“I’m ugly.” “Everyone hates me.” “I’m going to fail—I’m too stupid to pass this test.”

Why are teens and pre–teens often insecure, anxious and over–sensitive? Adolescence is a risky, dangerous time of life. Your child is attempting to figure out who he is, how he wants to be in the world and how others perceive him. In some ways, the teen years are like the terrible twos, only the stakes are much higher, because your child’s job is to form his identity and separate from you.

It’s also a time when parents often go from having a special, positive bond with their child to a phase where your kid wants to push you away. At the same time, he’s also pulling you in for reassurance. It’s as if your child is saying, “I love you, I hate you; I need your help, you’re embarrassing me; stay close, but I don’t want you to walk next to me on the street.” For all these reasons and more, adolescence is an anxiety–provoking, tumultuous time, both for your child and for you.

The message to your child is, “I will be there to help you but I’m not going through it—you are.”

Coaching Your Child

Here are six tips to help you when your child is feeling anxious and insecure.

1. Check Yourself

If you have an anxious, insecure teen at home, the first step is to monitor your own anxiety around your child’s stress. In some ways, it’s important to be a great actor or actress as a parent. The goal is to be calmly available to your child and take your own anxiety out of the equation. Ask yourself, “Is this my child’s anxiety or mine coming up?” From there, you’ll have a sense of, “Okay, my child is worried because she thinks her friends are mad at her, but I’m really anxious about how peer pressure is influencing her.” Remember that you and your child are different, and your thinking comes from two different places. The bottom line is that you can’t change your child’s feelings or the situation, but you can help her through it.

So separate your own feelings from your child’s feelings. As hard as it is, you have to let your kids experience pain and anxiety. Realize that you can work to help your child, but you can’t live the painful moments for her.

I also recommend that you talk about your own anxiety with someone you trust—your spouse, a friend, a counselor. It’s very normal for parents to feel anxiety about their kid’s anxiety, especially if it’s connected to a real situation.

Remember, it’s not the anxiety itself, but how we manage our anxiety that’s important; again, the key is to separate your own anxiety from your child’s. You can help them through it, but they’re the ones who have to live it.

2. Reassure Your Child—but Give Him Space When He Needs It

Know when to step in and support your child and when to give him space. Your job is to reassure and not overreact. Take cues from your child to know when to step in; try to have a sense of when he wants to talk and when he wants his space. If you say something and it seems to just rev him up, take a step back. It’s a fine line for parents, but so important to be there when he needs you and to really listen. The message to your child is, “I will be there to help you but I’m not going through it—you are.”

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3. Help Normalize Your Child’s Anxious Feelings

When your child comes to you with something she’s anxious about, try to stay objective. Don’t make her feel as if what she’s saying is silly; let her know that a lot of people get nervous about things. For example, if your child has a big presentation for English class and is really stressed, you could say, “It’s normal to feel anxious at times like these; everyone does. We all have areas that are scary for us.” You could continue to coach her by saying, “When I’m nervous, I go take a walk or call a friend and talk. When you have those feelings, what do you think you could do to calm down?” It’s also helpful to remind your child of when she did something successfully before. “Remember when you were in the play last year? You did a great job, and I’m sure you will again.”

By the way, if there really is something traumatic happening in your child’s life, like a divorce, a significant move, or a death, this is a highly anxious time for both of you. But even when things are most difficult, it’s important to respond to your child by being reassuring and supportive; try to normalize some of her feelings. (This also may be a time when you seek out additional help from your child’s pediatrician or a counselor.)

4. Be Helpful and Supportive, but Don’t Take Over

Help your child if he’s having trouble making choices. Be supportive and do what you can to help, but don’t jump in and try to do it for him. For example, you could say, “What can I do to be helpful? If you need extra time to work on your project, I can go to the library for you and pick up the books you requested.” It’s also a good idea to talk to your child and tell him what to expect. A lot of anxiety is fear of the unknown. If someone can walk us through a situation before we do it, it can help a lot.

5. Don’t Tease or Minimize

While it might seem that your child is upset about something that doesn’t seem to be that serious to you, remember that these are real feelings for her and it’s important not to minimize them. It’s also important to tread gently, and to respond kindly and respectfully to her. Let’s say your child is convinced she doesn’t have anything to wear to school in the morning. Don’t make fun of her for being nervous or tell her it’s not a big deal. Again, help normalize the situation by saying that a lot of kids feel the same way, and then try to break things down into bite–sized pieces. Maybe she needs to narrow down her choices and pick out her clothes the night before school.

6. Don’t Negate

It’s important not to negate what your child is feeling, even if they’re exaggerating. For example, your daughter might say something like, “I’m so ugly; nothing looks good on me.” Don’t negate her by saying, “No, you’re not. That’s ridiculous!” The truth is, kids do have a distorted perception of their bodies during adolescence, and in fact, their bodies are changing so quickly it would be hard for them to be realistic. The media also offers a distorted view of what kids should look like during adolescence, which adds to their frustration. It’s a fine line for parents: kids want reassurance, but they don’t really buy it from their parents because we aren’t cool. While kids seem to value the feedback they get from peers most at this point, you still need to give them reassurance and say positive things when you can.

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I think if your child says, “I’m so ugly, I look terrible,” you could always respond by saying, “I’m your mom; you’ll always be beautiful to me.” Later, try to find something good to say about them. Use “hypodermic affection” by giving your child little, unexpected compliments out of the blue. You might say, “Wow, that color looks great on you!” or “That hair length really suits your face.” Your child may act like she doesn’t care what you say, but believe me, she’s listening and it matters to her.

Note: Because anxiety in children and young adolescents can often have physical symptoms, (e.g. stomach aches, headaches, lack of energy), be sure to have your pediatrician rule out any medical issues to make sure it’s not a problem with physical origins. If your child’s anxiety is such that he isn’t going to school or seeing friends and is isolating himself from your family, it’s time to seek outside help from a professional in your community.

Related Content:
Teen Moodiness: Is It Normal or Is It Depression?
Freaked Out Part I: Understanding Kids with Anxiety


Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

Comments (4)
  • Eika S

    Reading all these comments I so can relate. We have a 14-year old daughter, Tess, who was severely bullied in 7th and 8th grade. It was so bad that we actually chose to home school her the last half of her 8th grade year. She was severely depressed and her self confidence was at an all time low. A good friend of mine is a well known therapist in the area where we live and she recommended the most incredible summer program called Amplify Sleep Away Camp for Girls . Its a music and arts camp for teen girls located in the mountains in Ojai, California. Tess had never played an instrument before - but over the course of two weeks she was playing the drums like she had been taking lessons for years. The entire program focuses on building girls self esteem, mentorship, and lifting each other up. I've got to say I was terrified to send her away after the year we'd had, but after reading so many positive reviews online and talking with another family who had a daughter in a similar situation to ours, we decided to go for it. It was seriously the best decision we could have made. I know people talk about things " changing" their kids - and I know as a parent, a mom, you'd do anything to see your kid happy and making positive strides in life - this is what this program gave to Tess. When I came to pick her up and see her band perform their original song and all her new friends chanting her name during her drum solo - her smile was the biggest I'd seen since she was a kid!! She feels like this community of girls and incredible staff ( which included therapists on site) are like a second family to her. This year she started high school and has been making friends and getting better grades. She is in love with playing the drums and she talks with her " best friends" from summer camp every week - some of them nightly. Anyway - I just thought I'd put in my two sense about what really helped our family. Sending love to all.

  • Jo02ph99
    Kia ora thank you I really want to help my darling daughter to love herself, she has low self esteem tends to manipulate blames everyone else I know she going through a hard time during her teenage years she turned 17 yesterday. Also it's even challenging when her boyfriendMore lives with us as well and he has teenage issues as well. Please help me, thank you.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      I hear you. 

      It can be so difficult for most parents when your child is struggling with her

      self-esteem, and does not seem to have confidence in herself.  Something

      we often talk about is that kids generally gain self-confidence by doing things

      that are difficult for them, and working hard to achieve relevant goals. 

      Thus, it tends to be more effective to focus on your daughter’s actions and

      habits, and helping her to take responsibility for herself, rather than trying

      to make her feel a certain way about herself.  You might find more helpful

      tips in another one of Janet Lehman’s articles, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-build-self-esteem-in-children-and-teens/.  Please be sure to write

      back and let us know how things are going.  Take care.

  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


    Hi there-Based on the comments you have submitted on this

    article, it sounds like you might need some support right now.I strongly encourage you to contact the http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), so you can get the help you need

    to stay safe.Thank you for reaching

    out, and I wish you all the best as you continue to move forward.Take care.

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