Building Self-Esteem in Tweens

Tips for Helping Your Child

Mature woman taking a break with her son in a forest
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If you've been noticing that your tween's self-worth has been dropping, you may be searching for strategies for building self-esteem. While you can't stop your child from harshly judging how their abilities and bodies match up to others, there are a number of ways you can provide support.

Encourage Tweens to Value Their Skills

When tweens value the activities they do well, they like themselves more, writes John Santrock, author of Life-Span Development.
You can build self-esteem by emphasizing the importance of your tween's talents. For example, say you and your family prize academics and disregard athletics. It just so happens, though, that your child is great at basketball but weak in the classroom. This can lead to a sense of low self-esteem because he or she is not good at "what matters." So make athletics (or whatever the skill set is) count! Note that you don't have to devalue academics in order to value athletics; you can simply make them more even in importance. Bottomline: we don't get to choose the areas in which our children excel, but we do get to choose when we dole out praise and acceptance.

Listen and Pay Attention
We already know the greatest gift we can give our children is time and undivided attention. This fact is especially true in relation to building self-esteem. Listening does not have to occur in huge quantities to be effective.

Even ten minutes of true attention is worth more than three hours of being "together" but never really focusing on what your tween is saying. Being a good listener means not offering judgments, criticisms or even advice. Simply hear what your child is saying and restate his or her comments to show that you're listening.

For example, if your tween is talking about his teacher and friends being stuck in their own problems, you might say, "You feel like no one at school cares." It might seem hokey at first, but regular, reflective listening sessions can help a child feel validated and worthwhile.

Encourage Additional Sources of Support
Listening sessions with parents are invaluable, but tweens often need more attention, validation and support than we're able to give. Plus, it's healthy to encourage our children to rely on others besides ourselves. Therefore you can build self-esteem by encouraging supportive, meaningful relationships if you see these beginning to take shape. Ideally these would be adult relationships, such as with a coach, teacher or religious figure, but supportive peer relationships can also be helpful. You might also consider formal mentoring programs, says Dr. Santrock. Of course, though, tweens should not be forced into anything; having you actively arrange their relationships may undercut their sense of competence and esteem more than help it.

Let Them Fail
Letting a child try and fail is important to building their self-esteem, according to The NYU Child Study Center. This might sound counter-intuitive: I'm supposed to let my child do poorly so that they can feel good about themselves? In a word, yes! People gain a sense of competence by taking on new challenges and succeeding in them. If you discourage failure, you discourage your child from trying new things. Tweens learn resilience and coping skills when they face problems. Even better, when they reach the goal they've been seeking, they gain a sense of genuine ownership and capability.

Be a Good Model
Tweens learn to have healthy self-esteem by watching adults around them demonstrate healthy self-esteem. Therefore, consider how frequently you make belittling comments about yourself like "I'm fat" or "I'll never amount to anything." As much as you may tell your child that she's wonderful and can do anything, she's learning more by your actions than by your words. Therefore, working to raise your own self-esteem can directly benefit your child. This is, of course, a long process in itself. In the meantime, though, you can concentrate on catching and decreasing your negative self-comments. Not only will you feel better, but your tween probably will, too!

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