Do you know how your preteen feels about himself? Sometimes it takes a shocking moment in a family to realize that a child is struggling, and that they are unhappy with themselves and their life. The way a kid feels about themselves falls under the umbrella of self-esteem. You hear about self-esteem so much during the teenage years, but building a healthy self-esteem begins much earlier in a child’s life — and it all comes home to roost when they transition into the teen years.
Preteens who have a healthy self-esteem feel valued, accepted, confident and proud. These kids think positive things about themselves and are prepared to face everyday stresses and challenges. On the other hand, preteens suffering from low self-esteem tend to criticize themselves, are hard on themselves, feel insecure and not as good as others. These kids also focus on their failures instead of their successes, lack confidence and doubt their abilities. Kids like this worry about people judging them and not accepting them for who they are. This negative outlook can lead to them being treated poorly by others and prevent them from taking on new challenges. They can give up easily and struggle to bounce back from their failures and mistakes.
According to Dr. Marilyn Sorenson, author of Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem, low self-esteem is “a thinking disorder in which people view themselves as inadequate, unacceptable, unworthy, unlovable, and/or incompetent.” This type of thinking can impact every aspect of a kid’s daily life. This outlook can ultimately result in them being overly critical of themselves and others, having difficulty making decisions, and developing fears such as who to trust and how to cope with new situations.
This is what makes the transition from preteen to teen so delicate.
How Self-Esteem and Anxiety Are Linked
For preteens, the worries that accompany self-esteem can lead to anxiety. Preteens with low self-esteem will question whether they are worthy, adequate, and able to be loved. The psychology behind why this happens is a discrepancy between what they wish they were like and how they view themselves. They are very self-critical, never giving themselves credit for any accomplishments. Also, they are always striving to be different or better, and disappointed when they don’t meet their own self-imposed expectations. This perspective, especially as it builds into the teen years, can cause them to be fearful, on guard, and always expecting the worst to happen.
Generally, preteens with low self-esteem have the following fears:
• Will I do something that shows I am not good enough?
• Can others notice and recognize my inadequacy?
• When I fail, will I lose what I have, or be abandoned?
• Am I going to experience humiliation, devastation, or despair?
The relationship between self-esteem and anxiety ends up being an endless cycle: low self-esteem triggers anxiety and being anxious causes confidence to diminish and fear to take over.
According to Julia Friederike Sowislo of the Department of Psychology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, who analyzed 18 studies regarding anxiety, low self-esteem is equally effective at raising the risk of anxiety as anxiety is at decreasing self-esteem. She concluded that low self-esteem makes people vulnerable to obsessing over negative thoughts, which can result in depression.
Essentially, preteens with an anxiety disorder do not have enough confidence in themselves to confront their problems. They feel and act helpless, only causing more anxiety for the next time they face a similar situation. Of course, this is all just a distorted view driven by their low self-esteem. A typical example of how this works was pointed out by Sorenson of the Self-Esteem Institute. Preteens and teens with low self-confidence tend to worry about looking like a fool in front of others. This may cause them to become so nervous in social situations that they develop social anxiety and/or panic attacks. They may then avoid certain activities and shy away from relationships, which can really impact the quality of their lives.
How to Guide Your Preteen into the Teen Years
Although self-esteem begins forming at a very early age, you can take action to build confidence up in your preteen at any time. A healthy level of confidence helps kids immensely and helps them be successful.
First, preteens do not become confident through constant praise and rewards for every little move they make. Instead, they need to lose and fail in order to build resiliency so they can keep on learning and growing.
According to experts, self-esteem results from experiences in which a kid feels accepted, capable, and effective.
Here are some ways that you can help your preteen build their self-esteem based on these three criteria, according to Sorenson.
• Love your preteen unconditionally. Let them know that you love them no matter how much they fail or how many bad decisions they make. Let them know that perfection is not the goal. Learning, growing, trying new things, and experiencing all that life has to offer is more important than whether they win or lose, pass or fail.
• Show your preteen that you understand them. When kids feel understood by a parent, they are likely to accept themselves, too. Keep the line of communication open and be a supportive listener.
• Make them feel special. Help your preteen dig into their unique interests, talents, and strengths and let them know it is OK to feel proud for their accomplishments.
• Avoid harsh criticism. Be careful how you speak to your preteen — the words and tone you use can really impact their self-worth.
• Praise strategically. Praise their effort or attitude as opposed to qualities they can’t change like their athletic ability. Also, avoid focusing on results (such as getting an A) and more on the hard work they put into something.
• Let them do things themselves. Step back and allow your preteen to try new activities without you hovering. Give them the space to take risks and make mistakes so they can learn how to solve problems by themselves.
• Support them from a distance. When allowing them to do new things, let them know that you are available to help them if they need it. Then let them do what they can, even if they make mistakes. Keep challenging them to reach new levels.
Expand their horizons. Give them plenty of opportunities to try new activities, see new places, and meet different people. The more their comfort zone expands, the better they will handle worrisome situations that crop up. However, if they are scared, encourage but don’t push too hard.
• Set realistic, attainable goals. By setting goals, kids can feel encouraged to take on new challenges. Then when they reach them, they will be happy and proud of their accomplishments. Help them set goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. Being flexible is also important throughout this process.
• Let them make their own choices. Allowing your kids to make their own decisions will help them feel powerful and confident — and prepare them for the big and worrisom choices that the teen years bring. They will learn how to consider the consequences of their decisions and to take responsibility for their actions.
• Give them responsibilities. In building self-esteem, preteens need opportunities to demonstrate their competence and value. Give them more advanced responsibilities at home and praise them when they follow through. No rewards are necessary because their reward will be how proud they feel.