Self-esteem is shaped by what we perceive our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and other adults feel about us. It begins very early in life, but may be the most fragile in the tween and teen years, as stress, peer pressure, the need for independence, physical changes and hormones play havoc with teens’ minds and bodies.
It’s natural for teens to seek validation, but it is vital that parents help teens and tweens avoid seeking validation in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons.
Where youth seek that validation is particularly critical as they try to define themselves separately from their families. They want to be told they’re beautiful, handsome, cute, flirty, sexy, muscular, smart, kind, creative, athletic - and every other positive adjective in the dictionary.
While many youth post provocative photos and seek comments on their looks, or take quizzes created to “calculate” their looks, an extreme form of validation seeking is found on YouTube and other video sites where teens – particularly but not exclusively young teen girls – ask the public to tell them if they are pretty or ugly.
In these videos, they either pan over several photos of themselves while narrating, or they strike different “poses” while talking to the camera, often with breaks to change outfits and makeup. As can be seen in the main photo in this example, the girls are not only showing their faces, they’re also showing their cleavage and other “assets.”
These tweens and teens are sitting ducks
With such an extreme amount of emotional vulnerability exposed these teens are ripe for exploitation, cyberbullying, and other forms of emotional and potentially physical abuse. The comments these kids receive break down into three basic categories:
Variations on the “you’re so beautiful” praise. Yet even the kindest of these still tells the girl – or boy – that their value comes from how they look, not from what’s inside them or from their accomplishments. The worst of these are grossly predatory with crude requests for nude images and the teen’s location information. As unequipped emotionally as these teens are, they are equally unequipped technically. Many use their real names, or their username is identical to their Facebook name, making it all too easy to identify and locate them. And as facial recognition tools in services like Google search get better, any one picture is likely to bring back additional pictures of the teens with more pieces of information about them.
Variations of the “don’t be stupid asking questions like this online – what are you thinking??”. These respondents genuinely seem concerned that the teen is placing themselves at such risk – and these are about the best answers the teen can hope for as there’s a chance they’ll take heed and take their videos down – though it appears that few actually do.
And then there are the haters, the trolls, the bullies and the generally mean people who either blast the teen with variations of “you’re just asking because you are a pathetic attention seeker” or make the cruelest imaginable comments to completely destroy the teen’s confidence in how they look.
"Negative feedback that is personal is rarely easy to hear at any age, but to tweens and teens who value as well as incorporate feedback into their own sense of worth, it can be devastating," said Elizabeth Dowdell, a nursing professor at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. She has researched child Internet safety and risk behavior in adolescents in partnership with the Justice Departmenti.
Helping your child avoid seeking validation from strangers in high-risk venues begins at home.
It begins by helping them know they are valued and loved unconditionally. Set boundaries that let your child know you care about them. Spend time together so your children know they are important to you. Give your child compliments and praise for their accomplishments, uniqueness, and kind actions – and only occasionally for their looks.
It requires talking frequently about the pressure the media and marketing companies place on people of all ages to be beautiful, sexy, etc. and why this message is false. And it takes talking about what is and is not acceptable behavior online, and the risks associated with exposing emotional vulnerabilities of any kind to strangers.
Teens will inevitably seek validation from other teens, but you can help ensure that they don’t do so in a vacuum by building their self-esteem at home, by helping teens have strong positive friends, and by helping them understand that strangers cannot provide honest feedback about the value of a person.