Confidence is one of the keys to unlocking a bright future. Without it, adults struggle and never reach their potential. High risk teens are especially vulnerable to low self-confidence as a result of coming from homes where messages of worthlessness start at an early age and are reinforced frequently by parents, siblings and others. The bind the child finds themselves in is that failure provides more evidence of worthlessness while success challenges their sense of self. By the time they are teens, failure has become their very identity and as adults, they often find themselves in difficult or abusive relationships. In short, they never reach their potential.
Defining the High Risk, Low Confidence Youth
The reality of the high risk teen depends on confirming over and over again that they are failures. They experience success through a lens of disdain and anxiety. And while some high risk teens may give supportive adults a glimpse of promise, they must ultimately disappoint those who believe in them or risk losing themselves.
While low self-confidence in boys traditionally is manifested by acting out and in girls by acting "in" we are seeing an increase in depressed boys and girls who act out violently. We are also seeing an increase in numbers of these teens who are considered "at risk" and the problem is becoming more main stream.
We are seeing more "at risk" teens, in part because accepted caretaker behavior that creates low self-confidence is so prevalent. In many families, accomplishments receive less attention than problems. Bad grades are talked about while good grades are ignored. Kids are compared to another student or a sibling and this can affect self-confidence. Adults in the child's life may subtly tease a child about a weakness or fault or perhaps even deliver a real zinger in front of others - thinking they're being funny. All of these main stream behaviors that are seen as completely acceptable can have a strong negative effect on a child's confidence level.
School counselors, teachers and other supportive adults struggle with how to help these teens because it seems that their supportive help makes the situation worse. They often resort to simply containing the problem as well as they can until the child moves on.
What can caretakers, teachers and counselors do to help these teens get back on track and begin developing confidence?
Effective Helping Strategies
The first and best way to reach these teens is create the space to listen. Be available. This seems to be common sense, but it is difficult to truly be available when a child is ready to talk. This is not about "quality time" because these interactions can't be scheduled. They are spontaneous and happen when a child is ready to talk and deems you trustworthy.
When they first start to talk, just listen. Don't argue with them about their negative perceptions, but don't confirm them either. Realize that with these kids anything negative will stick, anything positive will roll off. If you tell them how fantastic they are at this stage, they will see you as a well-meaning phony who is lying to them. The best thing is to empathize with their feelings.
After a rapport is established, ask for their help with something simple and immediate (like moving a table) that you can do together. It should be simple so they aren't intimidated. It should be immediate so they don't need to show up at another time (providing opportunity for failure) and it should be done together so you can provide guidance and encouragement.
After they've helped, thank them but don't say "good job." They won't buy it. Continue to ask for their help in this way (not frequently but regularly). Turn off the lights, turn on the lights, move the table, set up chairs, put things away, etc. Always make it simple, immediate and do it together. This provides more opportunity for talking. Remember that teens with low self-confidence are concerned they are going to do something wrong and they often shirk responsibilities because they're afraid of making mistakes.
Provide opportunities for small successes and acknowledge quietly but don't celebrate too much at first. Allow the child to acknowledge their own accomplishments. Their identity must be given space and encouragement to shift. Celebrations early on can feel more like a jolt.
Once you've established a strong relationship, reframing can be a powerful tool. It allows you to provide the teen with a different perspective without threatening their identity. Tread lightly in your reframing. If the perspective is too different from their identity, it will be rejected. You might mention something you know to be a point of pride for the student. Make sure you are not acknowledging non-accomplishments as this can cause the child set their own expectations too low. "I really like the drawing you did." makes sense. "You did a great job moving the table!" doesn't.
When trust is established, the teen might ask your advice. Help them to talk things through to the logical conclusion instead of giving them answers. This builds greater confidence. In "Parenting with Love and Logic", by Foster W. Cline and Jim Fay, it is suggested that parents and other caring adults help kids think things through. If they get genuinely stuck in the process, you might ask, "Do you want to hear what other people your age have done in similar situations?" and give them some options. Then start the process of thinking things through to the logical conclusion again.
Throughout the process, manage your expectations. If you have a vision of where the child's potential can take them and they fall short, you can unknowingly be helping them affirm their "failure" identity. The goal is to help the teen make a place where they feel they have accomplished something meaningful and are comfortable and happy - a place where they can see their potential. They may stay in that place or they may move forward.
The Process of Growing Confidence
This is slow and careful work that demands consistency but the result is teens who have literally turned their lives around and are able to build stronger relationships, break the chains of abuse and work towards their potential.
Aricia E. LaFrance, MSE, is a life coach and former psychotherapist. Her experience with teens includes running a youth mentoring center that became a model for teen centers on an international level,and working with the probation department to create programs for teen moms and for teens and mothers who were violent towards one another. These became models for similar programs around the U.S. She has appeared in Family Circle, The Chronicle of Philanthropy and was featured on "Heroes and Sheroes" for her work with teens. Her coaching work has been featured in USA Today and on NPR. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at her website, http://www.aricialafrance.com/