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How to Help Your Teen Overcome Self-Consciousness

How to Help Your Teen Overcome Self-Consciousness

Teens are growing up a world that makes it easy to compare themselves to others. Here's how to help them cope.

Anyone with a teenager has witnessed the transformation: Their fearless, confident child becoming a reticent, self-conscious teen. One day, he marches out of the house on adventures, happily clad in clothes picked out by his parents. The next? He’s hiding out in his room with his phone, with zero interest in any ideas you have in regard to his clothes, his hairstyle, or even his backpack. She becomes obsessed with her looks and studies her face in the mirror as if it were an undiscovered country. A bad hair day or emergence of a pimple can turn into a crisis and leave her wishing she could stay home from school. As a parent, it’s hard to make sense of this—and even harder to know how to help. Here are tips from experts on how you can understand your teen’s feelings and help him cope with these natural feelings.

 

Teens Feel Like They Need to Belong

Parents may be tempted to dismiss their teen’s behavior as typical adolescent self-absorption, but what may seem like egocentricity actually serves a higher purpose. It goes back to evolution and our need to belong.

“If the goal in adulthood, at the most basic level, is to have social skills in order to ensure social belonging and the associated positive outcomes, then adolescence is a time of learning social competency,” explains Alexandra Rodman, Ph.D., lead author of a 2017 Harvard study on how adolescents and adults process and integrate peer feedback. “One way in which we learn all the complex social rules is by being hyper-attuned to feedback from others.”

For example, your teen isn’t fixated on his looks, per se, but because he is so highly preoccupied by what others may think of him, he notices changes in himself more keenly than he did as a child, Dr. Rodman explains. His reaction to those changes depends on how he is viewed in the peer group.

“It all depends on what enhances belonging and it corresponds with changing trends,” Dr. Rodman says. “If it was a sign of health and highly coveted to have a pimple, then maybe it wouldn’t lead to such distress to have a pimple.”

 

Self-Image in the Age of Social Media

Most teenagers think they have it worse than their parents—and they’re right. When it comes to pressure to fit in, at least, today’s teens really do have it worse, according to Seoka Salstrom, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist who practices in New Hampshire.

“There are so many more opportunities for compare and despair,” Dr. Salstrom says. “Before social media, we had half of our day at school and half of our day at home or with a few friends, but we didn’t have 45 people that we were interacting with in some way, often times in picture perfect form. Every time we see something like that, our mind is automatically geared toward, ‘How do I fit in to this?’ and sees the inadequacies.”

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Coping Strategies for Teens and Parents

When teens express anxiety or distress about their looks or not fitting in, Dr. Salstrom advises parents to start from a place of “your feelings make perfect sense.”

“It’s not to say that you agree with the statement behind it or the content. If they say, ‘I’m so ugly,’ of course you’re not going to agree with that,” Dr. Salstrom says. “But if we don’t start from the place of ‘it makes perfect sense that this thought/feeling is showing up’ (given our evolutionary and cultural context), then anything we say in that moment has the potential to be invalidating.”

There’s no denying it can be difficult for parents to see their teens go through this stage, but Dr. Rodman explains it’s a normal and healthy part of development—and it does eventually end.

“When you have this low-level or moderate level feedback from your peers, and you feel this drop in self-esteem, that actually feels bad in the short term, but in the long term it leads to greater gains and better outcomes and well-being in adulthood,” Dr. Rodman says.

In late adolescence, a self-protective bias kicks in and teens no longer experience that drop in self-esteem after rejection, Dr. Rodman explains. Older teens start to buffer themselves from their peers’ rejection because they’ve gained social skills and learned the social rules they didn’t have or know as an early adolescent.

“That’s all to say for parents that a little bit of feedback from peers isn’t a catastrophe, and feeling a little down on yourself, that’s just part of being a teenager,” Dr. Rodman says. “I think a helpful reframe is, it just helps kids learn how to get along with their peers.”

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