Teens and the Importance of Affirming Words
It’s no secret that many young people grapple with self-esteem issues. This article will discuss the importance of affirming words in helping build a positive self-image in your teenager.
First, let’s talk about external validation. Most adolescents struggle with awkwardness because of the “in-between” nature of the teen years. Teens tend to crave external validation to solidify their emerging identities—the validation of friends, siblings, and parents is of great importance. They need to hear that they are wanted and appreciated. Teenagers are highly attuned to cues concerning when and how they are being evaluated and what others think of them. They’ll often respond with heightened intensity to comments about themselves.
Parents obviously are the most influential factor in a child’s upbringing, and therefore, the validation of parents takes on special importance in how young people view themselves. A parent’s support (or lack thereof) can tremendously affect a young person’s internal dialogue. Though it’s cliche, there’s a good reason why so many Hollywood villain character arcs go back to “my parents didn’t love me.” People who do not receive sufficient love and validation from their parents often struggle with their sense of self-worth.
What is Left Unsaid
We want to ensure our children know they are loved and appreciated. The problem, however, is that sometimes there is a misalignment between what our children know and what we think they should know. For example, we might assume our child knows we are proud of them while they are actually uncertain.
I am consistently surprised by how many students have casually dropped comments to me such as, “My parents don’t like me,” “My dad is disappointed in me,” or “My mom hates the way I look.” When asked why they think these things, they will generally say, “They never say anything positive to me,” “My dad never tells me he’s proud of me,” or “My mom never compliments my appearance.” In other words, these negative views are deduced not from what is said but from what is left unsaid. A lack of external validation is sometimes considered a negative judgment.
It is easy to assume our children know that we love them. After all, we feed them, clothe them, provide a safe environment for them, and see to their education. We work ourselves to the bone to ensure they have every possible opportunity and benefit. How could they possibly doubt our love? Isn’t it evident by what we do?
While our actions are undoubtedly important, we must remember that adolescents generally require more positive verbal reinforcement. For teens who are already awkward and uncertain about their identities, the lack of explicit approval is easily mistaken as disapproval, e.g., “My mom never says she is proud of me. Therefore she isn’t,” or, “My dad never says I am pretty. Therefore he thinks I am not.”
Of course, when parents aren’t verbally affirming, it is usually not because they disapprove. Many of us operate on the principle that “silence is consent.” in other words, our approval is presumed unless we specifically say otherwise. Or maybe we grew up in a home where things were very reserved, and communication of any sort was minimal, and this becomes our default setting.
Speaking Affirming Words
It is a good and wholesome thing to consider incorporating more affirming language into your interaction with your teenagers. It need not be anything elaborate. Little comments that express approval are all you need. Here are some examples of basic affirmations:
- I know you worked really hard on this. I’m proud of the effort you put into it.
- That outfit really looks nice on you.
- I’m so happy with the young man/woman you’re growing into.
- It’s nice to have you around. I appreciate your company.
- I really like it when you do your hair that way.
- You’re such a cool kid. I love your style.
- I’m thankful God gave you to our family.
If you were not raised in a family where it was common to say such things, you might have to step out of your comfort zone a bit, but the benefits are definitely worth it. First and foremost, by communicating your delight in your child, you build bonds of trust and affection that are pivotal in any healthy parent-child relationship. It also creates a healthy internal dialogue in your child. (“My parents have my back,” instead of “My parents are disappointed in me”).
This will not only make your adolescent feel better about themself and grow in confidence, but it will also increase the likelihood that your teen will feel comfortable opening up to you about his or her problems.
Please note this is not to suggest that you only affirm your children or that there is no place for healthy criticism or correction. Nor am I suggesting you give vacuous, insincere compliments to check some boxes.
I suggest you make sure you sincerely affirm your children for things you are sincerely proud of, grateful for, or admire. If you do this, it makes it more likely that your teens will also be receptive to correction. If your approach has been, “If I am silent, it means I approve. I only give feedback when something is wrong,” it means that your child only hears your negative feedback.
If your teen only hears negative feedback, the value of your correction may be diminished. Think about it—have you ever had to deal with someone who is constantly criticizing you? How seriously do you take their critiques? How about when you get a critique from someone you deeply respect, someone whose love and support are unquestioned? Critiques from those types of people are much more impactful. If you want corrective feedback to be effective, it needs to be balanced with positive feedback.
So think about ways to drop a few kind words your teenager’s way today. It takes very little effort and will mean the world to them.
For more on this topic, see 5 Strategies: Teens, Self-Esteem, and Homeschooling. If you’d like to continue this discussion, I invite you to join me and other Catholic homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group.