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Self Esteem, Individuality and Love for Teenagers

June 30, 2010

To read the previous article in this series, The Roadmap to Your Teenager's Inner Worlds, click here.


We often use the expressions "good self-esteem" or "poor self-esteem" to describe people's evaluation of their own worth. When people have good self-esteem, they tend to view life from a positive perspective, seeing their potential value. Poor or low self-esteem cause people to feel that everything they do in life is a losing battle and that they always get the short end of the stick.

Low self-esteem can be very painful and difficult to overcome. Self-esteem is something we come into the world with; it follows us through life like a shadow. If we lose it, we are lost. If we have we it, we can face all of life's trials and tribulations and maintain our sense of satisfaction and emotional well-being.

Self-esteem is also profoundly affected by what happens to us along life's path. Many circumstances may contribute to low self-esteem in teenagers, including:

  • Divorce
  • Learning disabilities
  • Lack of friendships
  • Illness
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • A sick parent
  • A death in the family

Many of these issues make a person feel that life will always be fraught with pain and failure. Low self-esteem makes people feel that their proverbial cup is always half empty.

For parents trying to connect to teenagers with low self-esteem, the best strategy is not to focus on the teens' negative patterns of behavior but rather to find ways to nourish their inner sense of self. Parents can take many steps to help build their teens' self-esteem. Here are just a few:

  • Highlight positive aspects of their physical, mental, and emotional development, such as the way they look, the way they express their thoughts and feelings, the skills they have, and those they are developing.
  • Focus on their accomplishments. Congratulate them for their achievements, however big or small. Remind them daily of the things they do well and of the courage they have shown.
  • Help them to be realistic and accept the fact that they aren't perfect at everything and they don't have to be.
  • Teach them to laugh at past disappointments when you can. Use set backs as opportunities for insight and growth.
  • Help them develop a support system of people they trust who will listen when they need to talk.


A person's individuality consists of the qualities and characteristics that distinguish that person as a unique human being. Without a sense of uniqueness, it is difficult for a person to establish their own identity in the world and to understand the special role that they will play.

Individuality is a very powerful part of being a teenager and the need for it grows as children get older. Young children's identities are often enveloped in the family's identity and they have little opportunity to express their own sense of self. But as they become teenagers, they have a greater need to establish their unique identity among their family and peers.

For teens at risk, parents need to take the time to acknowledge their teenagers' unique positive qualities. Unique qualities distinguish every human being. The fact that a teen may be depressed or difficult to relate to does not mean that the teen has no positive personality traits that need to be highlighted. For example, a fifteen-year-old girl who is doing poorly in school excels as an artist and musician. Or a fourteen-year-old boy with ADHD is a talented carpenter and has many practical and social skills that will help him to succeed in the business world.

Unfortunately we tend to demand the same level of success academically from all children, even though school achievement may not be an appropriate measuring stick with which to evaluate their success in life. Try to look at all teenagers as diamonds that need to be polished. When you help identify people's unique qualities, you are helping them to remove their rough exterior and allowing their G‑d-given brightness to shine.

At the same time, a teen's individuality must be moderated in relation to many other factors, including the need to be part of the family, school, and society. The challenge of individuality is for parents to nurture their teens' sense of uniqueness and at the same time help them to integrate their identity into the greater whole.

Love and Friendship

Love is one of the most important ingredients of life that can contribute to a person's emotional well-being. It is experienced when a person senses feelings of affection and fondness from others, especially from family and friends.

Children begin life seeking love from their parents and their environment. When babies are fed when hungry, held when scared, and covered when cold, they sense love and security from their parents. If the desire for love is fulfilled, children can grow up with the confidence needed to live a life of optimism and emotional security. If the need for love is frustrated, then people can be left with feelings of loneliness and despair.

Although we usually think about love as a necessity for young children, teens also need the same special feelings of love and affection from their parents as they get older. The way love is expressed by parents, however, may need to be changed according to the various stages in teens' lives. Love for teenagers does not mean buying them a lollypop or allowing them to stay up a little longer. Love for most teenagers is best expressed when a parent is able to understand their needs and is willing to listen to their inner issues. For a teenager, "to understand me" means "to love me."

Although teens aren't always easy to deal with and your relationship with your teenager may be strained, it's crucial to continue to express feelings of love and kindness and give your child a sense that you care about him or her. More than anything else, teenagers at-risk need friendly and loving parents who are able to spend enjoyable time with them without criticizing them or making them feel that they are being unjustly controlled.

The “I've-Got-Nothing-To-Do!” Solution

June 23, 2010

Many Jewish sources highlight the importance of helping others, but the following one has resonated through the ages, perhaps more than any other:

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?" (Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)

Whether our children are still babies or already teens, we can demonstrate the deep joy and lasting fulfillment that comes from doing chessed (acts of kindness) and tikun olam (repairing our world).

One of my newest children's books (Aliza in MitzvahLand, Judaica Press 2009) is about a girl often heard complaining, "I've got nothing to do!" Aliza has gotten used to being entertained, but she is given the opportunity to see things reversed when she enters a wondrous "looking glass world." She finds out how joyful people are when they are busy caring and doing things for others. Aliza discovers:

"When I've got nothing to do,
It's because I'm forgetting...
Our world was made for giving
Not getting!"

Doing good deeds for others is actually a boredom buster that always works. Even on a cold, rainy day, every child can become genuinely excited about looking for their own opportunities to do good deeds. Very young children can make colorful and cheery cards to send to relatives who would be thrilled to receive them. They can make phone calls to elderly people they know, or to children who are sick. Cleaning sticky walls (from somebody's little fingerprints) with sudsy water is another possibility – with many variations on this theme available! So is practicing a medley of songs and/or a skit about an upcoming Jewish holiday that can be performed in a local nursing home or assisted living facility.

The joy that comes from giving is incomparable, and this deep and amazing concept can be readily absorbed by children when presented in a simple and delightful way. It is also a transformative message that can genuinely revitalize our homes.

I run a Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program, in Baltimore, Maryland, and there is always a shortage of adults able to volunteer as a Big Brother/Sister for the many children and teens in need of a mentor. Invariably, during the screening process to become a Big Brother/Sister, these extraordinary individuals express how they learned the joy of reaching out to others during their own childhood or teen years.

Volunteering involves reaching beyond ourselves, and, in turn, it expands our lives in so many ways. Including our offspring in volunteer efforts helps both us and our children realize that we are part of something bigger. Little sticky fingerprints can wash off easily, but the imprint made from giving lasts a lifetime and beyond.

Working With the Oppositional Child

A Case Study

June 16, 2010

Perhaps the most difficult child to deal with in the classroom (and the home) is the oppositional child. A child who may have problems sitting still may be motivated by positive reinforcement. A child who has anxiety may have certain motivating factors that will help decrease their anxiety. An oppositional child, however, has inconsistent responses to authority, and a more creative parenting approach needs to be implemented.

In one such scenario, I had been asked to work with a child who recently began to attend a special school for children with behavioral challenges. Shmuel (name has been changed to protect privacy) had spent the majority of his previous year of schooling outside of his classroom door, being continually punished. It is no wonder that his self-esteem was low, and that he barely trusted adults. If supposedly knowledgeable adults were unable to help re-train this nine-year-olds difficult behavior, and instead continually punished him (to no avail), a child's reaction of mistrust is understandable. Though he was diagnosed with ADHD, his present primary symptoms were those of a more severe anxiety, reflected in his angry erratic outbursts. He was continually being oppositional towards adults, and did not respond well when he was given consequences to his negative actions, nor when he received positive reinforcement for his positive actions. The extremely caring and talented school principal was at a loss in relation to this student.

Though much has been written on the topic of the "oppositional child," techniques often deal with working with the child's limitations, rather than focusing on his/her future potential. A therapist/counselor might advise an oppositional child to deal with an irritating teacher's personality by trying not to get "caught," rather than seeing the child's future potential working together with a teacher, and classmates. This initial approach is quite understandable, as an oppositional child is often quite guarded and used to being offensive in response to authority.

However, one needs to follow a more "humanistic" philosophy, stressing the human being's endless potential, and how our positive thoughts can sometimes aid this process. An adult needs to possess a belief in the child's eventual ability to acclimate appropriately to the world around them.

Since an oppositional child doesn't often receive a "straight" message comfortably – be it a compliment or a direct request – a parent needs to speak in a more paradoxical round-about manner to achieve desirable results. A parent can use humor in getting a point across, saying: "I think that Sara is hiding… the Sara I know wouldn't say such a thing to her brother," and then proceed to search for their daughter in the living room. In a similar vein, a parent can say: "Do you think that I am so silly to think that you're not a good girl? I know better than that!" Since these are not direct statements, they can be received much easier by oppositional children.

Most essentially, an adult needs to be very specific in verbal praise when such an indirect statement is made. If an adult says: "Do you think that you can fool me into thinking that you're not a good girl? I know that you did 'x and y' this morning." one must be specific in praise. This praise needs to reflect the adult's value system and not be a perfunctory praise, such as: "You were a good boy today." Such praise can be: "Do you think that I'm so silly to think that you are a selfish boy? I know that you shared your new truck with your brother. That took a lot of kindness on your part." If the praise is specific and heartfelt, there is less chance of it being disregarded, even if it initially has to be given in an indirect manner.

Such methods were used with Shmuel and his teachers. We spoke openly to him about his inability to hear praise, and ways that he could hear compliments. We also spoke of "passwords" that we would all use to remind him that we were also truly "on his side." We spoke to Shmuel, his parents and siblings in a family session, stressing the support that the family could give him in assisting with his very low frustration tolerance. Shmuel's teachers and para-professional worked with him directly using these methods, avoiding direct criticisms at all costs. Consequences of his negative actions prevailed, but he was warned gently and his acting-out behavior greatly decreased.

One can sometimes problem-solve quite successfully with such children if the parameters of solutions and suggestions involved are extremely clear and these ideas allow for optional alternative plans (if the initial endeavors fail). Such children will be less disappointed in adults if they see that some issues are beyond anyone's control.

Optional plans allow for the unexpected, and adults' limitations, so that the oppositional child will have less reason to be angered as their expectations will be more realistic. Some children's responses are more tempered, and they are more responsive to adults when certain difficult issues are explained to them. Some oppositional behavior is due to lack of understanding when certain children are expected to "obey" without sufficient understanding of a difficult circumstance that confronts them.

A parent needs to put a great amount of energy into not responding in a defensive manner to an oppositional child (though this is a natural initial response). Once a power struggle begins, there are no victors in this battle. Since such a child's behavior is built on a multitude of factors, a parent's response needs to be varied as well. One response might be due to a child's low frustration tolerance, and another might be due to a child's intense issue with sibling rivalry. A parent needs to attempt to differentiate their responses depending on the given situation.

A parent also needs to attempt to use preventive measures to avoid power struggles. If a parent is aware of possible issues emerging in a given situation, it needs to be spoken about to avoid unnecessary stress with their oppositional child. The stance that a parent needs to reflect is that of compassion and sensitivity towards ones child, and not a fear of the child's possible volatile response. A child can sense if their behavior becomes a manipulative tactic or a cry to be understood. To avoid this pattern from becoming a negative one, a parent needs to be patient and compassionate and not fearful and defensive. Avoiding power struggles is clearly the continual challenge when working with such children.

Shmuel became much less distrustful and impulsive in his behavior, but it took much time and continual work on the staff and family's part. He was also given a special task to coordinate in school, which greatly enhanced his self-esteem. He no longer needed to exhibit acting-out behavior in order to receive attention from others. This activity was given as his responsibility (rather than a reward) so it followed him whether he behaved appropriately or not.

In order to work with an oppositional child successfully, one needs to be creative, and believe in the child's eventual potential to deal with authority in a positive and constructive manner. With the above mentioned methods, it is shown that such children can greatly develop their potential in a meaningful way throughout their lives.

The Roadmap to Your Teenager’s Inner Worlds

June 9, 2010

To read the previous article in this series, Relationship-Centered Parenting, click here.

Relating to their teenager can be easier than most parents think, especially when they learn about the key areas that can sustain the relationship: connection,control, and communication. Together, the "Three Cs of Relationship Theory" provide a simple map to help parents evaluate where the relationship is going and show them how to steer their way through the rough roads of the teenage years.

The three Cs can help parents see the bigger picture and then decide which areas demand attention and which issues are superficial and should not be the focus of their relationship with their teenagers. For example, teenagers may tell their parents one day that they don't want to listen to them and that they are going to do something that the parents disagree with. Or parents may receive an unexpected phone call from the principal to discuss their teen's behavioral problems in the classroom. Should parents become angry, go on the offensive, and try to control their teens' behavior? Or should they try to learn more about their teens' inner issues, spend more quality time with them, and gently counsel them through their dilemmas? A look at the Three Cs should provide an answer.

Most problems can be resolved if parents focus their attention on one or more of the three key areas. According to Relationship Theory, parents need to ask whether the problem can be resolved by connecting more deeply to their teenager, by modifying their level of control, or by improving their communication with their teen.

The following chart summarizes the principles of Relationship Theory. In this and the following chapters, parents will learn how to put these principles into action.


Teenagers have many ways to drive their parents crazy. Take Debbie, for example, a fourteen-year-old girl who attends a prominent Jewish day school. Recently, her mother, Nancy, discovered she had several body piercings concealed under her clothes. Nancy was distraught because her daughter was doing something that she and her husband found repugnant. Nancy found out about the piercings from her neighbor after Debbie slept over at the neighbor's house.

In truth, Debbie's piercings are just one example of various forms of self-abusive behavior that have become trendy. The fashion industry has been able to make body piercing and wearing overly tight clothing or uncomfortable high heels popular. The industry has also created a belief that somehow clothing or accessories will bring a sense of happiness or pleasure to the consumer. Of course, pleasure is a relative term. To Debbie, the piercings may have seemed pleasurable since she received attention for being at the edge of fashion. For her parents, however, they were a sign that their daughter was rebelling against their family, and they were causing considerable frustration and embarrassment.

Are the piercings the only problem? Or is something deeper going on in Debbie's life? To help them connect to their teenagers, Relationship Theory asks parents to find out what issues are motivating their teens towards negative or self-destructive behavior.

In Debbie's case, my suspicion was that behind the outer issue of body piercings were deeper emotional issues that related to unresolved conflicts in her family. I believed that her body piercing was a call for help and that her parents needed to find out more about Debbie's inner world.

Learning about Your Teen's Inner World

Teens like Debbie live in two emotional worlds: an outer world and an inner one. The outer world represents a person's exterior or façade. It is a surface level from which people project their personality to their parents, friends and society. For instance, in the outer world, people can appear friendly and extroverted or sad and uncommunicative. They can also appear defensive or aggressive, but these attitudes don't accurately tell us what's really going on at the core of who they are or what they may be struggling with.

I once saw a client who at first appeared to be very "put together" on the outside. He presented himself as a sharp dresser, considerate, and calm. But after a few minutes of discussing why he had come to see me, it became apparent that he was suffering from depression and anxiety but was carefully hiding this secret from almost everyone around him.

People often try to hide how they feel. But when they do, they may not be aware of how their defensive responses may come across to others – especially their parents. Here is a list of the ways teenagers usually try to hide their feelings that exist below the surface:

  • Negative behavior: threatening, attacking, sarcastic, rude

How others perceive this teenager: obnoxious, hostile, aggressive

Inner feelings: hurt, anxious, embarrassed, fearful

  • Negative behavior: defensive, shy, withdrawn, uncommunicative.

How others perceive this teenager: rejecting, suspicious, mistrustful, apprehensive

Inner feelings: angry, resentful insecure, disappointed

  • Negative behavior: judging, criticizing, disapproving

How others perceive this teenager: resentful, bitter, indignant

Inner feelings: overly self-critical, insecure, angry

Unfortunately we rely on our outer-world impressions of other people to try to figure out who they are, and that doesn't necessarily give us the full picture of their personality. It's always helpful for parents to go one step below the surface and explore what's inside their child's inner world. Debbie, for example, presents herself as a rebellious teenager who has a disregard for her parent's religious and cultural sensibilities. She tends to choose clothing that her mother dislikes, and she loves testing boundaries. Through her outer world, Debbie is known for her risky behavior and always seems to be getting into trouble with her teachers. But this is only half the picture. To help a girl like Debbie, we need to go beyond the surface and discover what's really going on inside.

To begin, let's take a look at some of the inner-world issues that exist at the core of teenagers' psyches that may be influencing how they behave with their parents. Although many theories describe this hidden world, we'll focus on several areas that can be addressed by parents.

The five dimensions are self-esteem, individuality, love and friendship, control, and meaning. As we explore each of these categories, parents should try to evaluate whether or not they are responsive to these specific emotional needs. A short relationship test question appears at the end of each section to help parents understand the strengths and weaknesses in their relationship with their teenager.

How to Avoid Getting Angry With Your Children

June 2, 2010

It's so easy to get angry at children. They break our crystal, lose money, coats and bus tickets, wail as if the world is coming to an end because they don't get what they want, refuse to do the smallest thing to help, embarrass us, fail us, taunt us and sometimes hate us. One can have a doctorate in child psychology and still feel helpless and enraged at times. Often our nerves are taut and we can be sent over the edge with any small act of defiance or disrespect. What can you do?

First, realize that if the child is tired, then he is feeling a bit insane. Exhaustion destroys his limited ability to make intelligent choices – just as it does with us! Reality becomes distorted and he is gripped with a terrible anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, confused and helpless. At this point, many parents scream at him to stop this nonsense, smack him to get him to behave or threaten some consequence. Remind yourself that the child does want to stop, but does not know how. It is a terrible feeling to be out of control, but he has not yet acquired the tools to calm himself. To help him, we need to remain calm. But how? When those piercing sobs arouse in us the same feelings of madness and utter helplessness which we experienced as children, it is time for some inner repair work.

Take a minute to recall feeling out of control as a child. How did your parents deal with you? If they did not respond positively, then take the time now to imagine being a wise and compassionate parent. Imagine holding yourself tightly in a loving grip. Tell yourself, "I know just how you feel. You are so hungry and tired. You're feeling all mixed up. You just can't stop. I know you can't help it. Let me rock you and sing to you. Soon we'll be asleep and the bad feelings will be gone." If you can empathize with what your own "inner child" experienced, and acknowledge those feelings you experienced long ago, then you can do it in reality. Practice this for a few minutes today, so that you can respond positively when they get out of control.

Remember, all you need to do is empathize and acknowledge, over and over again. Even if the child does not calm down immediately, you will remain calm. If you are in a store, take the child aside for a few minutes and do this. If you are on the street, sit on the curb and hold him. Every time you respond with patience and kindness, you are also nourishing a secret part of yourself that has been waiting for this nurturing for many years.

When a child is nasty, disrespectful and defiant, your urge to strike back will be overwhelming if you think of him as a spoiled, ungrateful child who is trying to drive you crazy. Because you feel like a failure when he acts like that, you will want to make sure that he feels like a failure as well. Then you will both be caught in a storm of guilt, shame and rage. If, on the other hand, you think to yourself, "This is an opportunity to display good character traits and repair the hurt in my own heart," you will avoid being vengeful and punitive. When my children misbehaved, I trained myself to say, "Thank you for the opportunity to work on my character." The words would usually stun them into utter silence, at least for a few seconds, so that I could think of a mature response. Even if they mocked me, I would say, "Oh, wonderful, another opportunity to work on my character traits!"

Children assume that we have far more wisdom, money and strength than we actually have. They don't realize that we can feel exhausted, bored and frustrated. They look to us to learn how to react in a crisis. By looking at these crises as opportunities to tap into the inner wisdom which we all have, our feelings of rage, guilt and shame will dissipate. By recognizing the child-terror and feelings of vulnerability which we once experienced as children ourselves, we can begin to receive the inner nourishment we need, and gain the strength we need to get home from the shoe store or get through the meal in a way which makes us feel proud of ourselves and makes us feel that G‑d is proud of us.

Each time we respond to others with sensitivity, the child crying for comfort within each of us gets another chance to receive inner nourishment. We cannot nourish others unless we first nourish ourselves. So the next time any unpleasant feelings arise within you, make sure to tell yourself, "It's okay to have these emotions. I'm human. I don't have to be perfect. I don't have to be outstanding. No one has to like me, not even my own children. I just have to do my best to be loving and kind and to deeply and completely love and accept myself as I am, right now." The compassion you give yourself will be expressed in greater compassion for others.

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