There’s a silent crisis among our teens and young adults. With social and cultural pressure to build the perfect resume or college app by loading up on advanced classes, sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer hours, honors and awards, our kids are constantly facing evaluation of themselves by others. The result has been a significant decline in self-confidence. Even (sometimes especially) our most apparently “successful” kids face crises of self-confidence. Because when self-worth is contingent on measurable markers of success like grades or awards rather than an internal sense of personal value, it becomes fragile and elusive. The more our youth pursue and achieve success, the more insecure they are feeling. Low self-confidence shows up not only in academic/achievement pursuits such as grades and test scores, but also in social domains such as peer relationships. And when confidence crumbles, anxiety and depression are quick to step in.
A recent survey of over 450 high school students found that more than 7 in 10 reported struggling with self-confidence, and 8 in 10 reported that low self-confidence causes anxiety and interferes with school performance and social functioning.
Self-confidence is at the core of many positive outcomes. Confident youth become happier and more successful adults. Self-confidence leads to better problem-solving and stronger ability to tolerate stress.
So what can we as parents do to help our teens build self-confidence?
As a mom to two teens (college freshman and high school junior), I’ve seen firsthand the cultural pressure to achieve and the impact that has on self-confidence. I’ve also seen how important parenting can be to our kids’ self-confidence. In this blog, we’re going to talk about ways parents can raise self-confident teens.
Talk about things other than school, college apps, or resume building. The number one complaint I hear from teen clients about their parents is “all they ever talk about is school, grades, and college applications.” For kids already drowning under a sea of social pressure to perform, these conversations feel like added pressure from parents. This creates a vicious cycle where teens avoid time with parents to avoid overwhelming conversations, but then parents feel like when interactions are limited they need to pack in all the reminders about the “important things” like grades and applications, and so teens withdraw even more. Flip the script! Talk with your kids about politics, about social issues, about their friends, which teachers are funny and which are too dry, about their hobbies, about their video games, about TV shows and books.
Remember the 5:1 ratio. Even when it seems like communication with your teen or young adult is at an all-time low and the eye-rolls far outnumber the words they utter, parents remain the most influential people on teen development. The old adage of 5 positive statements to every 1 negative statement is more important than ever at this age. You don’t need to never nag about grades, studying, scheduling, or college apps – but make sure that every nagging statement is surrounded by plenty of loving, supportive, and encouraging statements.
Praise effort and intention, not results. When we focus on the outcome, we communicate to our kids that the only things of value are the line items on their resume. When we focus on the process, on the actions that they put into their lives, we place value on them as humans. Model for your child that true self-worth is about living according to those internal principles. Praise their effort; praise their passion; praise their willingness to try. This helps communicate that they are more than their performance.
Let them solve their own problems. When we swoop in and “help”, we inadvertently communicate to our teens that we don’t believe they are capable of managing their own lives. Giving teens enough independence to solve their own problems helps them learn from their mistakes; this in turn helps them build confidence in their ability to make good decisions. When we help too much, we may protect them from some failures, but we also remove the opportunity for them to learn from failures or take pride in successes.
Strengths-based parenting. Every teen has their own strengths. Sometimes those align naturally with academic or social expectations, but sometimes they don’t. Strengths-based parenting emphasizes identifying, celebrating, and amplifying our kids’ strengths rather than correcting or compensating for their weaknesses. In a culture that emphasizes the number of advanced classes, number of Instagram likes, or number of TikTok views as markers of success, help your child identify and celebrate their core strength of being kind, being passionate, being creative, being assertive, being thoughtful, or being funny.
Indicators of success are hollow when accompanied by feeling like a fraud, feeling like you’re not really that good of a person. Parents are critical to kids’ self-confidence. By providing consistent positive, encouraging feedback; helping them identify their strengths; supporting them in taking risks and solving problems; and praising their efforts, values, and internal qualities we can help build self-confidence. That confidence in turn will help them develop into happier, more successful, and more independent adults.
Teens and young adults looking to learn more about self-confidence and imposter syndrome can read our recent article in collaboration with Fiveable, or visit our resources page.
Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development. She is currently on the faculty at Seattle Pacific University, where she chairs the Clinical Psychology PhD program.
If you or a member of your family needs help right away, please call 911 or visit your local emergency room. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).