Parents and Adolescent Self-esteem

When I sit down and talk to parents about treatment goals, self-esteem is almost always brought up. Parents see how important it is, but it can be more difficult to see how to help. Self-esteem is crucial for individual development, and is necessary in building deep meaningful connections. Connections, or lack of, seem to be both the cause and effect of self-esteem.

Self-esteem impacts one’s ability to experience vulnerability and connection to others. Virginia Satir was a psychotherapist and author, who is often credited as being the “Mother of Family Therapy”.  According to her, Self-esteem is defined by “the ability to value one’s self, to treat oneself with dignity, love, and reality” (Satir, 1988). Satir goes on to say, “When (members of families) feel they have little worth, they expect to be cheated, stepped on, and depreciated by others.”  It is no wonder that we see adolescents struggling to cope with their negative self concepts through aggression, defiance, self harm, and fear.  Those living with low self-esteem believe the world is out to hurt them, because that is what they feel: unworthy of love and belonging. Anger and defiance act as masks designed to not let them be truly seen, afraid that if they were seen, everyone would see how rotten they believe they are.  This leads to further disconnection, isolation, and loneliness, which reinforces the feelings of unworthiness. The cycle keeps spiraling more and more out of control.

Fortunately, parents and loved ones can help those who are struggling. Rather than seeing their child as bad, spoiled, defiant, mean, or ruthless, parents can practice seeing their child as hurting, lonely, and afraid of not being worthy of love. As parents are able to see through the negative behaviors, and attune to what their child is really going through, parents can show love and understanding. This can be both relieving and scary! As the child will start to feel truly seen and understood, she can learn to communicate her needs in new ways.  This builds love and genuine connection, which in turn, build self-esteem.

Here are some tips for parents to help foster a healthy sense of self in their children:

  • Communicate about Emotions- facilitates connection which builds a sense of worthiness.
  • Use empowering language- Let your children know that you believe in their ability to solve their own problems.
  • Acceptance of Emotions- Show children that whatever they are feeling is ok. Families are a place to feel and experience emotions, not deaden them.
  • Teach value of work vs. value of reward- Rather than focusing on the “A” your child gets on a math test, reward her for the diligence and effort she put in to study and prepare. This reinforces a sense of empowerment, and does not tie self worth to specific outcomes or conditions.
  • Let your child feel and deal with pain- Whether it be not making the team, not getting asked to the big dance, or feeling left out, sit with your child in the pain and discomfort rather than trying to change how they feel. Show them healthy ways to better feel those emotions.
  • Spend time together- often children see their parent’s time as their most valuable asset. Having a healthy mix of planned and spontaneous time together reinforces a child’s sense of worthiness and belonging.

Written  by Jacob Sparks, LAMFT, Therapist

Reference: Satir, V. (1988). The new peoplemaking. California: Science and Behavior Books.