The counsellor at my daughter’s school said she thinks my daughter has low self-esteem. I have noticed that my daughter is spending a lot of time in her bedroom on her computer and is not interested in the other members of her family in ways that she used to be. She is 14 years old and going through an awkward growth stage and is often irritable. Whenever I have tried to ask her about how she is doing she says she is fine and does what she can to avoid any further conversation about herself. My husband says I should leave her alone and that she is just being a teenager. I am not sure what to do and feel somewhat worried that there is more to it than that. Any suggestions Douglas?
— Worried and Confused
Hello Worried and Confused,
While it is true that teenagers tend to distance themselves from the adults in their lives and, in general, are less likely to open up to talk to parents than before, it seems your daughter could use some additional attention. Something is going on.
Low self-esteem is actually a belief system that can undermine a person’s experience of living and lead to making choices that can be self damaging. Low self-esteem comes when we measure our performance or our appearance or our popularity in ways that come up short of our expectations, our standards or in comparison to others. The inner critic becomes activated and we start to believe we are “a failure”, “not good enough”, “not loveable or likeable”, and that this is a permanent condition. Self-hatred and self-loathing can be part of what a person thinks of themselves and guilt and shame are often the subtext of what they feel.
Two aspects are most significant. The first is that it has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which means that the more we believe we are no good the more we behave in ways that demonstrate the truth of it. It becomes part of a fixed mindset that looks for reinforcements to what we believe rather than seeing life as a set of opportunities to learn and grow and change in ways that make life better.
The second is that someone with low esteem can rarely hear and integrate compliments or achievements, while at the same time amplifying criticisms or negative feedback. Compliments are dismissed; criticisms are taken as reinforcement to what is already held as a belief. This can play out as depression, a helpless feeling that life will not improve or desperate attempts to seek approval. Not good, and completely part of a belief system that is interpreted as being the truth.
As adults and teachers we unwittingly collude in creating belief systems that put too much importance on performance, appearance, grades and outward measures of behaviour. We can easily forget that a person’s value is intrinsically deeper and not related to measures of success. It is easy to see this in an infant or young child, but how quickly we start rewarding behaviours we want to see and punishing those we don’t.
Children learn to seek approval rather than to feel comfortable within themselves, allowed to make mistakes and learn life as they go. Even those who appear to find success often discover later in life that it proves to be illusive and never satisfying. They are prime candidates for mid-life issues later.
I would suggest that you and your husband look at the messages that you are giving your daughter about herself and what you value in her. It is not always parents who can influence one’s self esteem. Peer groups can be difficult to navigate when they are competitive and pecking orders take shape. Teens can be really hard on one another.
I suggest that you take a bigger step in trying to get through to her that you are concerned and that you care about her well-being. One idea is a special day (or more), where the two of you go off on your own to do things that you know she likes to do. Sometimes when adolescents get away from the familiar routines they might open up to talk about the difficult things that they would rather avoid.
Also, consider therapy for your daughter. She might benefit from a confidential setting where she can talk freely about how she feels and what is going on in her life that affects her.
Take it seriously. Intervention now prevents the belief system from becoming entrenched and more difficult to deal with later.
I hope this is helpful,