5 ways parents can shore up a middle schooler’s self-image

Jul 26, 2023, 7:30 AM | Updated: 1:42 pm

a kid on a phone...

Parents can encourage children who use social media to be mindful about the posts they see and share. (EMS-Forster-Productions/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

(EMS-Forster-Productions/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

(CNN) — After a disappointing routine during a gymnastics meet, Jason Moser’s daughter was full of self-doubt, so the 12-year-old tried silently encouraging herself using her own first name.

It’s a strategy she learned from her father, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Michigan State University, who researches how talking to yourself as if you were someone else can help you feel calmer.

After that gymnastics meet, “she told me, ‘Dad, you know that third-person self-talk thing? … It really helped,’” Moser recalled.

It’s not easy for middle schoolers to counteract unrealistic expectations they absorb from peers, family members, the culture and themselves, which is why I devote a chapter in my new book, “Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times,” to acquiring “super security,” the power to develop a healthy self-identity.

When middle schoolers tune out unhelpful external messages and soften their own self-criticism, they recover faster from setbacks and are more willing to take smart risks, such as extending invitations to potential new friends.

That sort of social risk-taking is particularly important today “when we’re experiencing an epidemic of loneliness layered on top of societal instability,” noted educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.”

As researchers reported in a 2022 meta-analysis in The BMJ, rates of loneliness among teens between ages 12 and 17 range from 9.2% to 14.4%, depending on the geographic region.

The good news is you can help your child acquire super security. “Whether a middle schooler is socially awkward or struggles with body image or an aspect of their identity, they’re looking to their parents for reassurance, validation and acceptance,” said Erlanger Turner, an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.

Beyond offering unconditional love, which every child needs to feel secure, parents can do practical things to shore up a tween’s self-image. Here are five of my favorites.

Talk to yourself in the third person

Referencing yourself in the second or third person is a powerful way to get a different perspective on your own thoughts and feelings, Moser said. The strategy helped his daughter because “your brain processes it as if you were talking about someone else,” he said.

If your child says, “I’m really dumb, and everyone is wondering why I can’t solve the problem,’ have them try saying, “Sally is feeling really dumb, and everyone is confused about why she can’t do this problem.” The child can then ask, “Why is Sally feeling dumb?”

“When you avoid saying the words ‘I’ or ‘me,’ it makes your negative feelings less strong, and as you play it out, you give yourself advice the way you would to a friend,” Moser said.

Monitor how you feel after going online

In a 2021 ParentsTogether survey, researchers found that 87% of teens have used a filter on social media, which means your children likely are comparing themselves to an impossible standard.

“Parents need to tell their kids it’s performative,” said Devorah Heitner, author of “Growing Up in Public,” “that people are showing this highlight reel.”

Urge your children to assess how they feel when they’re done scrolling, Heitner said.

Kids can ask themselves questions such as: “Do I feel better? Is there anyone I should be unfollowing because their content doesn’t make me feel good? Am I following enough people who make me feel good, whether that’s a body-positive influencer or someone who takes pride in an identity that we share? Am I engaging with friends who share in ways that make me feel positive and connected?’”

Identify your strengths

To improve your children’s concept of themselves, help them understand and draw on their strengths.

“The self becomes stronger less by being praised than by being loved, cherished and known,” said Jennifer Breheny Wallace, a journalist and author of “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It.” She views her job as a parent as “getting a Ph.D. in my kids.”

Wallace recommends having kids take the Via Survey of Character Strengths. The free, validated survey, which psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson created, has versions for adults and children and highlights virtues such as creativity, curiosity, honesty and kindness.

“We did it as a family,” Wallace said. “So many adults don’t even know what their strengths are.”

In middle school, her daughter shared a story about drama at the lunch table, so Wallace asked, “Which of your strengths could you use to help you?” “One of her strengths was humor, and she said, ‘I can use humor to cut the tension,’ ” she said.

Wallace also recommends building on other adults’ observations about your kids. “I annotate my kids’ report cards,” she said. “When my son was in eighth grade, a teacher had written, ‘You’re always quick to help a friend in need in the classroom,’ so I told him, ‘I see this, too — you always help your siblings.’”

Practice being brave

It may be counterintuitive to middle schoolers, but venturing outside their comfort zone is protective.

“When kids experiment and do hard things, they learn about themselves, and that self-awareness can preserve their self-image,” said psychotherapist Amy Morin, host of the “Mentally Stronger” podcast.

“You (also) feel better and build self-esteem when you face things that are hard,” said psychologist Mary Alvord, coauthor of “The Action Mindset Workbook for Teens.”

If your children lack confidence, encourage them to act “as if.”

“Pull your shoulders up and back down and project your body in a confident way, even if you don’t feel so confident,” Alvord said. “You can’t control how big or small your nose is, but you can control your grooming, your gait, how you carry yourself. You don’t want to fake everything, but when you’re faking, you’re practicing being bold at the same time, which actually builds your courage.”

Come up with positive ‘I am’ statements

Encourage your children to examine the terminology they use to describe themselves, said Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development specialist and author of “How to Talk to Kids About Anything: Tips, Scripts, Stories, and Steps to Make Even the Toughest Conversations Easier.”

“Are they saying, ‘I’m bad at math?’ or ‘I’m lazy?’”

Help them come up with new “I am” statements. As Silverman explained, “If you’ve been told you’re bossy your whole life, can you take your ‘I am’ and rebrand it to ‘I’m a leader,’ or ‘I’m motivating for people?’” If your child is being self-critical, ask, “‘Whose voice is that? Is that a teacher, a coach, a classmate?’ ” she added.

“The idea is to otherize the voice,” she said. Then ask, “What three pieces of evidence to the contrary can you keep on the ready, so you’re prepared to talk back to that other person? The goal is to teach them to say, ‘You got it wrong.’”

Your child also can brainstorm positive self-affirmations, Turner said, such as “it’s OK if I don’t like sports,” “It’s OK to have one friend,” or “Just because I didn’t do it perfectly doesn’t mean I’m a failure.”

As Borba noted, “Kids who can realistically appraise their strengths and weaknesses, rather than fixate on perceived flaws, are more resilient.” And for an insecure middle schooler getting bombarded with unrealistic messages and images, super security is a bona fide superpower.

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5 ways parents can shore up a middle schooler’s self-image