Let's Talk Tween

Information and insight about kids ages 8-12 (the "in between" years)

I’m Ugly, I’m Fat: Self-loathing Among Tweens and Teens

Why does it seem as if low self-esteem is an epidemic among our kids?

Do you know how your tween really feels? Parenting is an age of low self-esteem.
How can we help our tweens & teens build self-esteem?
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I got a direct text from a follower the other day that read: “My 12 year old son thinks he’s ugly, is that normal?” In an age when selfies have taken over social networking sites, why do so many of our children seem to be lacking in self-esteem? Perhaps it is the fact that there seems to be so much emphasis on how we look, and what we are up to. Social media has provided a forum in which pictures and videos can be posted for all to see. Our kids are barraged daily with views of beautiful people living the ‘good life,’ or so it may seem. Social media seems to have blurred the lines between what is real life and fantasy. Our kids however, are buying into these false presentations. It can be daunting if you believe everyone around you has it so much better.

Blaming social media completely for our children’s low self-esteem may be easy, but it does not offer the answers we need. How do we build our children’s self-confidence? How can we impress upon them how awesome and amazing they are? We can compliment until the cows come home, but unless they internalize these thoughts and feelings about themselves, the problem will persist.

The lack of self-esteem experienced by our youth feels both epidemic and it is viral. Like any common virus it has spread quickly, and appears to be a tough strain, due to it’s vehemence. Just talking to a tween or teen that believes he is ugly, or she is fat is not enough.

Perhaps part of the difficulty in solving the problem lies in a failure to correctly identify the sufferers. What we see on the outside often does not reflect what our children are feeling inside. The lonely shy boy is just as likely to suffer from self-esteem issues (or not) as the star athlete on the soccer team. This makes it difficult to really know which children are affected, let alone why.

How then do we tackle the problem if detecting it is so darn hard in the first place? One way is to acknowledge that our role as parents has changed greatly in the digital age, as have our tools. We have been morphed into monitors and regulators of our children’s social media content. We are also often required to take on the role of detective. Social media sleuthing can be an annoying and arduous task. Reading through line after line of nonsense and spam to ascertain our children’s beliefs about themselves and what they reflect to others, however, is well worth the time.

Of course the best way to know what is going on with your child is through direct communication. I for one do not believe in ‘secret spying.’ The most honest way to build a relationship with your children is to let them now up front that you will be monitoring their content. Social media of course is not the only avenue. Keeping in contact with the other adults in your children’s lives such as teachers, coaches, and other parents is also important. Your child is not always the same person you see in front of you. A ‘team’ approach offers you great insight.

Regardless of how you come to have concerns about your child’s lack of self-esteem, however, the fix never feels easy. If just telling them how the rest of the world sees them were, enough…but it isn’t. A place to start is by encouraging their strengths. Helping them maintain a balance in their lives however is essential. If for example, your son enjoys drawing, signing him up for an art class can be helpful. Over programming his interest however can have indelible effects. The last thing you want is to transform his passion into a chore or even worse, another area in which he feels he cannot measure up.

Validation is another way to help your kids feel like they can communicate honestly with you about how they are feeling. Many of us misinterpret what it means to validate our children. Validation means offering empathy and acknowledging what your kids are feeling. It can be difficult to tolerate when our kids are feeling hurt or upset. We try to undo this situation by offering compliments or positive spins on their outlook. Of course our goal is to make them feel better. What we don’t realize is that this is not always a validating experience. Instead, we may be sending the message that what they are thinking and/or feeling is wrong, or not so serious. To truly validate is to demonstrate understanding: “I’m sorry you think that way about yourself, “ is received very differently than, “that’s not true, you are pretty, or you are a good athlete, student, person, etc….” Validating their feelings does not mean we avoid telling them we love them that, we wish we could take away the hurt. Nor does it suggest we shouldn’t let them know that we think they are incredible.

I’m sure we could all offer many thoughts and theories regarding the self-esteem issues affecting so many of our children today. In the end, what matters most, is that we are making consistent efforts to help them build up their ego strength and encourage them to have more positive points of view.

Jennifer Powell-Lunder, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and parenting expert specializing in work with tweens, teens, young adults, and their families.

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