One of the most powerful things parents can do for their teens is to help them cultivate a strong and solid self-worth. According to Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in working with children, teens and families, self-worth is “the value you place on yourself and love for self.”
“It tells us who we are and that we matter,” said Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in working with teens. “[W]e know we deserve to be loved, respected, regarded and forgiven; we believe we matter enough to have our needs and desires met.”
A strong self-worth helps teens traverse social situations, stand up for themselves and others and pick true friends — people who will continue to help them build their sense of self and value, Mellenthin said.
Teens who second guess their self-worth “may question if they are worth existing,” Saenz-Sierzega said. This “can then lead to depression, impulsive behaviors including addiction or substance abuse, or even thoughts of suicide.”
Thankfully, parents can do a lot in helping their teen nourish their self-worth. Here are five suggestions.
Take your teen’s feelings seriously.
“We tend to brush off teens as “exaggerators” or “full of teen angst,’” Saenz-Sierzega said. When you dismiss or minimize your teen’s feelings, this makes them think their feelings aren’t worth sharing and don’t matter. Which can translate into I don’t matter. Plus, it also can stop your kids from coming to you when they’re really struggling.
Mellenthin suggested reading Dan Siegel’s book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain to better understand your teen’s behavior from a developmental perspective. It also “allows you to have more empathy for where your teen is at.”
Help your teen navigate mistakes without judgment.
“Any mistake can be used as a moment of growth where we either learn about ourselves, others or life,” Saenz-Sierzega said. For instance, when they make a mistake, you might suggest your teen consider these questions: What did I intend to do? What actually happened? What went wrong or why wasn’t that ideal? What can I learn from this? How could this mistake have been avoided? What should I keep in mind next time?
“Mistakes can be a motivator to do better in a de-stigmatizing way, because you are challenged to learn to do things differently,” she said. She shared these examples: If you miss a deadline, you buy a planner to get more organized. If you hurt a friend’s feelings, you apologize and strive to be more intentional with what you say. If you fail a test, you join a study group or get a tutor.
“[M]oments of growth are actually a great way to teach your teen that they matter despite the mistake they made, allowing them to have an even stronger self-worth.”
Teach your teen self-compassion.
This goes along with helping your teen learn from their mistakes. According to Saenz-Sierzega, self-compassion means: “not giving yourself a hard time for goofing up [and] taking note of what would be a better decision for next time.”
Self-compassion is letting yourself off the hook for being human, she said. It is forgiving yourself and moving on with the lesson you’re learning. (See here and here for more on practicing self-compassion and ideas to teach to your kids.)
Show them your appreciation.
“Find something to say ‘thank you’ or ‘I appreciate you’ [about] on a daily basis,” said Mellenthin, also author of the My Many Colors of Me Workbook. For instance, acknowledge when your teen starts something on their own, such as studying, she said. Thank them when they perform a task without being asked. Let them know when you’re proud of them for making a good decision.
Acknowledge their talents, strengths and personality quirks, Mellenthin said. For instance, you might say: “I just love that you’re independent and have your own sense of style.” Let your teen “know that it’s OK to be themselves.”
Let your teen know you’ve been there, too.
Sure, you didn’t have the same exact experiences as your teen. (No social media. No cellphones.) But you can likely relate to struggling with self-doubt, cruel classmates, fair-weather friends, anxiety, sadness, schoolwork and lots of other challenges. Share this with your teen. Let them know they’re not alone. Let them know their feelings and circumstances are normal, Saenz-Sierzega said.
And don’t hesitate to seek professional support. As Mellenthin said, “If you feel worried that your teen’s self-worth is significantly diminishing or that they are struggling, don’t wait until the problem is bigger than the both of you to seek out help and support from a therapist.”