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Todd Kestin Headshot

Step Back and Watch Your Child Build His Own Self-Esteem

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TEENS IN HOODIE
Fuse via Getty Images

"My child looks sad and walks with his head down, hiding his face with his hoodie." Parents say this to me all the time. "I don't know what to do, what to say, to make him feel better. What should we do?"

Your teen's body language says it all. His self-esteem is in the toilet. Talking about his feelings to get to the root of the problem may be what you believe is the best way to help him, but a different approach is likely to bring far better results.

Self-esteem is built through the work, determination and tenacity of life experiences. Not so much through reassurance.

I say this often to parents of my clients. Instead of pressing on his fears, trying to verbally reassure him by talking about feelings, or even seeking help... take a breath and step back.

Allow your child the space necessary to work his or her way out of their current situation. I realize this sounds like you're doing nothing, even abandoning him in time of need. But what you're doing by stepping back is providing him with the space to make decisions, solve problems, and learn to do it composed while under pressure.

When your child is struggling with self esteem or confidence in his current situation, change your parenting pattern.

Stop telling your son or daughter how great they are. We do this too often, believing that they'll believe our words more than their own thoughts. More than their circumstances. More than the words of their peers. They need to see proof, rather than hear more words. And that proof comes from their own problem-solving.

Never forget that every moment he's learning how to live.

Most parents believe their child is the greatest, but they must also learn that constant praise is dangerous territory. We parents have the best of intentions, but in my work with teens and young adults I've learned that kids who are only praised when struggling, struggle more.

It's like giving them a ticket out of life's learning process. Improving life skills takes work, resilience, consistency and many failures. Resist the urge to bail them out. When we praise our children they feel this immediate pay off, and it stunts the growing up process because they stop moving forward. They get the idea that because of their greatness, life will always go their way. And it doesn't.

Another pitfall we parents must learn to curb is praising our child when it's undeserved. This seems like one big fat lie to them and deep in their gut they know it is. They know they didn't earn it. They just feel confused.

When we tell them they're the best at everything or the smartest of all, it creates a problem when they figure out they aren't. Let's not raise a bunch of ego maniacs who don't have the skills to live healthy, rounded lives. Let's not set them up to feel like hypocrites and pretenders. Let's teach them how to have the skills necessary by toning down the praise and encouraging the battles. Encouraging determination. Encouraging resilience.

Then we'll begin to see our children completing tasks, working through their own struggles and growing up.

Then you have something worth praising! Praise that!

Self-esteem is developed through work, effort, failing and eventually overcoming challenges.Not by what an individual is constantly told. What's far more satisfying is the courage to keep getting back up and trying to find a solution.

Of course, it's better to be positive in your encouragement of your child than negative, but let the encouragement be that you have confidence that he'll find his way through this problem, rather than praising him for who he is, before he's accomplished any victory.

When your daughter can't do a math problem, this is a good thing. Are you tempted to do it for her? Of course, but also know that doing it yourself robs her of finding she can learn to do it, and gain prowess in the process. Help isn't a bad thing, but it should be in the form of pointing in a direction, not providing answers. Each time she figures it out herself, her self-esteem grows a bit.

Stop worrying about your child, but rather encourage him.

When that feeling hits you to sit and talk about all the negative feelings consider that it may increase the negative thinking patterns. Instead, help them change this pattern by encouraging them to:

  • Make their own decisions, recognizing guidance is available if they need it
  • Go after what they want
  • Pursue things in life that boost their excitement

Arm yourself as a parent with the confidence that you're guiding them down a long tested and proven path for building mastery in the skills they need to pursue the life they dream. It really is this simple because when we're excited:

  • A lot more is possible and our self-esteem grows
  • We want to learn, create, imagine
  • We (and our kids) can handle the world and all its chaos

And remember, even if your style as a parent has always been to sit your teen down and push for understanding feelings and struggles and the root behind them, there's no time like the present to start a new strategy. If your child seems emotionally overloaded, struggling, confused, and lacking confidence... try the new strategy of encouraging them to get back in the game.

Meanwhile, model your own resilience, determination, and courage, so they can see it working. You really are their role model ... show them how it's done. And never forget the value of telling stories of your own life, discouragements, failures, and victories. Those stories will whisper in their ears when the going gets tough, and will keep them going.

With patience, you'll begin to see that same child who had walked with his chin hanging, now taking on challenges and breaking a sweat doing it. And when the task is complete? You'll see your formerly sullen teen glow with pride.

That is self-esteem.