There is no easy answer or magic bullet. Anyone who pretends to have all the answers is definitely selling snake oil. There are however a few principles that may bear fruit in the long run.
Some may say that having a good self-esteem, believing in yourself and feeling validated will lead to success and happiness. These buzzwords that you regularly hear from self-help gurus, used to be a part of the mainstream thought in schooling and psychology during the 70s, 80s and 90s. It has now become so entrenched in our cultural thinking that they are assumed to be true. We try to improve self-esteem through praise and encouragement but sometimes that is not enough.
The whole journey toward good self-esteem started in 1969 when Nathaniel Branden published his famous article The Psychology of Self-Esteem which was heavily influenced by the philosophies of Ayn Rand. He proposed that self-esteem was the driving force behind success and fulfilment. He continued to develop his ideas and developed the six pillars of self-esteem. His ideas were accepted with open arms and adopted at almost all levels of society who sought to banish anything that would give young people bad self-esteem like competition, failure, testing and criticism. Thus were born participation trophies and ribbons for showing up.
Many teenagers recoil when we give them empty praise and dismiss it out of hand. They sneer when we tell them that they are perfect just the way they are. They are very aware that they fall short of having achieved something worth feeling good about. Many times those participation ribbons are discarded because they feel like hollow rewards. Many parents have felt the hopelessness of trying to make their teenager feel better when they are so low.
We have all met some people who have incredible self-esteem built on nothing but their own inflated opinions of themselves. These narcissists are hardly the ideal. Many times our teenagers may cycle between narcissism and outright despondency because of their lack of self-worth. That narcissism is built on an inflated ego that collapses when faced with reality.
After 50 years of the self-esteem movement, it is quite ironic that people are statistically struggling more psychologically despite the fact that our schools have encouraged high self-esteem, our standard of living has risen tremendously over that same time, we have fewer social taboos, less discrimination, less bullying and our access to empowering technologies is unprecedented. Australia recorded significant increases in mental health problems between 2014 and 2018 even before the pandemic’s influence exacerbated the problem.
Research actually suggests that feeling good about ourselves is not necessarily what is causing the success but actually having done something to feel good about increases our feelings of self-respect and self-worth. Engaging in worthy pursuits and doing things with value give people good feelings.
Here are a few ideas that may help teenagers to actually have a balanced self-regard that could be both humble and confident:
1. Help your teenager to do something kind for those less fortunate.
Visit a retirement or care home where the residents will savour the attention of a young person. I have seen young people resistant and shocked at first, then relax and really come alive as they see the good they can do. That is something to be proud of.
2. Limit their time on Social media platforms
Socials like Instagram, YouTube, Tik Tok and online shopping. The unrealistic bodies, attitudes and lifestyles they see there make them feel inadequate and worthless compared to the influencers they follow. Many girls have told me that they had to delete some of these apps for their own sanity.
3. Help them to eat healthily, get fit and into good sleeping patterns
These three factors have a tremendous impact on how young people perceive themselves, their mental health and moods. Many therapists start with these three factors to improve a whole raft of emotional and self-esteem issues. There is great joy and confidence in a strong, healthy well-rested body.
4. Teach them good manners and social skills
People with good manners and good social skills are welcomed wherever they go. They easily make friends and build successful networks. Your grunting teenager still needs some reminders on how to make eye contact and speak in full sentences. The family is the primary place where social skills are learnt.
5. Model and teach healthy self-talk
Many teenagers have quite a negative internal narrative which would get anyone sour and in a bad mood. Some of them can see the worst in the best situations. Express out loud what you find positive, wonderful and beautiful. Point out all the good in the world. Your voice eventually becomes your child’s internal voice. How many times have you heard yourself say something exactly like your parents? Some adults are still trying to please a critical parent whose voice is forever in their head.
6. Celebrate their victories
It is easy to find things to celebrate if your child is very academic or good at sports. It is much harder when your child is not exceptionally gifted in some field. I feel very strongly that you do not have to be good at something to be a good person. Point out your child’s kindness, resilience, and passion. These are things to be truly proud of.
7. Express your love for your child
When they feel alone or low, your words of love and encouragement are the things that can sustain them even if they have problems with friends. If your teenage boy tries to shrug off your hugs and grunts at you, he still takes it in every time you tell him that you love him. Don’t give in, even if there is nothing coming back for now. One day it will be a great source of embarrassment for them that they acted like that.
8. Pray for your children
Many times we have no answers and all we have left is prayer. I pray for my children every morning when I wake up. I pray that they will be blessed, that they will grow into wonderful people and that they will know God. Sometimes we cannot get through to our children but God can.
9. Expose them to many different opportunities
Sometimes we assume that our children know things that are very obvious to us. It is due to their lack of life experience and uncertainty because they have not been exposed to many things. Take them to interesting places, speak to interesting people and point out all the different careers all around you that they may not even see. By exposing them to many different opportunities for life experience you broaden their chances of discovering something that fascinates them.
When we wish for our children to be confident, happy and motivated, we wish them a good life. I am reminded of a verse in Romans 12:3 Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
If our children can have a stable, humble confidence based on faith, good character, social skills and kindness, they are sure to also get that special product of happiness as well.
Good luck as you journey towards the best life for your children.
Bert Kasselman, Head of Senior School