Mean or thoughtless comments from uncaring adults can harm a teenager or a “tween” (age 11 or 12) for life, so please be careful what you say around them. Most often, harm is done by a child’s own parents, but it’s all too easy to inflict pain on other teens as well. To illustrate my point, here’s my own sad story.
In grade school, I was a winner! On the student council at David G. Perkins grade school in Des Moines, Iowa, I also appeared in lead roles in children’s theater, was in a performing square dance troupe, batted over .500 on my Little League team and wrote and presented messages on the school’s intercom (e.g., “Be a Walk Walker, Not a Lawn Walker.”) I always sought favor with the most popular girls in my class and the pretty girls welcomed my advances. Heck, I even wrote a play in Fourth Grade, “Skinny in Food Land” that my classmates, dressed as carrots and grapes, performed on-stage to boisterous applause in the school auditorium.
Sadly about the time I started junior high, around age 12 or 13, my confidence began to evaporate. No longer did I relish head-to-head competition in sports. I became shy and withdrawn around my peers. I seldom dated girls. I continued in theater but never again considered myself a star. My only high school and college sport was distance running, where I could grind it out and didn’t have to overpower or outsmart another competitor.
My lack of self-confidence continued for many years. To this day, I remain a “shy guy” in most social situations. Several times during my business career I was passed over for promotion from lack of assertiveness in making my point or in promoting my talents. For thirty long years, I was willing to settle for the false notion that “present circumstances are the best I can hope for.”
Over the years, I have asked myself time and again what robbed me around age 12 of my youthful self-confidence. I still don’t have all the answers, but I am now able to pinpoint three painful interactions with adults that seem like only yesterday:
- At age 11 1/2, I went on group horseback trail ride at a kids’ summer camp. The lead wrangler was a stern but attractive “cowgirl” in her twenties who had no patience with first-time riders like me! She hollered at me several times to “control your horse!” and to “keep your horse in line!” My horse’s sin: pausing several times to munch on grass at the side of the trail. The result: humiliation for me, a lowering of my self-esteem and the desire never to get up on a horse again.
- At age 12 or 13, on a weekend Boy Scout camping trip I was reprimanded harshly by an abusive scoutmaster for drinking water directly from the community “water bag” container hanging in the center of camp. (To this day I swear to you that my lips never touched the faucet.) The rebuke made to feel both irresponsible and stupid in front of ten to twelve fellow scouts. I just wanted to hide in the woods. The result: I never attended another Boy Scout function and in the process, another little piece of my self-confidence was stripped away.
- At age 14, the mother of my best friend told me that the mother of another boy our age had expressed the opinion that “I was quite strange and unattractive looking and had a big head.” To this day, I haven’t the slightest clue as to why my friend’s mother felt compelled to relay this hurtful comment to me. The end result: for years I considered myself homely, seldom asked a girl out for fear of rejection and to this day I am less than fully confident in social encounters. The bitter irony: the son of the woman who made the remark had a head larger than mine!
I am not naive enough to blame the above three incidents alone for my lack of self-confidence as a teenager and a young adult, but they most certainly contributed. My parents, God bless them, never abused or rebuked my sister or me in public; they consistently sought to build our self-esteem and in no way are responsible for my shyness around others. Furthermore, I can’t remember a single coach or teacher who made me feel small or unworthy of success. Ironically, all three of the adults who harmed me with their tongues were strangers whom I never saw again.
As mature, caring adults, shouldn’t you and I strive to serve as positive role models for every teen or tween who cross our path? You teachers, youth ministers, school guidance counselors, high school coaches and scout leaders are challenged daily with this responsibility, but why not the rest of us as well?
Always pause to think before you speak harshly to a young person. Your consistent goal should be to respect youngsters as fellow human beings. Relate to teens as you would have liked to have been treated when you were their age. The scoutmaster could have called me aside and asked me kindly to drink from my own canteen. The wrangler could have ridden over and instructed me gently in private on effective tactics for controlling my horse. Keep in mind always: what you may consider a trivial yet justified criticism may come back to haunt an impressionable twelve-year-old or teenager for years to come.
Of greatest concern to us as parents is how well we guide and influence our own teenagers. At nine and ten, our sons and daughters were so proud to share their triumphs and to voice their concerns with mom and dad; they turned to us instinctively for advice. Now as teens, they eat…they sleep…they text and occasionally they converse with us, most often to ask for money or for keys to the family car. Our teens have become mysterious strangers in our house and in our adult lives. They seek to come and go on their terms, almost at will.
How best can middle-aged moms and dads like you and me 1) capture and hold our teen’s attention, 2) establish and enforce basic ground rules to monitor and ensure their own safety and protect the rights and safety of others and 3) lovingly guide them to the joyful, accomplishment-filled adult life?
One thing is certain: once our children become teens, we no longer can “control” their daily lives like we did when they were small. As parents of teenagers, we must compete with schoolmates, boyfriend or girlfriend, media “celebrities”and myriad Facebook or Twitter “friends” to have a meaningful influence on in their lives. But here’s some good news: although they won’t often admit it, most teens still honor parental guidance, crave adult attention and acceptance and, like it or not, look up to us as role models when they decide what they want to become and how they want to live their adult lives.
Here’s one suggestion: As your children grow into their teenage years, practice the “3 A’s” of effective parenting:
- Affirmation. Complement your son or daughter on every accomplishment, large or small. At every opportunity affirm that he or she remains a cherished vital part of your life.
- Acceptance. You can criticize, even reject, unacceptable behavior so long as you make it crystal clear that you are 100% behind your teenager as a unique one-in-a-million person you love unconditionally. Whatever their mistakes, they remain a beloved member of the family.
- Affection. Demonstrate uncompromising love, support and interest in your teen at every opportunity. Be persistent even when son or daughter seeks to shut you out.