Why would a teenager do something as stupid as engaging in one of the teen challenges, such as binge-drinking, or swallowing a spoonful of cinnamon, or snorting a condom. Quite a few kids have ended up in the hospital and a few have died. Part of the answer is they may not have good judgment skills – yet. Another factor is an intense need to be liked, to be a part of teen groups that are considered “cool.” The kids most vulnerable are those whose self-esteem isn’t strong enough to be unaffected by these influences. They have a nearly desperate need to go along, no matter how foolish the behavior is.
The topic of self-esteem has always been controversial. Many who have written about it say concern about self-esteem is over-rated or even irrelevant to child development. No doubt this is a reaction to the “self-esteem movement,” which has misunderstood how to nurture strong self-esteem, thinking kids should be celebrated for participating rather than achieving and praised for anything they do.
There is, however, a more telling and useful understanding of self-esteem. Consider this quote from the late Nathaniel Branden, author of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:
“Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think. By extension, it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change. It is also the experience that success, achievement, fulfillment – happiness – are right and natural for us. The survival value of such confidence is obvious; so is the danger when it is missing.”
A brief paraphrase of this excellent definition: the belief that one is capable and worthy, the feeling that one respects and likes oneself.
For most teenagers, the pressure to be liked and popular can be overwhelming. For them, the fear of being left out is their worst nightmare. Some teens have even committed suicide because they were excluded from fun activities or snubbed by classmates.
Think about it: the only way a young person can stand up to this kind of peer pressure is to be strong enough in who they are that they can reject foolish behavior without fearing the social consequences. It takes strong self-esteem to be your own best friend and limit your friends to people who respect you and accept you for who you are.
Imagine a teenager who has strong self-esteem. Such a person would be able to confront the constant pressure from peers to experiment with drugs, participate in binge-drinking, to blow off academics as “uncool,” to join in heavy social networking, to defer learning in order to play video games, and to “hook up” (engage in casual sex with strangers).
You want your child to resist the pressures of today’s teen culture. But how does a kid develop this kind of strong self-esteem?
My study of this question has led me to these strategies:
- Help your child learn life skills. I know how to do these things. I have worthwhile skills.
- Give your child opportunities to learn the value of hard work. I’ve done hard things. I’m responsible for helping my family. I earn my own money.
- Affirm your child’s accomplishments. What I’ve done is appreciated. I made this. I earned this.
- Give unconditional love. I know that no matter what, my parents love me. The people in my life care about me.
- Listen with respect and understanding. I’m treated like an adult.
- Encourage your child to deal with his or her own issues. I’m capable of solving my own problems.
Obviously, the younger you begin encouraging your child this way, the better. You may also find these posts helpful:
The context for this article is the subject of Chapter 10 of my new book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.
Also, you can download 4 FREE guides, including “The No. 1 Way to Nurture the Bond with Your Teen.”