This post was triggered by a conversation on Twitter yesterday. The request was for books/courses/online stuff for building a teenager’s self-esteem, beyond the usual parenting tips of saying nice things and not being critical. A fellow author, Louisa Reid, was then kind enough to say that I would have some “great advice” and I was foolish enough to say that I’d do a post about it today!
“Foolish” because self-esteem is more complex than it seems (and because, although all my public-speaking engagements have been cancelled I suddenly have more writing work and I seemed to have promised to finish a book early. There’s “foolish” for you.)
Anyway, self-esteem. You’d think that it would be enough just to keep telling your teenagers they’re great but it isn’t. That really makes no difference when it comes from a parent or someone else who the young person believes is “just saying it”. Of course, saying nice things is a good thing to do in general but it’s neither going to prevent low self esteem nor cure it.
We first have to understand four things about low self-esteem.
1. It stems from a natural behaviour which has benefits
Humans are wired to compare ourselves to others (there’s really no other reference point) so that we know how to behave and who we are and also to judge ourselves in relation to standards we set ourselves, standards which are often inevitably pegged against the achievements of others. This applies to practical skills (such as how good we are at football, singing, cooking, whatever) and perceived personal strengths (such as how kind we are, how lively, how generous, how chatty, how empathetic or whatever). The benefit of this behaviour of constant comparison is that we have targets to aim for and can often feel good that we’ve achieved them. The flipside is the downside: that we sometimes don’t measure up.
If we mostly do measure up but sometimes don’t, the balance is reasonably healthy and we don’t suffer badly from low self-esteem. But if we set ourselves targets that are too high and unachievable or if we are too sensitive to the constant comparison, we are likely to suffer low self-esteem, always beating ourselves up for what we feel we’ve failed at. It chips away at us and no number of comments from our parents will reverse that.
2. Low self-esteem thinking becomes an intrusive thought loop
Any repeated thought is just a set of neural networks that have been activated many times, becoming the path of least resistance, the easiest thing to think. I have written about neural pathways and how they are like physical pathways here. It’s really important to understand this and is also a very useful way to understand many processes in our brains and lives, from good or bad habits to learning. When someone frequently has a thought based on low self-esteem – such as “I’m not popular/clever/sporty/beautiful/good at anything”, the thought is easily triggered by negative events or any new example of their supposed failings. They fall into an intrusive thought loop. Someone with relatively high self-esteem will be more easily able to brush off a “failure” or setback. Someone with low self-esteem will fall into the loop.
3. It can be triggered or exacerbated by completely unconnected thoughts/feelings
If you’re someone who regularly gets into that intrusive negative thought loop, the loop can be set off by things that have got nothing to do with your self-esteem or any of the negative things you think about yourself. For example, a negative news story that upsets or scares you, or something bad happening to a friend, or even having a minor cold or other illness, any of these things can set off that spiral of negative thinking or feeling. So can just being in a low mood for no known reason.
Anxiety can also trigger this low thinking. Anxious thoughts tip the balance into other negative thinking.
Younger children tend not to look inward so much and are more easily reassured. Adults are usually slightly more sanguine. Also, adults can often avoid the things that challenge their self-esteem so much, while teenagers are forced to confront their weaknesses, fears and friendship challenges daily. Adults have far more choices in their lives and can focus on their strengths more easily. Teenagers are changing all the time, often in ways they don’t welcome, and this developmental stage can have a profound effect on how they feel about themselves. It takes time, patience and support to work through that.
Blame My Brain will tell you much more about natural and typical teenage brain and psychology changes.
So, what advice do I have?
There are certainly no quick-fix answers and which ones will help for the person you’re thinking of will depend on a whole load of individual circumstances which only you can know. Pick the ones you think apply.
1. Raise mood generally
Since self-esteem is often mood-based, it can be improved by improving mood more generally. So, think about all the small things you might do to raise mood (whether in yourself or another person) generally, such as getting outside and enjoying the sunshine; having a family treat together; planning a pampering activity; baking a cake, watching a funny video.
2. Have a long view
As I say, no quick-fix answers, so while “saying nice things” is not a bad idea it’s also not really even a small part of the answer. Instead, think about big changes that could have a profound effect in years to come. For example, a new hobby could lead to a whole career. This is a big ask and I’m not suggesting that in five minutes you’ll come up with a life-changing solution, but keep your mind open to those ideas that will come at some point and leap on them when they do. This means any time the person you’re worried about shows an interest in something, encourage it strongly.
Having a long view is also about understanding that things will change, that feeling vulnerable is a very common part of growing up and finding who you are while you’re changing so much.
Encourage your teenagers to have a longer view, too. “This is how you feel now but it’s very common at your age. When you’re older, you won’t feel like this.”
- Is it body image? (This would be a very common one.) Please consider buying Body Brilliant, as I’ve been told that this has had a profound effects on some young readers already. You’ll find some free resources on that page, too.
- Is it popularity and friendships? The book that sets these to rights would be The Teenage Guide to Friends.
- Academic work? Reinforce the idea that there are many ways to success and happiness in life that don’t require school exam success.
Whatever the source of low self-esteem, there are ways forward towards a better mindset.
4. Build a growth mindset not a fixed mindset
I have discovered that I seem not to have written about this on my website, though I have in my books. I will write about it here in the next couple of weeks, I promise, but meanwhile you’ll find it described in Positively Teenage. In short, a growth mindset is one that believes “I can get better at this (anything) by hard work, involving listening, good teaching, and practising effectively”. A fixed mindset is one that believes “I can’t get good at this because this isn’t one of my skills.”
One of the important ways to build a growth mindset is to praise for hard work rather than talent. “I was so impressed by how you worked towards that” is better than “You’re so good at that.”
Also, when “failure” happens, make sure you present it as an opportunity for learning. “OK, so why did that go wrong? You slept badly the night before? So, let’s see how we can prevent that from happening. You forgot to do XX? So, let’s practise doing that so you don’t forget next time.”
5. Build new brain pathways
Yes, you can! See here. And the Powerpoint is below:
6. Focus on strengths
While we need to believe we can strengthen our weaknesses, for someone with low self-esteem it’s really important to focus far more on strengths, to build, boost and praise effort to improve those strengths and experience success. So, while bearing in mind the growth mindset idea, also think about all the things the person is already strong at and find ways to bring those to the fore and give them both more time and more value. The more experience a person has of success and feeling good about something, the more willing they are to try new things and the better they can deal with “failure” when it happens.
Suppose you’re worried about your teenager’s self-esteem. What do they enjoy doing? (We usually enjoy what we’re good at.) Are there some linked activities you could encourage them to try? For example, if they enjoy sport, try another one. If they like baking cakes, think about a holiday course in another sort of cooking. If they enjoy one type of creativity, they might enjoy making clothes, or potting, or glass-making; so, can you find a holiday class or do you know someone who could teach them?
(Also see below: Notice and build character strengths)
7. What went well? Or “Three Blessings”
There’s a load of positive research on the value of this exercise: the simple act of noticing and acknowledging three things that went well that day. It doesn’t have to be achievements – it can equally be something good that happened, like having your favourite lunch or the sun shining. See here for more details.
8. Notice and build character strengths
Connected to the What Went Well exercise, there’s the idea of then acknowledging which of your character strengths you used for each of the things – or for anything else that is happening in your life. Assessing your character strengths and feeling proud of them is a great way to start improving self-esteem. See here for the VIA Character assessment quiz and details. Again, you’ll find a lot more about this in Positively Teenage.
9. Praise and thank others
When you praise someone else, you feel good yourself. Praise is generous and being generous makes the giver feel good, too. The same applies to thanking someone else: it gives you a warm glow, too. I have written about praise and gratitude here.
10. Only give praise where praise is due – but find a way for it to be due
One of the reasons that praise from parents doesn’t work well is that it often doesn’t feel valid. As children we learn that your parents are often indulgent with praise and that we are biased. (Having said that, many parents are also very picky and harsh. Some parents are both extremes at different times, which is very confusing for a child as they don’t know what to believe and end up only believing the negative.) So, when your teenager has done a bad job, don’t chuck effusive praise at them – they know they didn’t do a great job.
But do find something else valid to praise. “I was really proud of how you dealt with that – it must have been very hard and disappointing but you really rose above it.” “I thought you looked really strong in the first game.” “I loved how you looked as though you were really enjoying yourself.” And remember the growth mindset aspect: “You’re so nearly there – a little bit more work and you’ll crack it.”
11. Be a safety net, not a helicopter – don’t solve problems
If you always hover and swoop down when you see a problem brewing and sort it out for your child or teenager, you’re a helicopter parent. You’ll never show them that they can look after themselves, so they won’t learn to and won’t get the pride in doing so. Believing that they can sort some things for themselves will give them pride, along with the tools of self-sufficiency. Do it all for them and you’re teaching them to be helpless and to look to you. Instead, be like a safety net. A safety net is not there to prevent failure: it’s there to allow failure, to allow someone to fall safely and try again. By themselves. And then to feel proud when they succeed.
Self-esteem comes from learning to succeed, not learning to be helped.
12. Try not to worry
It’s terribly hard watching your wonderful child or teenager not value themselves. It’s hard not to worry and it’s hard not to show that worry. But it’s really important not to show it because if you show that you’re worried you show that you don’t have faith in them.
Instead of showing your worry, talk to them – not about their self-esteem problems but about the world, politics, opinions, art, music, values, ideas, history, anything. But, of course, when I say “talk to them”, what I mean is “discuss with them”, which means, above all….
Because to listen is to value, to respect, to reveal their worth to them. To listen is to hold them in esteem. And that is the secret to building self-esteem, not by what you say but by how carefully you listen.
From Relate, see here
From Young Minds, here
My books, especially Positively Teenage, The Teenage Guide to Friends and Body Brilliant – signed copies are available from the books section of this website