Confidence. Self esteem. Parents want their t’ween or teen to have a healthy dose of both. Caring parents generously praise. They know praise motivates and builds self-esteem. But de

During the vulnerable teenage years, self esteem is a roller coaster ride, not only for teens, but for parents who don’t quite know how to handle the ups and downs their teen experiences.

Teens hang their self worth on the success or failure they feel in one area of their life. If they get their sense of self from being with certain friends, when those friendships shift, they adopt the idea “I’m nobody.” If they tend to affiliate with a sport and don’t make the team or low grades keep them from participating, they lament, “I’m nothing.” Bombing a test can send a good student into a downward spiral believing “I’m a total failure.”

Research clearly shows that the single most important factor determining the self-esteem a child starts out with is the parents’ style of child-rearing during the first three- to four years of life. A student enters school molded by their early environment and their biology. After this, the cause and effect of self esteem becomes diluted. Does academic success foster self esteem or does self esteem foster academic success? Does fitting in with the crowd foster self esteem or does high self esteem help kids fit in with their peers? Do teens like themselves because they do well in sports or do participation in sports raise their self esteem?

And what do you do when your t’ween / teen comes home and they are in the dip of the self esteem roller coaster because they’ve just failed an important test, or incorrectly answered a teacher-directed question in front of their peers? While teens may believe they are doomed for life when these things happen, recent research in psychology and neuroscience show the brain of an adolescent to be growing and with this growth, nothing in the mind is set in stone; with dedication and a little bit of persistence, all students can achieve.

How parents approach school setbacks can either help or hinder their teen’s confidence in their abilities.

Research by Dr. Carol Dweck, published in the New Your Magazine entitled How Not to Talk To Your Child: The Inverse Power of Praise” shows the type of praise given to a student can have unintended and highly damaging consequences.

The Cliff Notes version:  Dr. Dweck and her colleague divided groups of students into two subgroups and gave them a task to complete. They pulled the students out one by one to give them their results and also offered a single specific line of praise to each student. Students in the first group were praised for being smart. Students in the second group were praised for working hard and putting forth effort. They gave the students another task, but this time the students were allowed to choose between a challenging task and one that was obviously much easier.  A whopping 90% of the kids praised for effort chose the challenging task while most of the others chose the less challenging task. Later when the students were retested on the original material, the ones who were praised for effort improved their scores and the “smart” kids did worse.

So exactly what does this mean when your teen brings home a poor grade on the World History test? It means you downplay the grade and instead focus on “process” praise (praise for improvement, engagement, perseverance, study strategy etc.). Process praise sound like:

  • You really studied for this test by reviewing your notes each night, rereading the  chapter preview, outlining the reading, using your flash cards. You worked hard.
  • This test was a huge endeavor. You really concentrated on studying. That’s great.

After you have focused on the process of what worked, if the result of their work produced a low grade, ask your teen what processes they feel will help produce a different result next time. Offer to work with your teen to figure out what they don’t understand, create a strategy for mastering the material and then help to set a structure in place to help them execute those strategies. Monitor and support. For example, if your teen says, “I should have began studying earlier for the test.” Help them to set up a study schedule for the next test or project that will help give them more time. to help instill this new practice, remind them and praise the process while they execute the task.

Not only is process praising more motivating for teens, but it helps them develop the critical thinking skills that translate into the business world. When your boss hands you a project it is highly unlikely it is going to come with a timeline for project management. Allowing teens to see and experience this biz-to-work translation highlights the relevance education has to their future.

Middle and high school grade students often view school as a place where they complete academic exercises solely to receive the judgment of their teacher. Many students wrap their worth around either being smart or a failure based on the grades they “receive”.  Given this perception, our American grading system may have a negative impact on a teen’s willingness to take risks and tackle new challenges. But if we look at highly successful business people, their success was predicated on how they used the feedback from tasks they encountered before. Many of them report a string of successive failures before their breakthrough. Intelligence then isn’t based on the grades we earn, but on our willingness to take risks, fall down, get back up,  brush the dirt off, and learn from mistakes.

Coming Next: Helping Your Teen Foster a Mind Set for Success.