idea is not to encourage your teen to aim low, but instead to prepare her to expect challenges in life. The more prepared your teen is to face challenges, the less she will internalize a set-back as a personal failure.
Defuse negative energy from others: Self-esteem can be greatly influenced by peers and others’ perceptions. This is especially true for adolescents, when fitting in and being socially accepted becomes more of a priority. No matter how much we want to deny or ignore it, other people’s words can greatly affect us. During adolescent years, when teens are most vulnerable and sensitive to peer pressure, teasing and other unkind gestures can compound the negative “self-talk.” When we hear others saying negative things about us, true or not, we may begin to question ourselves. Am I stupid like they say? Am I ugly like they claim? How can I be better so that others will like me? These types of questions arise when we internalize the negativity that others inflict on us. While we can’t control what other people say, we can control how we react to them. Teach your teen to ignore the negativity and focus more on his own feelings. Encourage teens to focus on the opinion that matters most—their own.
A fascinating aspect of self-esteem is the fact that we have some authority over it. In the same way that we work out to build and maintain muscle mass, we can shape our self-esteem. Yes, it takes time. It can be a lifelong process, but everything worth having requires time and effort. Talk to your teen about self-perception and self-esteem. The earlier that a child begins to feel confident in himself, and learns to maintain and build that confidence, the better.