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

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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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.


Great article and interview! Very helpful! Look forward to hearing more from Josh - also I'm going to order his program.

Comment By : Debbie

Helpful... especially the reminder that teen brains are "erased" every day and frequent reminders that they are loved are necessary. And I liked the suggestion to ask what is difficult... I'll try it with my son and see what happens.

Comment By : Maya

Very strong article, lots of common sense suggestions for self -esteem building techniques that can readily be incorporated into the rush of daily schedules. One point I really appreciated was the sane groundedness of the advice- I believe that the recent trend of "you can be anything you want to be " unless modified with some healthy reality checks, can offer deliver crushing blows to adolescent (and adult) self-regard when American Idol or the NBA do not come knocking at your door sophmore year. These are, after all, young people just coming out of childhood who simply are not aware of how to temper big dreams with reality,and they risk damage to their self-esteem through artificial comparisons, fostered by much of the popular media. Excellent article; will recommend to others and will look forward to following Josh Shipp's writings.

Comment By : Florabunda

my 17 yr old son has been in the wilderness for 30+ days he knows he is loved but needs direction on making healthier choices , I agree with Josh how important it is to get our teens counted. we must insist . they get involved in activites at school or program. i am still looking for a support group for him, when he get home

Comment By : linda Volk

WOW! Great article! Thanks for your work Josh. I don't have kids but I frequently work with teens and this is a huge help in understanding how to get through to them. Keep doing what you're doing!

Comment By : David

Wow. Great article; love the tip on using (positive) movies / media to 'break the ice' on what's going on their lives. Look forward to more. Keep up the great work Josh!

Comment By : Brett V

Great article!! I have two teenagers this article will help me in so many ways with communicating with them. Thanks Josh you are amazing!!

Comment By : Kim

Great stuff!!! As a child, I could definitely relate to your experiences, but for different reasons. And as an adult with 2 preteens, I am doing my best to "remember" all of those things, so I can relate and hopefully deal appropriately with my kids. I enjoyed the "movie" tip! I immediately felt conscious of the fact, I retreat to the office or room for something "more grown up" but I think before they are all grown up I will make it a point to stay open to what they like and why they like it! As always, you continue to bring something fresh and new to the table! You're amazing & real! Thanks for going to bat for the kids of America & the parents who have them!!! God bless!

Comment By : Bobby R

Great job Josh! Keep up the good work. This article has a lot of great, simple, common-sense tips that are good to be reminded of.

Comment By : Jfinger

Excellent article! Everything I have come across put out by Josh Shipp (articles, videos, audios, etc.) has been some of, if not THE BEST material on communicating with teens. In fact, I am reading (and loving) his brand new book: "THE TEENS GUIDE TO WORLD DOMINATION: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Awesomeness!"

Comment By : "Yo Pal" Hal Elrod

Very helpful. I think as parents we need more information like this put in front of us on a repetitive basis so we can begin to act on it and make it happen, just as kids need to hear things on a repetitive basis to believe them! Thanks so much.

Comment By : Tabbatha

Thanks for all you do Josh! This is a great article. As a caseworker, I can not only utilize this information for the kids I work with directly, but also pass it on to the foster parents I work with! Keep up the great work!!

Comment By : Melanie

I run a group home and about 6 of those kids at one time are teens...great insight...I definitely agree and appreciate your coach illustration which is dead on. Michael

Comment By : Michael

Growing up I didn't have an open communication with my sometimes I have a hard time approaching situations. Now a days you cannot afford NOT to communicate and be involved in your kids' lives. As a parent, I really appreciate your experience and knowledge that helps us deal with the everyday challenges in dealing with teenagers.

Comment By : Marcy Romero

Love it! Got alot out of this!

Comment By : Clint C.

Great Information and very helpful tools.

Comment By : Sarah

is it ever apporieate to kick a child out of the house at 15 for drinking and joy riding and refusing to go to school?

Comment By : dale

As an instructor in a martial arts program, I totally agree with the comment about "staying off the court." Doesn't matter what the age - if someone "takes care" of something for you, the message is "you can't" - a huge blow to the self-esteem. On being positive, teens need messages like "I know you can handle this situation", or "I know you can do this". Follow with a reassurance like "everything is going to be ok", and "this,too, will pass."

Comment By : Nancy C

I have a 12 year old son diagnoes with odd. He definitely fits the bill. He has recently quit all the sports that he was in (and loves). We are on our 6th counselor and have recently resorted toa community program. The problem is that he will not talk to anyone, at all. He can sit with counselors for an hour and not say a word. When I try to talk to him, he barely says anything. I will try Josh's suggestions, and pray that something clicks and my son will open up. It's as if he doesn't want anyone to "know" him. Any other suggestions would be helpful

Comment By : sirlee

So many great things come from people with the confidence to share their gifts with others. What a great article about how parents can help their kids make a difference in the world by being real and positive with them now.

Comment By : Emily B

* Sirlee: Sorry to hear about what your son is going through. PLEASE Don't lose hope. Do try a few of my suggestions above. Particularly the movie one. I'd be curious what his favorite movie is and why. Two Specific Pieces of advice for you: #1- I went through a lot of counselors as a kid. I wouldn't talk to them either. WHY? I felt like they were all against me. Then one tried a different approach. "Josh, you're not a bad kid. Here's why I think you get angry. It relates to this thing you went through. Let's not worry about the anger, let's talk about why you're getting angry" Made a big difference. I finally opened up to him and worked through my issues. #2 - I don't like the idea of him removing himself from things he loves. He needs to learn to stick with things. If he doesn't wanna play sports b/c they aren't his thing…that's cool. But what is? What would you enjoy? What do you wanna get involved in? What would you like to try? Kids learn so much through group activities…encourage him to find something he'd like.

Comment By : Josh Shipp

Thanks Josh!! I definitely am going to try your suggestions, especially the movie one. I have to wait for the right time to approach him, though. I know he loves his sports, so we are still encouraging him to attend. He is one of the best at almost all sports, and the coaches love him as a player. He doesn't even talk to them though. The coaches are willing to let him attend if he feels like it, and they will let him play most of the game. Is this a bad idea...letting him choose when he wants to go. I'm definitely going to pick up your book. Keep us in your thoughts. We're feeling very lost.

Comment By : sirlee

* dale: I can't tell you how many times my foster parents wanted to give up on me. And yet they didn't. And that's why I've not only survived, but thrived. I know it's hard to grasp right now, but your 15-year-old has PHENOMENAL potential. You must remind yourself of that. You must gain control of your home again. It's YOUR home and YOUR family. Your kid needs counseling, positive activities, and a structure of discipline in his life. If you are using The Total Transformation Program, I'd encourage you to call our Parental Support Line so we can walk you through some practical things you can do to get him on the right track. From a kid who's been there, I want to challenge you to see who he could be. Hold on to that when you feel discouraged.

Comment By : Josh Shipp

Very informative article, especially because you give real-life examples that are easy to relate to. Sorry for what you had to go through, but happy you made it so you can help so many others. Thank you, Josh!

Comment By : Laura B.

:) I like that! Little bits of inspiration are so helpful when as parents we can feel so ill prepared at times. THANKS!

Comment By : E'shnae

Very practical very honest. I've doubted whether the positive/uplifting image comments I make are even heard.

Comment By : hjg

Wow! I can't believe I haven't heard of Josh before now. Thank you for bring his great message and solutions to our attention. Great advice - practical and easy to digest.

Comment By : Kathy M

this was a really great article and very timely for our family. thanks! I so appreciate "steps", things I can try...and the analogy of the coach and team...perfect. I just read some of the other comments and will be getting Josh's book as well.

Comment By : toni

Your article is just what I needed to read. The video also was helpful. My 9 soon to be 10 year old is having such a hard time right now. Identity-- that is what I want for her, to find her own identity. She started 3rd grade and seems to be having some problems in social situations, but it's hard to tell. She doesn't say a lot about what happens and it appears that she makes friends easily. She is hospitalized right now and is saying some things about being hit by another girl. I am sooooo ready to have someone else talk to her, someone who knows what it was like to have 6 foster families before me. I don't want to give up on her because I know that she can be fabulous. I will try the CDs and see how she responds.

Comment By : MaryCatherine

Wow! As a single parent of two preteens i find this information super helpful, Thank you!!! Boys go through emotional rollercoasters as girls do, i've learned. i will have to pick up your book Josh!

Comment By : Eve

Very timely and wise words of encouragement. I will certainly apply them. I like the ides of taking them out on a lunch date. I know that my son will like that a lot. Keep up the good work Josh. Thank you.

Comment By : Anna Philbert

Thank you for the article. It is a beginning for me. I have a 15 year old son who I am home schooling for the first time. He is a freshman. I couldn't get him to go to school last year or the year before. He came close to failing and I almost had to pay a fine. Now he stays in all the time and plays video games. He doesn't shower and he is gaining weight. He seems so sad and depressed. I want to cry. I don't know what to do to help him....

Comment By : sharon

I really appreciate you sharing something so personal. I am a mom of a very confident child. But at 30yrs old, I am the one with low self-esteem, which is why I read the article. I'm grateful that I didnt have to teach that to my son. I will use the great advice about getting him to open up about his life to me.

Comment By : M.F.

Thank you for your article. My son is 15 and dyslexic. He is a brilliant kid but has NO confidence in himself in any subject that challenges him (particularly English and Any foreign language). He has big aspirations to be a Lawyer, but doesn't listen when teachers or any adult gives him guidance in this area. He insists HE is learning to be independent and we have to back off and allow him to figure it out. I love the self-advocation that is true, but also realize that this is a huge smokescreen to get us to back off... He has more specifically become very combative with me and pushed me (his only parent) away from any discussions of value. He loves his grandparents and will talk to them more, but he is not respectful of me or my siblings (his Aunt/Uncle's) because their positioning is similar to mine. So my question is this. How do I get my amazing, witty and very smart son to hear and talk to the poeple in his life that love him the most and have the most infmroation to provide - how do we regain his respect so he will reciprocate it. We have tried movies, discussions in the car, and all of the little tricks. He is very witty and has an old soul and sees right through it all, and ususally comes up with a brilliant retort that inevitably leaves us speechless... Stuggling to get him to see that he has to respect us and show it.

Comment By : KH

* Hi 'KH': It can be difficult when our kids refuse to listen to us, especially when we have valuable information. Respect is something that is difficult to demand from another person, mainly because it means different things to different people. We recommend looking for specific behaviors rather than the general term “respect”. For example, you might let him know that while it is OK to disagree with someone, interrupting and name-calling is not. We also recommend role-modeling these behaviors for your son, even if he is behaving in disrespectful ways. I am attaching an article you might find helpful: Ask the Parental Support Specialists: Can You Demand Respect from Your Kids? Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

Thank you for the article. Josh, my son is 15 and has been bullied for the past 6 years at school. His friends no longer associate with him, leaving him to search for acceptance with those who smoke and possible drugs to feel good about himself. He won't talk to anymore counselors because they "judge" him. He is an honor student who wants to drop out of the honor classes, yet a really good kid, but very troubled. His self-esteem is at the bottom. He used to be interested in baseball (didn't make the team) and wants to quit band. This summer has been very explosive with him sneaking out at night, and being very rebellious. I am willing to try anything at this point to save my son.

Comment By : S.S.

Thanks for these articles. I am a widowed mom of a 15 yo son (only child) just starting high school (10th grade here). Friendships are changing, kids moving on. He is socially immature with peers, not afraid to speak up, but sometimes immature and somewhat pestering in his remarks/comments (from what I gather on Facebook) along with being a bit cocky (he will tell kids how awesome or how great he is at something). Remarks to him on Facebook are negative and not complimentary at all. Totally took me off guard as I've always thought him well-liked by peers. He is well-liked by adults. If a girl doesn't want to go out with him, he asks if she hates him. I am very concerned about his self-esteem and worry about the negativity shown towards him. Any suggestions on how to approach/help without trying to fix...which is my usual approach for most things. Thank you very much!!

Comment By : Kathy DG

* To “Kathy DG”: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. As a parent, it can be difficult to know where the line is between helping and fixing. Social skills can be tricky for teens because not everyone develops the same or at the same rate. We would suggest having conversations that focus more on problem solving and helping your son come up with solutions to these issues instead of trying to give him the solutions. Sara Bean gives some great tips on how to have a problem-solving conversation with your son in her article The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems.” Even though the issue isn’t your son acting out per se, I believe the information in the article could still be helpful for your situation. This, combined with the suggestions Josh makes in the article for how to start conversations with your teen, may be useful in helping you determine the best approach to your dilemma. We wish you and your family luck as you work with your son to develop better social skills. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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