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Low self-esteem can cause a bout with depression or worsen existing depression. Parents can help build a positive self-image in their children, which can help protect them from depression and suicidal behaviors. Gay and lesbian youth are two to three times at greater risk for depression and / or suicide than heterosexual youth. It is suggested that approximately 30 percent attempted and / or completed suicides are related to issues of sexual identity.
There are three important steps in helping to build a positive self-image in children and teens:
Children and teens need to feel connected to, loved and accepted by their parents. It is sometimes difficult, though, for parents to communicate love and acceptance when rejecting or correcting a child’s behavior. Affirming a child’s worth during these times will help parents show love and acceptance. Parents can also better connect with their teens by being emotionally and physically present to them.
Being physically present means being available to hug, support and encourage. As is the case with children, teens need hugs and to hear the words, “I love you” from their parents. However, they may be more receptive to these at certain times or in different situations. For instance, they may prefer displays of affection when alone with their parents and not in front of their peer group.
Also, divorce or busy work schedules can interfere with parents “being there” for their children, resulting in teens possibly feeling rejected or abandoned by their parents when they aren’t around during special events and activities.
Tricia and her dad were very close when she was a child. They spent a lot of time together playing games, going to her sporting events and regularly sharing meals and hugs.
After her parents divorced, her dad continued to be regularly involved in Tricia’s life until he remarried. She then had to share her dad’s time with his new wife and stepchildren. Her dad no longer attended all of her sporting events, nor did he spend any one-to-one time with her. Tricia felt abandoned by her dad and began distancing herself from him and his new family.
Tricia’s dad thought this was typical teenage behavior and never tried to regain their closeness. Tricia felt even more rejected and didn’t know how to talk to her dad about it.
Tricia could have set SAFE Boundaries [link] with her father by saying to him whatever it is that she needs from him, then ask for his cooperation in getting her needs met while also sharing her feelings. For instance, “I miss spending time alone with you. Would you please plan some activities for just the two of us? I sometimes feel left out of your life.” This could then open up a conversation between Tricia and her dad and allow him to address her needs and feelings.
Being emotionally present involves sharing, accepting, affirming and validating feelings. Affirming and validating teenagers’ feelings means letting them know that their feelings are valid responses to their perceptions or viewpoints. Of course, their viewpoints or perceptions may be inaccurate or distorted at times, which may be contributing more to their anger or negative feelings. Validating feelings, though, will help them to process these feelings and ultimately the thoughts and / or perceptions behind them, as well as keep the lines of communication open between parents and their teenagers. Parents will also be better able to share their own perceptions and viewpoints after the teen’s feelings have been validated and processed.
Kevin was angry at his parents for not allowing him to go to Florida on spring break with his friends and had been sulking around the house. He wouldn’t talk to his parents about it until his dad acknowledged his anger and said, “I know you’re angry about not being able to have fun with your friends in Florida.” This allowed Kevin to express what he was thinking and feeling about the situation. He responded, “Yeah, you and mom never let me have any fun. You’re always treating me like a baby and keeping me from doing things that all my friends do.” Instead of acting defensive, his dad validated his son’s feelings by saying, “I’d be angry too if I thought my parents weren’t letting me grow up or have any fun.” His dad then shared a time when he thought his parents were doing that to him when he was a teenager. Now Kevin’s dad has connected with his son’s feelings while keeping the lines of communication open between them.
His dad then explained how much he cared about his son and how concerned he was for his safety. Together they talked about ways Kevin could experience more freedom while showing his parents how he would be responsible and keep safe during these times.
Teenagers need to feel independent and have a sense of autonomy. The line, “Please, mother, I’d rather do it myself,” holds especially true for teens. However, they do need guidelines or principles to follow when being allowed to make their own decisions. An example of this would be when a parent gives a teen the freedom to decorate her room as long as no safety codes are violated.
Teens will be more cooperative when they are included in the decision-making process, their thoughts and feelings are taken into account and when they are given reasons for their parents’ final decisions. Saying, “Because I said so,” when teens ask, “Why?” will only serve to alienate the teen and foster rebellion instead of cooperation.
Teens need to discover for themselves what is important, right, and meaningful in life. When parents recognize that this is a process and respect their children’s right to think independently, they have a better opportunity to be positive influences in their teens’ lives. Parents can then become teachers rather than preachers to their teens, which will encourage an open dialogue between them.
Maya objected to attending church services every Sunday with her parents. Instead of immediately demanding that she accompany them, they asked her what she didn’t like about going to church. She replied that most of the people at church were hypocrites and that going to church every Sunday didn’t seem to help them be better people.
Instead of disagreeing with her opinion, her father began asking her questions to help her explore her thoughts and perhaps change her conclusions. For instance, he asked her in a sincere manner whether she thought only people who never do wrong should go to church. Of course, he could have explored her thoughts about why certain people seemed to be hypocritical, etc., to help her process her thoughts and feelings about this. Nevertheless, after Maya was given a chance to share and process her thoughts and feelings, her parents could then share their feelings and values as well as their own thoughts about her not attending. Allowing her to express her thoughts about not wanting to attend church services at this time will help foster her sense of autonomy and may influence her to go voluntarily
Teens need to feel that what they do is effective and valued by others. However, no one is perfect and teens need to know it’s OK not to be perfect. Parents can help their teens see mistakes as opportunities to grow and learn and acknowledge their teens’ efforts even if the results aren’t up to the parents’ expectations. Parents can also help their teens by acknowledging their own mistakes.
Parents can foster competence in their teens by teaching them the basic skills of maintaining life (e.g., cooking, cleaning, doing laundry) and how to serve others in the process. Teens who do volunteer activities, for example, often feel better about themselves and have a higher self-esteem because they have made a difference in someone else’s life.
John spent a couple of hours mowing the lawn. Afterwards, his dad noticed that the lawn mower had blown grass onto the mulch around the front of the house. Instead of complaining to his son, the dad praised him for finishing the lawn and the effort he made not to miss any grass. Later, he suggested he mow in the opposite direction to keep the grass off of the mulch. John’s self-esteem remained unharmed while being taught in the process.
A ninth-grade boy starts to wish he could disappear after starting at a new school and encountering teasing.
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