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Self-esteem and Anxiety in Teens: Plus 5 Ways to Start Real Conversations with Your Teen

By Q&A with Josh Shipp

Self-esteem and Anxiety in Teens: Plus 5 Ways to Start Real Conversations with Your Teen

Does your teen have low self–esteem? Maybe he has a lousy self image, or anxiety about fitting in at school or with peers. This week in EP, read about these difficult adolescent issues from someone who’s been there and knows what he’s talking about.

Abandoned and abused as a child, Josh Shipp was raised by a series of foster parents who tried their best, but couldn’t handle his behavior issues. Then he found one loving, determined foster family who took him in as an adolescent and got him on the right track. Josh was able to overcome the pain of abuse, neglect and bullying, and is now known as “The Teen Whisperer” for the insight and advice he gives to adolescents and their parents.

"I think poor self–esteem comes from running up against adversity and not understanding how to recover from it."

EP: Josh, can you tell us about your own experience with low self–esteem as a kid? 

JS: I think a lot of it for me was the result of simply not fitting in and not feeling like I had a place to be. Not only did I have an unusual family situation, but as a kid I used eating to deal with my pain—food was my “drug of choice.” I became overweight as a child and I remember being bullied quite a bit. I think that no matter how good or bad your self–esteem is at first, if you hear negative things day in and day out, it’s going to wear on you. It’s going to break you down regardless of how confident you might be in yourself. As a result of being moved around from foster family to foster family until I was 14 and then being bullied at each new school for my weight issue, I always felt like an outsider.

EP: Do you remember when you finally started to feel comfortable in your own skin and accept and like who you were? 

JS: When I was in middle school, I moved in with the Weidenmaiers, the family who eventually took me in permanently. The affirmation I received from them helped me get to that place of confidence and good self–esteem. My parents spoke positive words to me every single day, and that was what I really needed more than anything.

Oftentimes parents think, “Well, my kid knows that I think he’s great; he already knows I love him and believe in him.” But you have to understand that with pre–teens and teenagers, it’s almost as if all their memories are erased every single day. In the same way, if you say “I love you” to your wife the day you get married and think that will do for the rest of your married life, you’re mistaken. No marriage is going to survive on that and no kid’s self–esteem is going to survive on yearly or quarterly affirmations.

EP: That’s good insight, because many parents of adolescents tell us that their kids try to shut them down even when they’re trying to compliment them.

JS: Absolutely. Frankly, there were times as a teenager when I would say, “Aw come on Mom, that’s so annoying,” or “Stop it, you’re embarrassing me.” But deep down, I called on her positive words about my character in those moments of pain when I was being picked on or bullied or felt “less than.” So don’t feel like you’re being overbearing by being repetitive. As a matter of fact, repetition is really needed with this age group.

EP: Was there anything else that happened as a kid that caused your self–esteem to grow?

JS: I think a turning point was when I actively began to find places where I could belong at school. I tried out for a few different sports; I did some theater and tried out a few leadership activities. I won’t lie—some of those things went very poorly. But sometimes to find out what your thing is, you have to first find out what it isn’t. Eventually, I found a few activities that I felt I could be good at, where I could relate to the other kids. That gave me an incredible sense of self–esteem. School became not just a place for academics and books, but it was also a place where I could belong in something beyond the classroom.

The truth is, your child doesn’t get to know other kids in the classroom—not really. In class, you have to be quiet because you’re learning and the teacher needs to keep control. It’s in extracurricular activities where your child can get to know other kids. Something parents can do is to encourage their kids to try out a bunch of new things. When teens find something they like to do, it helps them begin to feel like they have a group or a community at school—which then leads to being picked on less. I think this is a very positive thing kids can do to bully–proof themselves and help their self–esteem. Think of it this way: even if three or four kids at school like your child and have his back, when he’s teased he’ll be able to say, “Who cares? Those other kids are jerks anyway.” 

EP: Josh, you say that “If you don’t talk it out, you’re going to act out.” But a kid who is riddled with anxiety and low self–esteem won’t talk about what’s bothering him—especially to his parents. What’s the solution?

JS: This is something that I experienced firsthand as a kid. I had a lot of issues in my life and I was not talking them through with anybody. I was constantly “acting them out”—acting up in school and causing trouble. When you’re dealing with these problems as an adolescent, in reality you’re dealing with grownup issues—but you haven’t developed enough to really be able to manage them effectively. Ultimately, these issues get acted out in other ways: bullying, talking out, acting out, yelling, anger and defiance and inappropriate behavior.

I personally think teens need a venue where they can feel safe and comfortable and not be judged, where they can talk their problems through. This is something that I think parents can and should do for their kids. A lot of parents say, “Well, how can I get my kid to open up to me? They don’t want to talk to me about this stuff.” I think that it is definitely possible to get your kid to talk to you about the issues he’s dealing with. Here are five techniques that work:

  1. “Talk to me about what’s hard”: Something you can say to your teen to get the ball rolling is, “Talk to me about the things that are hard for you; tell me about the difficult things in your life.” That’s a very good way of ripping off the Band–aid that’s covering the things they’re holding in and actually want to talk about. I also find that if you can talk about the hard things you faced in your life when you were a teen, it makes you vulnerable. In return, there’s a good chance your child will feel comfortable being vulnerable to you.
  1. Use movies to start conversations: I find that teenagers are most vulnerable after they’ve seen something that moves them or brings up an issue in their lives. Movies work really well as a neutral conversation–starter. I recommend that you find out what your child’s favorite movie is and then watch it together. (Understand ahead of time that whatever their favorite movie is probably isn’t going to be your favorite movie in the world.) I always encourage parents to watch the movie without judging the content, but instead by judging what’s behind the content. Why is your child drawn to this particular movie? What is the storyline within that they find so interesting and compelling? Believe me, there’s something important that makes your child like it so much. Is it a story about a kid who everybody counted out but who ends up succeeding? Is it a movie about a girl who is excluded? Look for the meaning behind the movie.

To start a conversation afterward, you can say, “Hey, wasn’t that scene where the main character made her decision really interesting? Why do you think she did that?” Again, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Talking about the movie will lead to conversations you would not have had otherwise. Let’s face it, it’s awkward to sit down and say, “Let’s talk about your self–esteem.” It’s just unrealistic; your kid is going to shut down and think you’re being dumb.

  1. Make a regular lunch date with your teen: Try to take your teenager out to lunch at least once a month with no agenda whatsoever. You’re not taking them out of school and having lunch because you’ve got this big thing you need to talk about; don’t do it in order to grill them about doing drugs or something like that. Rather, you’re taking them out as a bonding mechanism—you’re making a deposit in a goodwill account. Later, they might talk to you instead of stuffing everything deep down inside and then acting it out.
  1. Show your child how to deal with difficulty: I think teenagers especially need role models. It’s important for you to show your child what it’s like to deal with conflict effectively. Show your teen how to handle it when you make a mistake. Apologize when you screw up or say the wrong things. Actively demonstrate good ways to deal with anxiety or stress. All of these things need to be modeled for them as much as possible.
  1. Try to speak your teen’s language: Adults are comfortable with face–to–face communication, but kids are often much more comfortable communicating via email and text message. I don’t think it’s because they haven’t developed their social skills—rather, for a teenager, an important social skill is knowing how to do that. So I often encourage parents to speak their kid’s language. By that I mean to send your child a text message once a day and say, “Hey, have a good day,” or “Thinking about you” or “Good luck on your test.” That way, you’re reaching out to your child on their turf. That goes a long way toward building rapport.

EP: Josh, do you think you can build self–esteem in your child or is it something they have to do for themselves? 

JS: I think it’s both. Ultimately, anything important in life is up to the individual, because they’re the ones who are going to make the decision. But it’s certainly a situation where you might be able to help. I don’t think self–esteem is necessarily something we’re born with. I think it’s about creating opportunities to work out that confidence muscle. Sadly, for a lot of young people, that muscle is not worked out at all.

As a parent, you can give your child opportunities to fail and succeed in a safe environment. Often I think poor self–esteem comes from running up against adversity and not understanding how to recover from it. For example, let’s say some kid at school says your child is a fat loser and she doesn’t know how to recover from that so it devastates her. What happens is that her self–esteem goes down the toilet. But if she gets trained and is prepared prior to that verbal attack and knows how to deal with it, it won’t affect her as much. That’s why it doesn’t affect some kids as much as others— they’ve been properly prepared.

People are often anxious about what they don’t know or they’re not familiar with. This is why people get nervous about job interviews. It can be very nerve–racking the first few times you’re interviewed because you don’t know what to expect. The more you can rehearse and prepare ahead of time, the better. The same goes for your child. If your kid is not prepared for a test, he’s not going to do well. In the same way, if your teen isn’t prepared for the negative challenges he’s going to be presented with, it’s probably not going to go that well.

EP: Josh, do you have any more advice for parents about their role in helping to build their child’s self–esteem?

JS: There’s a famous quote that says “Every battle is won before it’s fought.” A lot of places kids go—school, the playground, the Internet—can be hostile environments where not every person has their best interests in mind. So before they leave home, they need to know who they are and how to handle it when people say or do hurtful things. That’s why I think it’s important to let your kids take risks in an environment where they’re safe and where you can be there for them. I don’t mean fix their problems for them. You can brainstorm with your child, but ultimately, he needs to be the one to pick up the phone and apologize to that relative who he said that mean thing to. Don’t ever pick up the phone for your child and say, “Oh, I want to apologize for my son’s behavior.” You can do that if he’s three years old, but don’t do that if he’s 14. Let him take responsibility and apologize himself. You’re not going to be doing that when he’s 30, are you? You’re not going to apologize to his wife for him, are you? So train him now—otherwise he’s going to go out into the world and not know how to deal with things.

Remember, your job as a coach is not to step on the court—it’s to coach from the sidelines. Just remove yourself from the court. You’re not doing your child a favor by playing the game for them. I know that parents sometimes get in there because they want to help, but if you’re doing that, ultimately you’re handicapping your child.

Look at what a coach does. They prepare the team before game time. Everyone might practice hundreds of hours for a two–hour game. The team goes out there, they try some things, they do some things well, they do other things poorly. And then the coach breaks it down at half–time. “All right, here’s what’s working; here’s what’s not. What do you need to do this better? Don’t shut down, you’re going back out on the court, but how could you improve? How could you take this to another level? How could you deal with this in a different way?” That’s what a coach does and that’s what you need to do as a parent with your teen’s self–esteem.

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About Q&A with Josh Shipp

Josh Shipp is a teen communication expert. Abandoned and abused as a child, Josh was able to triumph over the tragedy and positively influence the lives of the countless adolescents he’s coached. He has appeared on MTV, CNN, and FOX. Josh has spoken at Harvard, M.I.T., UCLA, and Stanford on the science of getting teens to listen.

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