Dr. Val Farmer
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Eight Ways Parents Can Foster Self-Esteem In Teens

June 7, 2004

A colleague in the mental health field says that the most common topic he is asked to speak on is self-esteem and youth. Parents, teachers, church leaders, and others want to know what they can do to help teen-agers feel good about themselves.

Here are a few basic ideas on how to bolster self-esteem in teens. The ideas themselves may be simple enough, but their implementation takes sustained loving, concerned involvement.

1. Give love and acceptance. Fundamental to any relationship is honesty, trust, and respect. By listening and being responsive parents communicate love and concern. Teens also feel loved when parents take an interest in their experiences, friends, whereabouts, struggles and successes.

Teens feel acceptance when they are able to express both strong positive and negative feelings. Parents can express affection by touching, hugging and stroking. Unconditional love is the bedrock upon which self-esteem is based.

2. Set an example. Much of their feelings about themselves will be learned from parents who are secure in their own values and way of life. Examples of love, values, courage, problem-solving and marital relationships come from the observation of parents.

Parents need to teach by example. Teens need to be shown and taught how to do something rather than just be expected to do it. This takes time, energy, love and patience.

3. Learning from discipline. Teens need discipline that is firm, consistent and predictable. Parents need to be clear about their basic standards of acceptable behavior.

Discipline that is unfair or too harsh creates angry or passive teens. They respond to the anger instead of any lesson that is being taught.

Discipline should be tempered by a willingness to listen and be flexible. A youth growing up in a home without clear limits has difficulty gauging and judging his behavior. They don't develop the inner controls and strength they need to be in control of themselves or their environment. They have difficulty learning the connection between their actions, consequences and rewards. They feel unsure of their power and abilities.

Teens of all ages need close supervision. Teens growing up in poverty neighborhoods especially need close supervision. Alternative activities need to be provided in place of the destructive ones around them.

4. Learning from responsibility. Teens grow from responsibility. This means planning, making decisions, making mistakes and dealing with the consequences of their actions. They also need honest feedback on their progress and rewards for doing what they do. When they are trusted, they learn to trust themselves.

Within the framework of structure and limits, teens respond well to freedom and trust. They need the experience of making choices. They need the freedom to explore and to choose their own goals as well as the methods for getting there.

5. Create success experiences. Young people respond to challenges, strong expectations and demands. These expectations should be within the range of their capability and skill. Special feelings of worth come from showing their unique abilities and talents. All the extra lessons, training and activities have a direct payoff.

Teens who succeed are used to having success experiences as children. It is the small success experiences along the way that give them the confidence to try something new.

Youth need success at school. They need to feel good about their day-to-day achievements. Teens need to be commended and encouraged for improvement and effort - measured against their own capabilities.

6. Social Involvement. Most teens struggle with trying to fit in socially. This is where many teens feel the greatest threat to their self-esteem.

Parents need to be active in teaching social skills. They need to give advice and understanding without being judgmental. Teens need to be propped up when they feel lonely and rejected.

Having friends helps teens feel like they belong. Friendships help them refine their social skills and learn what it takes to have give-and take relationships. Being accepted and respected by peers is one of the great challenges teens experience.

One good friend makes a world of difference. Parents can encourage their children to invite friends over and to plan special activities for them. They also can encourage them to get involved in school, church or extra-curricular activities and provide transportation when necessary.

7. Opportunities to serve. Teens need the opportunity to learn service and to get outside of themselves. Service to others will give them special feelings of worth. It also will give them a feeling of belonging and being connected when other social relationships aren't going well. It is something to do to help them take their minds off their own troubles.

8. Exposure to adult mentors. It is in the experiences of church and community service, athletics, music or other group activities that teens come in contact with other adults who care about youth and take interest in their lives. Special relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends of the family supplement the love, interest and encouragement parents give to their children.

Getting help. Even if parents do all of the things mentioned above, lives of teenagers will not be smooth. They can be moody and often discouraged. They need extra patience and loving encouragement to help them make it through their turbulent times.

It is not easy. As parents, you will need to support each other and get all the ideas you can. That’s why my mental health colleague finds this topic at the top of his list.