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7 Ways to Support Your Teenager With Self-Esteem...and how to apply this to little kids too

A plant grows or withers silently. There are choices we make that impact the plant, and each choice comes with a consequence. When we nurture the plant with adequate sunlight, water, fertile soil, and the right nutrients it will grow. A child’s self-esteem is the same. It needs to be nurtured. When we don’t know what kind of plant it is, what specific soil conditions are needed, how much or how little sunlight is optimal, or how to ensure the soil isn’t too tight-packed that the roots rot, and so on… the plant withers. And children are far more complex than plants. Each child is unique with their own sensory, emotional, or mental health challenges.

If you’re from my generation, you may not have been nurtured in a way that instilled you with the tools to nurture your own kids’ self-esteem today. Let’s face it, we didn’t learn what to do to get high self-esteem. Our parents probably didn’t either. "We can't give our kids what we don't already have..." Then you became a parent determined to not repeat certain patterns but also didn’t have a guidebook on how to do that.

Makes sense. I’ve been there. Done that. I had some strong notions of what not to do, but often didn’t know “what else to do”.

But then I learned. A LOT. I got support. A LOT of support.

One important factor is that I chose to stop letting the “busy-ness” of life get in the way of my parenting goals. My kids’ life trajectory and quality of life depended on how I was showing up as one of the most significant and influential people in their lives. I reclaimed my energy, my time and my efforts. I drew boundaries. I learned to speak up in a way that I had never done before. So here’s to hoping my share here today supports you in some ways.

How do we help our kids grow into self-assured teenagers?

Below, I’ll outline 7 concrete ways to support you in supporting your teenager. I want to strongly impress upon you the idea that all of these can be adapted to young children too. And I’ll even show you how. Here we go:

#1. Communicate using validation. Refrain from bypassing.

Being a teenager is a tough gig. Leaving childhood behind and moving into the unknown, facing adulthood “full of responsibilities,” complex decisions to make each day, friendship challenges, romance, hormones, sex, peer pressure, social expectations, college decisions, family challenges and a plethora of other things to navigate. They aren’t 50, they are 15. So they literally don’t have the same number of years of life experience to know how to navigate through certain things in life. (Many fully grown adults don’t know either…) I think many adults tend to treat teenagers like they “should already know” or that they “should know better.” When in fact teenagers, despite them wanting to be with their friends more during this time, also deeply need to trust their parents are there when they need them, and that their parents will support them through navigating difficult situations… And what seems “difficult” to a teenager may seem trivial to an adult. But, to your teen, it’s important. So bypassing their experience will not support their self-esteem. Validating their experience will.

Try this:

1) Paraphrase what you hear them say about a situation.

2) Make an empathetic guess about what they might be feeling and get confirmation from them.

3) Ask how you can support them.

“I hear you saying _________________________________.

I imagine you feel ________________. Am I getting that right?

How can I support you with this?”

They may not know what kind of support they need.

Try A or B options: “Would you like me to listen right now and be here with you, or would you like my input in looking for solutions about this?”

This works with little kids too: I literally use the same “I hear you…” phrase from above with my 4-year-old and 6-year-old. It works! The difference is that they may not know what “support” really means. You can get my social-emotional KIDS NEEDS CUE CARDS here and start teaching them about their needs in words and images they can understand. Asking more simple phrases like “How can I help you?” may resonate better with them. I will say that my kiddos have learned how to use the word support… So you can start early by giving them the language of empowerment. And as you’ve probably learned before, A and B options are awesome with little kids (and many times adults too…).

#2. Communicate in ways they are comfortable with or at least can get on board with. And instead of “Face to Face” talks, try “Back to Back” talks!

Many teens today have developed neural circuits and comfort around texting, messaging, or emailing as their preferred method of communication. Even handwritten notes can be effective. It’s hard for many teens to step out of their comfort zone and have hard face-to-face conversations about their life challenges. (Again, I say start young - have those hard conversations from age 2 and up… You can use my “5 I’s for handling mistakes” framework, repair after rupture framework, and empowered conversation framework to support you. My clients have access to these frameworks.) You might really want your teen to open up to you face-to-face/heart-to-heart and verbally express, but this can be incredibly intimidating for some kids. Find out what their preference is. When the time is right, request the opportunity for a face-to-face conversation.

Or, try a BACK-to-BACK conversation.

What’s a ‘back-to-back’ conversation?

During one of my early dates with my now-husband, I asked him to turn around so that we could lean back to back. This was because I felt uneasy about looking him in the face while sharing all the heavy baggage from my life that I planned to disclose over the next two hours. I revealed everything from my struggles with eating disorders and low self-esteem to the trauma of sexual abuse and the tragic loss of my biological mother. He patiently listened while I talked, and I made sure to check in on him occasionally to ensure that he was still attentive. Today, my husband often mentions how it meant so much to him that I opened up in this way. Although it was an uncomfortable conversation, doing it back-to-back made it easier for me. This is an option that you could offer your teenager.

Written notes? Yes. As needed, when talking doesn’t work, write it. But use the same frameworks mentioned above. Even little uplifting lunch notes or post-its on their dresser will help. Even if they roll their eyes at you, a little part of their inner child will appreciate it (and I will say that a teen’s inner child can be hard for us to see.) Keeping the lines of clear, empathic, and non-judgemental communication open is crucial for your teenager and you.

This works with little kids too: You may have heard the phrase “get on their level.” Well, this means talking to kids in a way that gets through to them and feels safe. Get to their height level, talk in words they can understand and process, speak slower, and speak in a lower tone (high pitches can be alarming to the nervous system). The same frameworks mentioned above that I offer parents with teen kids can be applied to young kids with some tweaks. And if your kids don’t read yet, little drawings can be your way of communicating with them. Knowing your child’s love language helps too. Speak that!

#3. Focus on their strengths.

It can be really easy to focus on what’s not going well, flaws, shortcomings or mistakes our kids, partners or we make ourselves. We all benefit from knowing what “Negativity Bias” is. The negativity bias is an inbuilt faculty of our human condition that makes us notice or fixate on the negative things. Knowing the negativity bias is at play in our daily life, we must use the power of our conscious mind to overcome this. We need to identify and appreciate our kids’ strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses or what they are not doing enough of, or well enough. Maybe you were raised like me with critical or judgmental parents. Our self-esteem was impacted because of this. We need to focus on our child’s little ‘wins’ and successes. When they can’t see them, we need to remind them or prompt them. Even if they roll their eyes at us, or dismiss their strengths, it does make a difference (and don't take it personally if they roll their eyes at you).

It can be as simple as a verbal or written acknowledgment of their efforts: “I saw the trash was taken out. I really appreciate your effort.”

You might think “But it’s their chore/job/duty to take out the trash, why do I have to say thank you? My parents never did that for me, they just expected me to do what I was supposed to do.” Well. Let’s revisit that childhood again if we need to… and remember that APPRECIATION is one of our CORE human needs.

In a recent workshop I did for the Calgary Board of Education, I asked the participants if they can recall their parents saying they appreciated them very much in childhood. The experiences of the audience sided with low levels of parental appreciation.

And well, mental health statistics go to show us the hard truths, don’t they?

With little kids: Focussing on strengths rather than weaknesses is universally applicable. Little kids may be more susceptible to developing negative self-beliefs based on the science around how the child's brain develops. The child-brain operates at lower brain-wave frequencies in comparison to the adult brain. Because of the lower brain-wave frequency, the child’s subconscious mind is predominant and leads us to the scientific understanding of how children develop their CORE subconscious beliefs about themselves and how the world works by the age of 7. This means we absolutely want to focus more on our children’s strengths rather than their weaknesses or mistakes.

#4. Help your kids understand that how they feel when they do something matters more than the outcome. And that their self-worth is based on their core divine essence, not how they look or what they achieve.

If you have a tendency to focus on your child’s appearance, or your child is consuming videos, magazines, online material or social media that emphasizes the importance of their appearance, then they will focus on that. And as the saying goes, “What we focus on, expands.” What we spend time thinking about, our mind creates more of. We need to “balance the scales” so-to-speak that shifts our energy to focus on innate self-worth.

So when they create something, we can ask “...And how did you feel when you made this?”

When they talk about achievement, invite them to check on how they felt during the process of whatever it was that they achieved. Or when they don’t achieve something, how did they feel during the process? Was there any curiosity, joy or thrill while doing the ‘thing’ regardless of the outcome? Let them know the journey can sometimes be more fulfilling than the outcome.

Instilling the phrase “Focus on the decision, not the outcome” into your family life and your parenting can help. And model this way of life.

E.g. It’s not about the outcome of the test, it’s the decision to study hard for it that matters regardless of what the final grade is. (And if someone does study hard and still does poorly, it’s not a time to criticize the child, it’s a time to see what support they may need). It’s not about the outcome of the relationship, it’s the decision to have ventured out of our comfort zone to ask a person out in the first place. It’s not the outcome of a social media post (i.e. how many 'likes' we get); it’s about the decision to share something important or personal out there in the world knowing not everyone will like it or care.

With little kids: All the same core principles apply here. How does a child develop self-worth? When they know they are worthy despite the outcome of whatever they are doing or, how they look. When my kids do something, I ask them how they felt during that activity. I hold far less attachment to the outcome of what they are doing. When my son is showing signs of anxiety in his swim lessons, and the teachers come up to me and tell me he’s just “short” of some skill or the other to get to the next level, I tell them it’s okay. I keep giving him the thumbs up. Because each day he goes to a swim class he is navigating and coping with his anxiety knowing his mom has got his back. I ask how he felt doing a certain swimming activity or even how it feels to wash his hair on his own (he hates to have water covering his face let alone shampoo, so I let him have most of the control over washing his hair). The swimming school uses certificates and lollipops when kids move up a level, and these are tangible and easy for kids to attach to, so we need to “balance the scales” to remind kids of their innate worthiness.

#5. Use effort-based, process-based and appreciation-based praise. Avoid person-based or evaluation-based praise.

There is a lot of information out there about this already, so I’ll give you examples instead to illustrate what I mean.

Instead of “Wow. You did really good on that test.”

Say “I appreciate the effort it took to study for the test. How do you feel about it?”

Instead of “You’re talented at robotics.”

Say “I can only imagine how much effort and time it takes to learn about robotics. Way to go!”

Instead of “You look cute in that outfit.”

Try “I really like that outfit.” (This is approval-based praise so you may want to limit this) OR “I appreciate your choice of outfit today. The colors are vibrant. I feel happy when I see that.”

(**Notice how phrases shift from “you,” to speaking from “I”).

With little kids: Uh, really nothing different except maybe use fewer big words? And maybe when they don’t yet have a big vocabulary for feeling-words, give them options to choose from.

#6. Make space for mistakes, and when possible honor or even celebrate the learning around mistakes.

I only recently got comfortable with saying “Congratulations! You made a mistake. That means you’re learning something from it.” Celebrating mistakes is so counterintuitive that even though I learned about it years ago, only now am I able to fully buy into the process of saying “Congratulations” when my kids make mistakes. And what’s super cool is to hear my 4-year-old say “It’s okay mom, mistakes is learning!” It’s much healthier for him and me to shift into this energy than to go into a downward spiral about his mistakes.

Failure is learning too. Thomas Edison didn’t fail, he just learned 999 ways to not make a lightbulb.

So your kid missed the bus again?

Instead of “I can’t believe you missed the bus again. Now I have to drive you. You should have learned to wake up early by now! Because of you, I’m late to work again.”

Our voice becomes our child’s inner voice…(P.S. stop “shoulding.)”

Try this: “So… We missed the bus again huh. How do you feel about this? (Let them respond). I imagine it’s hard to wake up in the mornings and get going. And I feel quite anxious and upset too with getting to work late when I need to drive you. I need understanding. I imagine you need support with getting up early, am I right? Are you willing to work with me to come up with ideas on how we can get up earlier and get to the bus on time?”

After creating a plan together, celebrate with a fist bump or whatever your child resonates with.

With little kids: Keep the same principles in mind, but use words or phrases that they can understand. Keep it simple and clear. And when you don’t know what to say, get playful instead. Use dolls or action figures to act out a particular scenario that happened in real life and, let the characters express what they feel and what they need as well as the planning portion of the discussion. The characters can high-five each other for working through the situation and celebrate learning from the mistake.

#7. Relate to your kids.

In a recent coaching session, a child started to become emotionally dysregulated while they were working on an emotions-identifying worksheet. Instead of “fixing” or removing the “obstacle” (aka the worksheet), I led the child and the mother who was also present, through a breathing intervention. And once the child was calmer, I went a little closer in proximity and shared a personal story where I was feeling overwhelmed and anxious too. I shared how I overcame the situation using the power of my thoughts. And then I went into how we can apply this same thing to different situations, and how we may not be able to change all the circumstances of our life, but we CAN learn how to cope through them. Later when I reflected on my actions as a coach, I realized that I had implemented Dr. Bruce Perry’s “3 R’s”. Regulate, Relate and Reason. And here’s one thing I’ve learned as a kids coach over the past several years: kids love it when you share stories with them of your own challenges and obstacles - they want you to be relatable. It creates connection (another CORE human need).

With little kids: I share personal stories (age appropriate of course) with my own kids and kids I coach that are relevant to an experience they are having. I only share the relevant details and learning points. And it often surprises my young kid-clients to think that ‘The Confidence Coach’ makes a lot of mistakes or makes unhealthy choices. My daughter remembers all the personal stories I’ve shared with her. It's so important for kids to be able to relate to their parents. If kids don’t know your struggles, obstacles or what has challenged you in the past, they only have impossible standards to live up to because they don’t actually know what it took for you to overcome your challenges. “Mom and Dad don’t struggle - they can do anything!” That reminds me of the book “The Dad who didn’t know.” It’s okay to tell our kids when we don’t know something. In fact, it’s almost imperative to their self-understanding that no one knows everything, and it’s okay.

In conclusion, nurture the plant in the most optimal ways and watch it flourish. Nurture the child’s self-esteem in the most optimal ways and watch the child flourish. If you need support around this, feel free to reach out for Kids coaching or Parent Coaching:

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