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Does Your Teen Have a Negative Self-image? Real Tips for Parents

By Josh Shipp, The Teen Whisperer

When kids hit the pre–teen years, insecurities begin to creep in. Many adolescents start to worry that they’re not popular, good–looking or smart enough. In fact, it’s common for even the most self–assured teen to be down at times. In this frank conversation with Josh Shipp, he explains how you can help your child avoid the pitfalls of negativity.

Note: If your child seems distressed, despondent or sad for a prolonged period of time, have them seen by someone with professional diagnostic skills. Be sure to have a pediatrician rule out any underlying issues that might be causing depression.

“You can think of yourself as an attorney who needs to bring up situations that give your child proof of his competence, intelligence, and likability.”

EP: Josh, kids often get down on themselves during adolescence. Why do you think this is the case?

JS: I believe this happens because teens have grown–up responsibilities and pressures without the benefit of grown–up experience. Many of the things that you have to face as an adult are thrust upon you right when you’re going through the most awkward time of your life. You suddenly have responsibilities and pressures to deal with but you don’t have any prior experience to guide you. So I believe it’s understandably a time of stress. A lot of teenagers—and frankly, a lot of people in general—react poorly to stress. When you’re young, a common thing to do is shut down or get irritable and moody. When parents talk to me about their kids, the two most common ways they describe their teenagers are, “My daughter just yells and snaps at me all the time,” or “My son shuts down and seems to be in a shell.”

The silver lining here is that, as uncomfortable or difficult as it feels sometimes, stress and the situations that stretch your kids serve to make them stronger. So the experiences that your teen is going through can, over time, help make your child into a more responsible young adult.

Stress is a lot like weightlifting. When you lift weights, what you’re actually doing is tearing the muscle tissue in a healthy way, and that is what makes your muscles stronger. I believe this is similar for teenagers under the normal stresses of everyday life. Your teen is going to be stretched and stressed during adolescence and this will sometimes cause moodiness. I think what is important, as a parent, is to give your teen those opportunities for relief and relaxation in a similar way that you need to give your muscles time to rest and rebuild, so they can get stronger.

By the way, understand that I’m not saying that it’s okay for your teen to talk badly to you—I’m not justifying that behavior. But what I am saying is that being moody or withdrawing are often just ways that teenagers deal with stress.

Related: Does your child or teen use disrespectful language, nasty back talk or verbal abuse?

EP: If your teen has a poor self–image, what can you say to help him see himself more accurately?

JS: When teenagers are feeling insecure, they’ll tend to say things like, “I’m such a screw–up,” or “I always fail” or “I can never do anything right.” Since we’re talking about teenagers and not five–year–olds, I think it’s important not to tell them what to think, but help them think for themselves. So a helpful way to do this is to ask your child a series of questions and give them evidence of their success. I think you have to convincingly state your case, like an attorney would.

A conversation might go something like this:

You: “So tell me about that time you got an A on your history report. That went pretty well right?”

Your child: “Yeah, I guess so.”

You: “And what about the time you helped your uncle with his computer? You were pretty smart about that, don’t you think?”

Your child: “Yeah, so?”

You: “And what about last summer, when you had the part–time job? I remember that you had a good time and made some new friends there. Everybody really liked you.”

Your child: “Yeah, that’s true.”

You: “Even though you feel bad right now, it’s not true that you ‘always screw up.’ You’re not a failure. You’ve done some things really well and there’s no reason why you won’t do that again.”

I think this is an obvious and positive way to get your message across to your child. Many parents will simply say, “You’re not a loser; that’s not true.” And while this is good to tell them, you still haven’t convinced your child that he’s not a failure. Make no mistake, it’s important to convince your teen by showing him what he does well. You can think of yourself as an attorney who needs to bring up situations that give your child proof of his competence, intelligence, and likability. So with the series of questions above, you’re gently saying, “Let’s look at exhibit A, when you did really well on your test. Now let’s look at exhibit B,” and so on, until you have given your child some hard evidence about his successes.

EP: Right. We all need proof sometimes, and kids are no different from adults in that respect. And as we all know, sometimes kids do fail. What’s a good way to help them deal with that?

JS: I think it’s important to differentiate failing from being a failure. Everybody fails. Everybody messes up and says things they wish they hadn’t said. Everybody has regrets. But that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s an incident, it’s not a character trait. I think it’s important to help your child “right size” it. I’m not saying pretend the mistake didn’t happen, I’m just saying you don’t have to be negative about it. Even though failing at something is painful, it can also be a wonderful learning experience for your child. And as a parent, you are there to say, “Failing once does not define you as a failure.”

Typically when poor self-image is going on, whatever that situation is—let’s say your child was embarrassed at school or he screwed up on X, Y or Z—he is translating that into saying “I’m a failure; I’m embarrassing; I’m not a good person.” You have to help him see that what happened was one incident in his life, not who he really is.

Because regardless of who your child is, I’m guessing you can jot down a dozen situations where you’ve been proud of him when he’s done something really well. It’s important to have that evidence with you at all times.

EP: Josh, when you notice that your teen is actually down, what should you do? And is there anything you shouldn’t say and something you should say?

JS: Here are a few things I suggest to parents:

As much as possible, let your child come to you: A lot of the things that you do with a teenager are different than what you do with a younger kid. With a teenager, it’s important to let them come to you. It’s important to build rapport with your teen so that when they are dealing with a tough situation or a difficult choice, they feel comfortable coming to you. If you find that they don’t want to talk to you about what’s stressing them out, I think that’s okay, as long as they’re talking to someone about them. Don’t feel bad if they do come to you and don’t feel bad if they don’t.

It’s not your job to fix it for them: If your child does come to you and wants to talk about what’s bothering him, remember that it’s not necessarily your job to fix it for him. It’s your job to talk through it with him, though, and to not take what he’s saying personally.

Related: Are you doing too much for your child or teen?

Encourage your child to get out of the house. Suggest to your child that he go hang out with a positive friend—someone who makes him laugh, someone that encourages him, someone who’s a good influence on his life. Let your child do something he likes. Oftentimes kids get down because they’re sitting around thinking about what’s bothering them all the time and they’re not actually doing anything about it. The pressure and the weight gets heavier and heavier. Anything you can do to break that pattern is good. Sometimes teens need to be shown how to take a break. You need to let them know it’s okay to do that. Giving your child those opportunities to relax and take a moment away from a stressful situation can be extremely helpful.

Think about what doesn’t work for you when you’re stressed out. As a parent, you obviously have times when you’re down or when you’re stressed out. Think about the things that help you and the things that don’t. Again, the way that I describe a teenager is basically an adult that doesn’t have the experience. So often, the same kinds of things that help you will help your teen, and vice versa. If I’m bummed out about something, I don’t want someone saying something like, “Oh, cheer up fussy pants.” That just makes me mad because it’s annoying, unhelpful and patronizing.

If you do say those sorts of things, don’t be surprised when your child doesn’t come to you when he gets stressed. Again, think about the things that aren’t helpful for you, and then think of things that are helpful for you when you are down or stressed out about a situation.

Be genuine and let your child know you’re there: I think it’s helpful to be genuine and sincere. You can say “Hey, I know you’re stressed out right now. If you want to talk about it, cool. If you don’t want to talk about it right now, I understand. But I just want you to know I’m here.” I think it’s about being available to your child, and letting them know you’re available. And remember, when your child does talk to you, listen without interrupting.

Ask, “How can I be helpful right now?” I think it’s also a good idea to say things like, “What can I do to help?” This puts the ball back in your child’s court and forces him to think of what he needs. If he’s stressed out about his math homework, you don’t want to do it for him. But you can offer to do something that helps him do his homework. You might say, “Do you need me to go grab that book for you?” Or “I can go pick up your sister if you need to focus on studying for your math test.” I believe that being genuine and asking how you can help empowers your child to do the things he needs to do himself.

EP: It seems like parents can really play a very active role in helping their kids stay positive. The little things you do really matter after all.

JS: Absolutely. There’s a statistic that says it takes 12 positive comments to balance out every negative comment you hear. Let’s say on a decent day at school, your kid’s going to hear five negative comments. I would say to let yourself be challenged by that; compliment your child and “catch them doing something good” whenever possible.

And again, it’s really easy to want to stop when your teen doesn’t give you that immediate feedback and appreciation. I did not thank my foster parents for their wonderful influence in my life until long after I moved out. I simply didn’t have the maturity and I couldn’t swallow my pride and say “thank you.” It took me years, but eventually I did it. So I want to say to parents on their teenager’s behalf, “Thank you for what you’re saying. Thank you for being a positive influence. Continue to say those words, continue to do those things. It is making a difference."

Maybe like me, your child just doesn’t know how to say thank you or doesn’t understand what it is you’re doing for him right now. But believe me, you’re doing something monumental—you’re giving your child something to grab onto when he gets down on himself. And that can make all the difference.

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