Teen and tween age boys and girls have a lot to deal with. Their bodies are changing, their relationships with friends and family members are in flux and they are bombarded from every direction with messages about how they should look, how they should behave and what they should think. Often, the changes taking place in their lives are happening more rapidly than their ability to adjust to them.
Poor self-esteem tends to peak in early adolescence, then improves during the middle and late teen years as identities gain strength and focus. At any age, however, a lack of confidence can be a serious problem. Young teens with poor self-esteem can be lonely, awkward with others, are sensitive to criticism and can be hyper-sensitive to what they see as their shortcomings. Kids who lack confidence and have low self-esteem are less likely to join in activities and form friendships. The more they isolate themselves from activities that allow them to grow, the more difficult it is to develop a better self-image. When they do make friends, they are more vulnerable to negative peer pressure.
Some kids who lack confidence in their image and abilities hold back in class. Others act out to gain attention. Even more concerning, a lack of confidence and a poor self-image is often linked with self-destructive behavior and habits – smoking or drug or alcohol use, for example.
Young girls who had oozed self-confidence as first and second graders, can transform overnight into shy, self-doubting tweens and teens. Here are a few of the reasons:
• Society and the media send girls the message that it’s important for them to get along with others and to be very, very thin and pretty.
• Girls mature physically about two years earlier than boys do, requiring that they deal with issues of how they look, popularity and sexuality before they are emotionally mature enough to do so.
• Girls may receive confusing messages about the importance of achievement. Although girls are told that achievement is important, some also fear that they won’t be liked, especially by boys, if they come across as too smart or too capable, especially in the areas of math, science and technology.
Life can be just as hard for a boy who thinks he has to meet society’s expectations being good at sports and other physical activities and excelling academically in “male-oriented” subjects.
• Society tells boys they are expected to exude self-confidence and swagger. While girls their age are becoming less assertive, boys are encouraged to take on a more dominant, alpha male stance, whether that is their personality or not.
• Boys, too often are belittled for being sensitive or gentle. Often they are discouraged by their peers from showing emotion or empathy, and are groomed for achievement and leadership, while their female counterparts are programmed to be caregivers and people pleasers.
• Boys can be just as influenced by what social media deems the perfect body image as girls. They too, must be thin, have perfect hair and a clear complexion. To top it off, they are generally two years behind girls their age in their rate of maturation.
The best way to instill confidence in someone is to give them successful experiences. Kids need the opportunity to succeed. Their successful experiences can show them how powerful they are.
Cultivate your child’s interest in outside activities. You can help your adolescent to build confidence in their abilities by encouraging them to take part in activities that interest them and in which they excel. It could be taking an art class, acting in a play, joining a soccer or baseball team, attending science camp or playing a musical instrument – whatever they like to do that brings out the best in them. Don’t push a particular activity on your child. Most kids, whether they are 3 or 13 years old, resist efforts to get them to do things that they don’t enjoy. Pushing kids to participate in activities they haven’t chosen for themselves can lead to frustration.
Help young teens feel safe and trust in themselves. The ability of adolescents to trust in themselves comes from receiving unconditional love that helps them feel safe and develop the ability to solve their own problems. Your child, like all children, will encounter situations that require them to lean on you and others. But always relying on you to bail them out of tough situations can stunt their emotional growth. Our children need us to teach them how to cope with the difficult situations they encounter, instead of always easing the path.
Praise and encourage. Praise is meaningful to adolescents when it comes from those they love and count on most – their parents and other important adults in their lives. Praising your child will help them gain confidence. However, the compliments that you give them must be genuine. Kids know it when they are not.
Have patience. As adults, most people have confidence, but it didn’t come overnight. This confidence comes about through years of experiencing successes and failures, and exploring our strengths and weaknesses. We also have the hindsight to see how self-esteem has to develop and grow over time, even the cool kids feel shaky and unworthy underneath all of the outward show of bravado. As adults, we tend to find our areas of strength and – to the extent we can – to pursue these areas more than others. Even though it’s difficult for adolescents to downplay the areas in which they are less confident, we can help by acknowledging their struggles and celebrating their achievements.