Find Out How Your Teen Is Really Doing

These two questions can crack the code.

Posted Sep 01, 2020

Adolescence is a tough time. Not only is a child’s body changing, but increased independence forces a child to think about who he or she is in relation to the world. This can be both exhilarating and terrifying. Add a pandemic and the pressures of social media, and the adolescent may be faced with several dynamics which challenge his or her sense of self.

Identity formation is a prominent developmental task of adolescence. Expanded autonomy and independence force a child to contemplate who he or she is outside of the parent-child relationship. Re-consolidating his or her identity in response to this new independence can cause vulnerabilities in a child’s self-perception. Feeling insecure and self-conscious is common.

As an adolescent pursues interests and activities outside of the family, he or she may rely more heavily on friends. An adolescent’s need for peer acceptance and approval is paramount. Parents may feel like they fade into the backdrop. Moreover, adolescents are typically private and prickly. This “know it all attitude” often drives a parent away, emotionally. Yet, the adolescent’s tough exterior may not be congruent with his or her inner insecurities.

Overwhelming changes, hormones, increasing expectations and carving out a niche in a competitive and chaotic world may push an adolescent to seek a way to anchor a wobbly sense of self. Often, an adolescent looks at achievements as a way to safeguard an unconsolidated identity. Although this can be productive, an overreliance on achievement to supplement suffering self-esteem may cause problems. One mistake and the adolescent may feel as if his or her entire world is crashing. The adolescent may falsely believe he or she is only as good as his or her next achievement or worse yet, he or she may be too overwhelmed to even try.

There are two questions a parent can ask an adolescent which quickly assess the status of his or her self-esteem. The effectiveness of this line of questioning depends on the defensiveness of the adolescent and the level of trust between the adolescent and parent.

This discussion may be more productive if the parent is alone with the adolescent and the conversation seems natural. For example, a parent may try asking these questions in the car on the way to soccer practice or while walking the dog.

The first question is: “What are three things you like about who you are?”

The responses to this question may be telling and a lack of response may also be revealing. If the adolescent says nothing, the parent may need to delve deeper and possibly elicit counseling for the child.

If the adolescent immediately rattles off three things, for example, “I’m awesome at soccer. I’m the best at math, and I am the most popular kid in school,” the adolescent may be utilizing achievement as a way of stabilizing a fragile self-esteem. In this case, the parent may want to make substantial and consistent efforts to validate and reinforce the child’s character instead of his or her achievements.

Say the child has a humbler response, for instance, “I think I’m kind. My friends think I am funny, and dad says I have a good heart." This type of answer may suggest the child is in touch with who he or she is as a human being.

An adolescent’s identification of character attributes in place of superficial achievements may indicate a solid sense of self. Having a good heart, displaying empathy, working hard despite the outcome, and being conscientious of others are valiant attributes that allow a child to succeed in life and in love.

The second question is, “What are three things that you do not like about who you are?”

The adolescent’s answer to this question may illuminate the vulnerabilities in his or her self-esteem as well as provide an indication of self-awareness.

For example, imagine the adolescent says, “Nothing. I’m good at everything.” He or she may be combating deep insecurities with narcissism. Alternatively, imagine the adolescent says, “I am crabby sometimes. I am mean to my brother, and I overthink things."  This adolescent exhibits self-awareness and a realistic view of his or her flaws, which points to a solid sense of self. 

If an adolescent says something drastic like, “Everything. I hate myself,” the parent may need to dive in and help the child explore feelings about himself or herself. Counseling may also be a good idea.

Before attempting this line of questioning, it may help to set the stage a couple of weeks in advance. Finding an opportunity to tell the adolescent three things a parent loves about who they are may help the process.

For example, in the car when my daughter says something empathic, I often say to her, “I love your heart.” When I overhear her being selfless with a friend, I say, “You are so thoughtful.” At soccer instead of congratulating her on scoring a goal, I comment on her tenacity and teamwork working the ball up the field. At night in place of saying “I love you,” I often say, “I love who you are.”

Part of a parent’s job is to reflect to the child who he or she is. From an early age, keep an eye out for displays of empathy, thoughtfulness, selflessness, and determination. Validate these characteristics. Strengthen a child from the inside out.