Family Focus

Building the Teenage Self

Positive and patient parents can foster self-control and self-esteem in teens.

Daughter and mother lovingly look at one another in front of a pool.
While Karen’s instinct was to help her daughter avoid failure, she supported Kelley’s decision to join a swim team. Despite struggles, Kelley found self-confidence in the pool. Photo by Bradley Slade.

When Mark A. Hutchins’s (BS ’79) son started smoking marijuana at age 16, their relationship was already strained. His son had withdrawn from the family and had flatly refused to attend church, participate in Scouting, or go on outings with his dad. Hutchins was sorely tempted to harshly correct his son’s behavior, thinking that was the only way to get his son on track. But Hutchins decided to hold back and instead hand the problem back to his son.

“I didn’t get in his face about it and reassured him of my acceptance of him and trust that he would figure things out.” This approach did more than address the drug usage. “The walls came down,” says Hutchins, “and he started to trust me on lots of things going on in his life. It turned our relationship around.”

School of Family Life associate professor Laura Padilla-Walker says Hutchins was wise to let his teen struggle and not step in too soon—or at all—to relieve him. As teens grapple with adversity, they’re more likely to develop self-control, which Padilla-Walker considers the bedrock trait they need to flourish as they head into adulthood. And with good self-control, teens are more likely to build healthy self-esteem, a second foundational trait.

In a Family Studies Center report, Padilla-Walker and BYU graduate student Madison Memmott Elison (BS ’15) say parents shouldn’t settle for merely helping their teens avoid bad behavior; rather, they should aim to encourage positive behaviors. Their paper is an outgrowth of the Flourishing Families Study, which tracked 500 families in the Northwest for a decade, noting commonalities among successful families. Titled “Flourishing During the Teen Years: Why ‘Not Being Bad’ Isn’t Good Enough,” the brief argues that parents can “discourage bad behavior by encouraging good behavior,” and for Padilla-Walker that begins with fostering self-control.

Controlling the Self

We all know the teenager stereotype: the moody, hormonal, combative youth who puzzles parents to no end. But Padilla-Walker says the stereotype isn’t borne out by research. Contrary to popular belief, hormones play only a small role, and parent-child relationships can thrive during the teen years.

However, parents should understand that teens do tend to experience more intense emotions and that the frontal lobe of the brain, where higher-order functioning takes place, doesn’t fully mature until about age 25.

So some of the lack of self-control and poor decision-making that parents see is simply a sign that their teen’s brain is still developing. During this formative time, teens may experience misperceptions such as “thinking they are invincible or that everyone is watching them,” says Padilla-Walker.

She says parents should also be aware that boys, who tend to be socialized that anger is the only appropriate way to express their feelings, often struggle with self-control more than girls do. “From a young age, parents—often unbeknown to them—begin to reprimand boys for any emotion other than anger while allowing girls a wider range of emotional expression.”

While poor self-control in teens is common, Padilla-Walker says developing the skill is critical for academic achievement, exhibiting helping behavior, forming strong relationships, and avoiding risky behaviors. She defines self-control as “the ability to manage one’s thoughts and emotions so that one can set goals, solve problems, and control impulses.” And she says, “In so many ways, it really is foundational to developing social, emotional, and cognitive competence.”

As with the Hutchinses, an essential strategy for helping teens learn self-control is to let them struggle with their challenges and not step in to relieve them. As a mother, Padilla-Walker understands the urge to protect her children from all hardship. She tries to let them struggle a little longer than she’s comfortable with while still providing support. “Support and love don’t mean a parent is solving the problem for the child, so those aspects of parenting should always exist when the child is having a hard time. The key is to avoid enabling bad behaviors and instead allow children to face the consequences of their own behaviors in a loving and supportive environment.”

It’s particularly important for boys to learn how to handle their feelings and control themselves without aggressive or violent expressions of anger. Parents can encourage both their sons and daughters to talk about their feelings, allow them to cry, and help them to develop healthy strategies for managing emotions “other than bottling them up or punching something,” she says. And parents can model good self-control. If parents yell and slam doors and lose their temper often, children will follow that behavior. No parent is perfect, so parents can apologize when they falter and discuss what they could have done differently.

Likewise, when a teen shows poor self-control, parents can help him or her think of a better response to the situation. For example, “What could you have done instead of throwing your brother’s phone in the toilet?” or “What have you learned from playing video games all night so you didn’t study and failed your test?”

When teens make poor choices, it’s important to avoid shaming them. Padilla-Walker says it’s better to ask “What about your behavior can you change?” than “What about you can you change?”

Finally, says Padilla-Walker, parents can give children opportunities to help others inside and outside the family. This will help them learn to put aside their wants for the needs of others, an important part of self-control.

Developing Self-Regard

Padilla-Walker believes gaining self-esteem, self-control, values, and empathy are all priorities for a teen’s development. The Flourishing Families Study shows that teens with high self-regard are more likely to be happy, achieve academically, and show “helping” behaviors, especially toward strangers. They’re less likely to be depressed, drink, or use drugs.

Self-esteem is generally lowest during early and middle adolescence, when teens are going through puberty and the stress of middle school or junior high. Any transition (such as a move or advancing from elementary school to junior high) may result in a dip in self-esteem, but typically teens will rebound once they acclimate to the new environment. While self-esteem may be a challenge for any teen, girls struggle more often, in part because of pressure to be physically attractive, says Padilla-Walker.

Helping teens build self-esteem goes beyond praise, says Padilla-Walker. In fact, Padilla-Walker says excessive praise can backfire, resulting in a child who is unable to muster motivation without the promise of external rewards. And giving excessive praise, gifts, or money for meeting expectations can take away the internal joy of achievement.

What teens need is evidence they can overcome challenges with effort, such as earning a good grade on a tough test they had to study hard for. When parents praise, they should focus on the teen’s hard work, not necessarily on the achievement itself. A comment like “You studied so hard” is more helpful than “You’re so smart.”

Walker suggests that parents foster self-esteem by encouraging their teen to build strengths in several areas. While cautioning against overscheduling children, she says parents can allow children to try many different things—sports, music, cooking, crafts, computers—as they develop talents and find passions. And parents can give teens opportunities to make decisions for themselves with parental guidance. This helps them build autonomy, a key ingredient of self-esteem. “I think sometimes parents fall prey to developing the talent in their child that the parent most wants rather than what the child wants. So allowing a degree of autonomy for children to explore their own interests is important,” she says.

As teens build experience with things they’re good at, their confidence and self-regard increase. With more confidence, says Walker, teens are less worried about what others think of them, which in turn frees them up to focus on others’ needs.

Karen Stone McCandless (BS ’86) recalls that when her youngest daughter, Kelley (’19), was in eighth grade, she announced she wanted to be on the local high school’s new swim team even though she barely knew how to swim. McCandless was tempted to steer Kelley in another direction, hoping to help her avoid failure, but she stopped herself and decided instead to cheer her daughter on.

The countless hours in the pool built self-esteem, which led to self-confidence. “By the time she graduated, she had been female swimmer of the year in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades,” says McCandless. “She never qualified for a state meet but developed friendships and skills and confidence.” And a stronger sense of self. 

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