Hearing our tweens and teens put themselves down is challenging and painful. When our kids struggle with self-esteem, moms want to know how to help them build self-confidence and feel better about themselves. How can you help your tweens and teens build self-esteem and change their negative thinking? What do you do? What do you say? This is a common question moms ask me every week.
Negative self-talk involves unconstructive thoughts and beliefs about oneself. With tweens and teens, this can manifest as them blaming themselves for things beyond their control, exaggerating their mistakes, or underestimating their abilities.
It’s important to remember that adolescents experience intense physical, psychological, and social changes, which can bring up a lot of intense emotions and bring on negative self-talk and critical thoughts about themselves. They are also figuring out who they are – their interests, strengths, and what they enjoy doing, which can lead them to compare themselves to their peers.
When tweens or teens consistently criticize themselves or believe they’re incapable or unworthy, it can significantly impact their self-esteem and mental health. The good news is there are things that we can do and say that can help combat and shift those negative voices by listening, validating, providing them with perspective, and modeling self-compassion.
Five Ways To Help Build Your Teen’s Self-Esteem and Change Negative Thinking
1. Listen and Validate Their Feelings First.
When our teen calls themselves stupid or fat, the first response is to tell them they are wrong and want to make them feel better. We hate to hear our kids say mean things about themselves. However, we also don’t want them to keep these feelings bottled up inside. Share with them how you are glad they are telling you they feel this way. Assure them that it’s okay and understandable that they have negative feelings and that everyone goes through such emotions.
Listening and validating instead of dismissing or contradicting them is much more effective in supporting our kids in shifting their negative thoughts. This doesn’t mean you agree with their self-criticism, but it does mean you acknowledge their emotions and validate how they are feeling.
Sometimes, the negative self-talk is just an expression of their struggles. Avoid responding to negative self-talk with more negativity. Criticizing them or responding harshly can exacerbate their negative self-talk.
You might say, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been feeling down lately, and I’ve heard you say some pretty harsh things about yourself. Would you like to talk about it? I want you to know that it’s okay to feel this way, and we can find ways to manage it.”
If your teen says, “I hate how I look. I’m not as skinny as the others,” you could respond, “I hear that you’re feeling unhappy with your body, and that can be really hard. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s okay. What you look like does not define your value or worth.”
If they come to you and say, “Nobody likes me at school,” instead of immediately refuting, try, “It sounds like you’re feeling lonely and left out. That’s not a good feeling. Do you want to talk about it? I’m here to listen and would like to hear what’s going on if you want to share. “
2. Reframe Their Negative Self-Talk and Encourage a Growth Mindset and Resilience.
Our teens often get stuck in negative thoughts, which isn’t healthy or productive. Unfortunately, it’s very natural and common for them to stay focused on the problem instead of on a solution. That’s where we can come in and help steer them toward reframing their perspective. Counter their negative self-talk by suggesting they identify aspects of the situation they can look at differently. This doesn’t mean ignoring the negative; instead, we need to help them recognize it and support them to re-direct the negative self-talk into something constructive.
If your teen says, “I’m so stupid. I messed up again.” You might suggest, “Everyone makes mistakes. It doesn’t make you stupid. Perhaps you can say, ‘I made a mistake this time, but I will learn from it.'”
If they say, “I am terrible at this. I can’t do anything,” you can respond, “Is that really true? You’re good at many things, like your artwork or your ability to solve complex math problems. Everyone struggles with something, but with practice, we get better.”
If your teen says, “I’m just not a likable person,” you could encourage them to consider evidence to the contrary, such as, “What about all the times your friends have enjoyed hanging out with you? Perhaps you could say, ‘I sometimes feel like I’m not likable, but I have friends who enjoy my company.'”
If your teen didn’t make the team and they’re saying, “I’m useless at sports,” remind them of the importance of resilience. “Many great athletes didn’t make the team on their first try. With more practice and determination, you’ll improve.”
When your teen says, “I can’t draw. I’m not artistic at all,” to encourage a growth mindset, you might say, “Artistic skills can be developed with practice. Why don’t you keep trying and see how your skills evolve over time?”
3. Encourage Self-Compassion.
Our teens can be very self-critical and so hard on themselves. They constantly compare what they do and how they look to other peers and feel like they always come up short. They struggle so much with self-loathing because they are still trying to build positive self-esteem and a strong identity. And during this fragile phase, they will often focus on where they fail in this intensely competitive world.
Teach them to be kind to themselves. Help them realize how important it is to treat themselves with gentleness and grace, patience and acceptance. Remind them they deserve the same compassion they would offer a friend in a similar situation.
Ask them, “If your best friend made the same mistake, what would you say to them?” Whatever their response, encourage them to say the same to themselves.
When your teen engages in negative self-talk, encourage them to reframe these statements compassionately. If they say, “I’m terrible at math,” you might suggest, “Math is a challenging subject for you right now, but with some extra help and practice, you can improve.”
When your teen claims they hate a particular part of their body or says they are ugly, help them look at themselves differently by saying, “You might not like certain parts of your appearance while your body is constantly transforming right now. But be patient and good to yourself as you go through these big changes and focus on the aspects you do like and celebrate those positive physical traits.”
Explain what self-compassion looks like to your teen using real-life examples. For instance, “Remember when your friend Sarah missed the goal during the soccer game, and you told her it’s okay, and everyone makes mistakes? That’s the kind of kindness you can give yourself when you make mistakes.”
4. Help Them Find Solutions
If their negative self-talk stems from a problem or mistake, help them find ways to improve or correct it. Our teens might want to wallow in their failures or faults, but we can help guide them through a productive problem-solving process to show them how to move forward and figure out what they can do next. It’s so important to teach them that they can find solutions rather than just focusing on their shortcomings. They also need to learn this essential life skill to live a successful life as an adult.
If they say, “I did terribly on that test. I’m not smart enough,” you might say, “Even smart people can do poorly on tests. Let’s look at what you didn’t understand and figure out how you can do better next time.”
You can help them shift their perspective by saying, “You didn’t do as well as you hoped on this one test, but that doesn’t define your abilities. Let’s go through the areas you found challenging and find some additional resources to help.”
You can also provide some problem-solving skills. For example, when you hear your tween or teen say something like, “I always argue with my best friend; we can’t be friends anymore,” you could introduce problem-solving strategies. “It’s natural to have disagreements. Maybe you could try discussing how you both feel when you’re calm and work out a compromise?”
5. Model Positive Self-Talk and Self-Compassion.
One of the best ways to support our tweens and teens in combating negative self-talk is by practicing and modeling self-compassion and positive self-talk. Teens often model their behavior after their parents. Speak positively about yourself and demonstrate how to handle mistakes or failures with grace.
One of the most powerful ways to encourage positive self-talk in your kids is to verbalize out loud kind and compassionate self-talk yourself.
When you make a mistake, verbalize kind and self-compassionate words out loud in front of your tween or teen. This goes a long way to helping your tween or teen change their negative self-talk.
If you’re struggling to keep up with your exercise routine, instead of criticizing yourself harshly, say, “I’m finding it hard to stick to my exercise routine recently. But it’s okay. Everyone has off days. I will try again tomorrow.”
Or, let’s say you’ve made a mistake on a project at work. Instead of saying, “I can’t believe I messed that up. I’m such an idiot,” you might say something like, “I made a mistake on this project, which is disappointing, but it’s an opportunity to learn. Nobody is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes sometimes.”
If you’ve had a disagreement with someone, rather than beating yourself up, say, “I regret the harsh words that were exchanged, but it doesn’t make me a bad person. Disagreements happen in every relationship. I will apologize for my part and try to mend things.”
If you’re trying to learn a new skill, like cooking a complex dish, and it doesn’t turn out as expected, instead of saying, “I’m a terrible cook,” you might say, “This didn’t turn out as I hoped, but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad cook. I’ll try again another time, and maybe I’ll improve with practice.”
When your tween or teen needs extra support:
Seek professional help if your teenager’s negative self-talk persists or if they show signs of depression or severe anxiety. It may be best to consult a mental health professional for further guidance and support. Therapists and counselors are trained to handle such situations and provide your teen with the tools they need to cope.
Remember that changing negative self-talk patterns takes time, so be patient with your teen. By fostering a supportive environment and providing practical strategies to combat negative thoughts, you are setting them on a path toward improved self-esteem and mental well-being.