What are your hopes for your teen this year? A fresh year brings the excitement of new milestones and uncertainty of what challenges may tag along.
Maybe you are anticipating the start of high school, a driver’s license, a first significant other, or the college application process. Perhaps this is the year your teen will try substances for the first time or experience the first heartbreak.
Each new experience or challenge brings an opportunity for your teen to build skills for coping, decision-making and problem-solving. These opportunities come with a learning curve. Taking a leap over the gap between lived experience and the unknown usually comes with growing pains.
Some teens will find the prospect of this discomfort unsettling and will feel helpless in face of these leaps. Others approach the edge with confidence in their ability to navigate their way to the other side.
In recent years, teens seem to report reduced confidence in their ability to respond effectively to struggle and decreased access to coping skills and internal resources. Meanwhile, social media surrounds them with the illusion that their friends have it figured out and are living their best life.
“When expectations do not align with reality, confidence can be found in living out our values regardless of external outcomes.”
Today’s teens spend most of their time on school work and rounding out their extracurricular profiles for college applications. The pressure to perform in school seems relentless, and there is an intense, often crushing, fear of failure. Though many have the grades and SAT scores for admission to Ivy League schools, they might not perceive themselves as having done enough, or capable enough to overcome life’s challenges.
My goal as a counselor is to help teens both discover and build a sense of competence—to know that even if they are nervous, anxious or uncertain of the future, they have resources available to them.
Instinct is often to protect, encourage, and smooth over potential pitfalls. Adults carry their own experiences of adolescence with them as they guide teenagers into adulthood. As much as we want to share with teens hard lessons we’ve learned and protect them from hurts we’ve experienced, the best thing we can do is to foster development of their own values, framework for reasoning, and trust in their gut.
So, we want to encourage our teens to trust their internal voices rather than impose our own wisdom and advice. In supporting your teen through whatever this year brings, let your mantra be: “prepare, don’t protect.”
Put feet to this mantra with these 5 ways to nurture your teen’s confidence:
Some people sense they have little control over their circumstances, while others believe they can directly influence the outcome life events. The field of psychology calls this external and internal locus of control, respectively.
The latter, internal locus of control, typically encourages action grounded on the belief that one is capable of overcoming challenges.
As a college freshman, I erroneously believed my difficulty with O-Chem lab reports stemmed from the fact that Organic Chemistry was just too hard. My dad helped me shift my perspective: I could make changes to my report writing process by giving myself more time to think through complex concepts and seek help during office hours if needed. My success would not be determined by the level of difficulty of the course, but by my commitment to improve my study habits.
“Teens seem to report reduced confidence in their ability to respond effectively to struggle and decreased access to coping skills and internal resources.”
Which perspective are you conveying to your teen? When they audition for the musical or go out for a spot on an athletic team, is the outcome connected back to their own efforts or the judgment of the coaches? When they reach a goal, reflect on what steps they took to bring about success.
When a goal has not been reached, engage in problem-solving with them (more on this below). Identifying specific changes they can make the next time around can also defuse general feelings of shame and failure. The focus is directed away from self-defeat and toward growth.
Engage Them in Problem-Solving & Decision-Making
Adolescence is full of many firsts, which means there are few reference points for responding to setbacks. Anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness often stem from the perception that we lack tools and support.
During adolescence, the parts of the brain guiding reasoning and decision-making are in the midst of a growth spurt and need some support in the form of coaching.
In building independence and confidence in teens, you can direct them to their inner voice as you model a framework for problem-solving. The foundation for any problem-solving discussion is validation—letting your teen know you hear and value their experience, emotions, and perspective. Then you can move forward to ask open-ended questions to identify the problem, generate solutions, evaluate possible outcomes and consequences, and decide on a course of action.
Encouraging them to articulate what they think and make their own decisions communicates your own confidence in their ability to handle the present concern. Another way to communicate confidence in their capability is to let go of things they can do for themselves.
“when building confidence in teens, you can direct them to their inner voice as you model a framework for problem-solving.”
Teaching problem-solving skills while handing problems back to them is a one-two punch for building confidence.
Focus on Self-Efficacy Instead of Self-Esteem
When we don’t feel good about ourselves or a challenging situation, mantras about our self-esteem rarely motivate us toward a solution.
Back to my lab report scenario: my dad could have offered the encouragement that I was a “good student” and “smart person.” In the moment, I did not feel like a good student, and it would have meant little to me in terms of taking action.
Labels can often increase our distress if our circumstances contradict our perception of self. If I couldn’t figure out the lab report, or future lab reports, I would lose my standing as a “good student.”
Fortunately, we can move away from the labels of self-esteem and focus on everyday mastery. Another word for this is self-efficacy—confidence in our competence—which is grounded in an internal locus of control. Self-efficacy is built primarily through experiences that provide a sense of mastery.
Rather than convince your teen that they are a good student, point to past victories and break down what went well or how they worked through a stormy time. A memory of past action is worth more than kind words in their ears.
Promote the Development of Non-Academic Skills
You can strengthen a sense of mastery in your teen by encouraging participation in activities outside of academics. Most teens that walk through my office door wrestle with the message that school and earning admission into college are the entirety of their current existence.
“Teaching problem-solving skills while handing problems back to them is a one-two punch for building confidence.”
When challenges arise in the classroom, it can be hard to shake the thought that they are going to fail and not excel in life. Learning a skill such as guitar, cooking, or fly-fishing can broaden their worldview and lead to new discoveries about unique gifts they possess. Satisfaction after learning a new chord progression on the ukulele could translate into confidence in other areas of life.
Point Them to Their Values
Our decisions and the way we respond to challenges is guided by what matters to us. What will guide your teens’ goals and decisions? Hopefully, they carry some of the values you have imparted. Ultimately, teens will stick to values when they come from within.
Goals, such as being a straight-A student, are not values. Values one could live out as a student could be conscientiousness and creativity. Defining what matters in life can help extend your teen’s self-concept beyond the walls of the school. When expectations do not align with reality, confidence can be found in living out our values regardless of external outcomes.
Did they mess up a speaking part in stage performance? Yes. Were they fully present in the moment during their performance? Yes. The value of presence can be practiced in an imperfect performance.
A fun way to talk about values is to imagine what you would want others to say about you at your 80th birthday party. What kind of person were you? What did you stand for in life? Try out this exercise during a family dinner or game night.