It’s important for teens to have a solid self-worth. It’s important for them to know that they matter and are already lovable and worthy. Because when kids have a shaky sense of worth, they may latch onto toxic people and make poor decisions. They may let people walk all over them. They may try to earn their worth.
Adolescence is already a tricky, tumultuous time. Teens are trying to figure out who they are, what they like, what they stand for, what they need. Having a solid self-worth helps them navigate these questions more effectively.
Below two psychotherapists who specialize in working with teens shared five valuable suggestions for helping your teen cultivate a strong self-worth.
Avoid making comparisons.
According to psychologist Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, without even realizing it, you might be comparing your teen to their sibling, such as: “Your older brother didn’t need a math tutor.” Or you might compare them to a teammate: “Ask Drew if he can teach you to throw the ball like he does.” Or you might compare them to a friend: “Lacey is getting a job this summer instead of lounging around.”
It’s natural to compare ourselves to others. You might even do this regularly for yourself. But it can be harmful.
“Parents may think they are merely ‘pointing out; the achievements of other children to create motivation within their teen…But this type of talk actually tears them down because they begin to believe they have failed you for not being [who you want them to be].”
Spend quality time together.
Go on drives together, letting your teen take the wheel, said psychotherapist Clair Mellenthin, LCSW. Play, be silly and have fun. For instance, ask your teen to teach you to skateboard. Go skiing in the wintertime. Play board games. Have spontaneous dance parties in your kitchen. Make art together. In other words, as she said, “let playfulness be part of your relationship.”
Do a nightly check-in with your teen, something teens actually tend to like, Mellenthin said. The key is not to talk about what they’re missing or doing wrong, she said. Instead, simply ask: “How are you doing today?” or “Help me understand this hard thing you’re going through.” Also, “be engaged and interested in what your teen is interested in.”
And remember you don’t have to spend hours together. Even 10 minutes of positive attention goes a long way, Mellenthin said.
Let your teen pick their own activities.
Sometimes, parents try to live vicariously through their teens, wanting them to engage in activities that they yearned to do or excel in. Or they try to steer their teen toward activities they believe are worth doing.
For instance, you make your teen “try out for the basketball team when they would rather join debate,” said Mellenthin, also author of the My Many Colors of Me Workbook. Instead, let your teen pick activities that they actually enjoy. Let them cultivate their own voice.
Provide them with a religious or spiritual outlet—at their level.
“Spirituality and/or religion can play a role in finding one’s worth,” Saenz-Sierzega said. However, teens sometimes feel like they have to attend services or follow their parents’ religion. That’s why she suggested parents find a youth group. This way, “spirituality can be shared on a level and in a language [your] teen can understand.” Some examples of groups include: Young life, Pathfinders and BBYO.
Convey unconditional love.
“By giving unconditional love and acceptance, this message is loud and clear, ‘I love you, and you are lovable and valuable,’” Mellenthin said. She shared this example: Your teen is making poor decisions, such as drinking with friends. To show unconditional love, you say: “I don’t approve of this behavior, but you are always welcome to come home. Yes, there will be consequences for poor choices. But I want you to come home no matter what.” The overall message to your teen is: No matter how you’re behaving, home is safe, and that’s where you want them to go.
Ultimately, the key is to show your teen that they don’t need to earn or prove their worth—whether it’s through their athletic ability or grades or popularity or any other behavior or criteria. Because when they believe that they need to earn their self-worth, they become hyper-focused on “meeting those standards in order to find worth. That’s a never-ending uphill battle,” Saenz-Sierzega said.
“Self-worth is not found in what we can or cannot do; it’s our understanding that we matter despite these things.” Which is a powerful message to teach our kids (and no doubt to remind ourselves of, too.)
Check out part one where Saenz-Sierzega and Mellenthin shared other suggestions for helping your teen strengthen their self-worth.