Amidst 500 high school teenage girls I pointed out the one comment made to me when I was twelve that I’ll never forget which left a scar on my self-esteem and how I regarded myself. My best friend and I were getting on the bus and I told her who I had a crush on (that day) and she turned to me and said, “Really? He’ll never go for you.”
Verbally slapped in the face I remember (even 28 years later) thinking, “Why? Am I not good enough?” This ‘thought’ carried through into my eighth grade year and on into high school. It fueled my determination to get boys attention, regardless if I found them attractive or not, I needed to prove I was ‘good enough’ for them to take notice. This behavior was dangerous and ultimately contributed to several dangerous situations.
When I posed the question to the group to share if they had a memory that has affected their self-esteem the hands flew up and the girls were more than willing to share. One story I recall is a young woman, about sixteen years old, spoke of a time when she was fourteen and with a group of friends at a restaurant. She ordered a Coke, and the girl sitting next to her muttered, “Don’t you mean Diet Coke?” The young woman said from that moment on she felt fat. She would only drink diet drinks and had been suffering with the desire to purge.
One comment is all it takes.
These verbal scars don’t just happen to girls. Seth, my youngest, is twelve years old and a growing young man. From birth Seth has always been above the average on the growth charts – head, height and weight. Above the chart average but equal to one another. Once puberty began to kick in when he was around nine years old his weight began to increase but the ratio of height to his weight still equaled out enough that the doctor didn’t seem alarmed. However, I was because I knew that it set him apart from the other boys his age.
In code the doctor and I would have a private exchange in regards to the concern of his weight and the doctor would point out how muscular Seth was and how tall he was projected to be (possibly 6’5″ or taller). The doctor would ask Seth what he drank when he was thirsty and Seth, unknowing to the point of the question, would answer honestly about the juices and Gatorades. The doctor gave me a sly look and informed him how much water his body needed. I knew the only way Seth was acquiring these juices and drinks was because I was the one buying them. It was an issue I could monitor.
Thankfully, the exchange between the doctor and Seth was always positive and Seth left the office feeling good about himself; strong, fit and excited to one day be a tall young man.
The problem? Sports. Seth might be one of the biggest (height and weight) on his baseball team but he is also one of the fastest and strongest. The power he puts behind the bat is amazing. But kids are cruel. “That kid is fat,” Seth heard for the first time when he was nine.
It broke his heart and infuriated me. What could I do?
As much as I want to protect my kids in bubble wrap and keep them from getting hurt physically, I also want to put their self-esteem in a titanium cage to shield them from the verbal blows that can leave permanent scars. All it takes is one comment to scar the self-esteem.
I see the effects of the ribbing the kids give Seth of his weight and size. He hunches his shoulders forward so that his shirt won’t fit to his stomach and he wants to measure his height weekly to see if he is getting closer to that projected 6’5” height. It is clear his hope relies on the height going up and his weight going down.
What I encourage the girls to do is the same advice I give to Seth. Here are a few of the main suggestions given to teens:
- Remember who you are – You are God’s beloved, His creation. Don’t compare yourself to others because there is no one else like you and as much as you try you will not be like anyone else nor can they be like you. Being yourself is best.
“You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know.” Psalm 139:13-14
- Make a list of your positive qualities and stick up for yourself against others judgment. You are your greatest advocate!
“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” Matthew 7:1-2
- Avoid listening to the negative. Negative comments come from unhappy people. Unhappy people don’t like to be alone. They need company so they say negative things to make others feel as unhappy as they are. If given a negative, hurtful comment turn the other cheek, smile and walk away. Remind yourself how sad they must be and pray for them. If you receive their negative comment and claim it for yourself then you have allowed them to win by making you unhappy.
“But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” Matthew 5:39
These tips work well especially when the teens are hearing them in groups, knowing that the person next to them is hearing the same advice and can feel confidence and courage in numbers. So how can we, as parents, make sure we can encourage and support these positive, self-esteem building behaviors? Here are a few tips: (Trust me, I’m speaking to myself first.)
- Be a Positive Role Model – We are their first teacher. We need to be confident in our self-image and worth and they will follow suit and act out the same behaviors.
- Support/Encourage/Admire – Teens need to feel as if you are on their side. Remind them often of your support. Encourage them by pointing out the gifts and talents you recognize within them. Help them write a list of their unique and positive qualities. Give them a smile and hug when you see them. Talk to them about how they feel, even if it seems petty or insignificant to you it isn’t to them. Respect their feelings in the age and place they are at this moment.
- Be Aware – Pay attention to the comments your teens make in regards to how they feel about themselves, how they perform at school, or how they interact with other teens. Don’t let unusual behavior slip by with the excuse of hormones or adjustment to being a teenager. Ask questions and if they don’t respond to you find an adult that is mutually trusted by you and your teen (i.e.: youth minister, Godparent, grandparent, aunt or uncle) and allow them to ask the questions your teen won’t answer.
Finally, love, love, love. Remember how hard it is growing up? We can’t and won’t keep them from every hurt and disappointment but we can be proactive in giving them the tools they need to become confident and secure young men and women.
Are you a seasoned parent of teenagers? Have you dealt with low self-esteem in your family or even in your own past? Do you have tips to share? It takes a village! Comment and let us hear from you.