My son has very low self esteem

bambino con disegno sorrisoQUESTION
My 14-year-old son seems to have very low self-esteem and I am wondering how best to help him. He works hard at school and gets reasonable grades but he is very hard on himself and thinks he is the “worst” in the class. He takes an interest in sports and, in particular, GAA. He puts in the commitment and goes training every week, attending all the matches, but he feels he is always on the “B team” fighting for a place.

He seems to have no confidence at all. Last night, he got very upset saying he thought he was no good at anything or that he was only average. When I try to reassure him or praise him about his success at school, he just rejects what I say. It breaks my heart to see him like this.

Lots of children and teenagers suffer from a lack of confidence and poor self-esteem. This can be particularly upsetting for parents as it is hard to witness your own child expressing such negative feelings towards himself and not recognizing his own abilities.

There are many sources of poor self-esteem: personality factors play a role, with children who have a perfectionist streak frequently being self-critical and negative when they don’t reach the over-high standards they set themselves. Sometimes, poor self-esteem is caused by children not having found their “niche” or an arena that matches their strengths and talents.

Certainly, their self-esteem suffers when children are in overly competitive environments that don’t facilitate the expression of their best talents and abilities and where their weaknesses in relationship to others are always highlighted. This is a problem for many children in school when an over-emphasis is put on academic learning which may not be their forte.

In addition, poor self-esteem can be aggravated for children by not having close friends who value and appreciate them. Certainly, one or two close friends who share similar interests can make an enormous difference to a child’s self-esteem.

The teen years can be a particularly challenging time for a child’s confidence, when there is more pressure to “fit in” and to appear to succeed. There are a number of things you can do to help your son.

First of all it is great he is talking to you about how he feels rather than bottling it up or only expressing his frustrations in misbehaviour at home. The important thing is to always listen to him and to help him talk about how he feels.

Reassurance is, of course, important, but make sure you don’t dismiss his feelings or close down what he is saying.

Be careful about over-praising results or success especially in the arenas he feels unsuccessful. In these situations it might be best to praise his positive qualities rather than his positive results. For example, you can praise his great commitment to his sport and the fact he turns up each week and tries his best. You can praise his effort in school and his desire to do well. You can even praise aspects of his perfectionistic streak or at least the positive intentions – “You really want to get things right, even though it puts you under pressure, that is admirable.”

The crucial thing to communicate is that you believe in him, that you think he has great talents and that you enjoy his many positive qualities. Even if you don’t communicate this belief directly to him, he will sense it from you and this will be a great boost to his self-esteem and will counteract any negative messages he might be receiving.

It is important to help him find his niche and the activities which he enjoys and allow him to express his talents. Despite best intentions his school work or his sport do not seem to be providing this at the moment.

Simple changes might make a difference such as shifting the emphasis in his school work to subjects he enjoys more or is more successful at. Or you could consider encouraging switching his sporting team to one where he is not “fighting for his place” but rather one that matches his ability level or where he feels more part of the team.

In addition, search out other activities and interests he might enjoy more. You are looking for things that both invoke his passion and interest and which also match his talents and strengths. These don’t have to be ones that involve dramatic achievement or success (indeed it might be an idea to steer clear of these) but rather simple ordinary things he might enjoy such as playing music, reading novels, cooking, DIY, even gardening, etc. Even learning ordinary household chores and skills can make a young person feel good about themselves.

You could also consider encouraging your son to undertake voluntary work that might interest him. Often young people are idealistic and want to make a difference. Engaging in voluntary or community work not only allows them to contribute meaningfully in a way that helps others – it is also likely to be a boost to their self-esteem and confidence.

For example, you could consider encouraging him to participate in the An Gaisce or President’s Awards which encourages young people to undertake personal challenges in arenas such as learning personal skills, recreation, venture and community involvement.

The great thing about the Gaisce process is that it is not competitive – the young person sets their personal challenges that fit their own personality and then commits to achieve them. During the process they have the opportunity to meet new people, learn new skills and to make new friends.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, December 20th 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.
Tuesday 28th November 2017: John will be giving a talk on ‘Building Your children’s Self-Esteem’ in the Talbot Hotel Stillorgan, Dublin Talk. Bookings and information are here