If you’re a parent, then you’ve likely been through at least one academic transition in your lifetime. Remember what it was like to transition from middle school to high school? How about high school to college or professional life? Academic transitions can be challenging for adolescents, particularly when it comes to their self-esteem. The way adolescents work through challenges during this time plays a critical role in their developmental trajectory. This article covers a couple of parenting skills that will give you the tools to help your child boost their self-esteem so that they may continue on a healthy and resilient developmental trajectory.
The Importance of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is defined broadly as how much value a person places on themself. Self-esteem is largely related to a person’s capacity to hold a positive attitude towards themself and to continue these positive self-beliefs in situations that are challenging.
Low self-esteem in adolescence co-occurs with emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and behavioral problems like aggression. Meanwhile, those with high self-esteem are more likely to adjust to challenges and significant shifts in their lives, have better social relations, and experience higher levels of life-satisfaction.
The Challenge of Academic Transitions
Academic transitions add stress to an already vulnerable time where adolescents are facing major developmental tasks like gaining autonomy, building peer networks, forming an identity, etc. In fact, academic transitions may even catalyze the emergence of these developmental tasks, where adolescents begin introspecting, analyzing how happy they are with their current path, who they are and who they are becoming, and whether they want to shift their direction in life. By prompting this deeper introspection, academic transitions may facilitate changes in how adolescents feel about themselves, which may result in self-doubt or engaging in risky behaviors.
There’s Hope! Parents Can Help
As much as your adolescent child wants to break free and act like they don’t need you anymore, the truth is that parents are still an integral source of support. During academic transitions, parents’ support may be especially important.
Research shows that when parents support their adolescent children’s autonomy during an academic transition, the adolescents come away with higher levels of self-esteem and overall well-being than their peers whose parents are more controlling. Autonomy support can be defined by the extent to which parents encourage their children to explore and act upon their own values and interests. This stands in contrast to psychological control, where parents attempt to control their child’s emotional states or beliefs, which hinders adolescents’ autonomy. Adolescents with autonomy supportive parents tend to be more in-tune with their inner selves, which leads to feelings of authenticity and overall well-being.
Your child will experience many challenges in their academic transitions. Research shows that when adolescents share experiences of challenges with their parents and when parents respond in a supportive way, adolescents are helped to form a positive interpretation of themselves, thereby elevating their self-esteem. Similarly, when parents and adolescents share with each other important positive and negative experiences in their lives, adolescents come away with higher levels of self-esteem. These dialogues provide opportunities for adolescents to process challenging life experiences in a way where they feel good about themselves. Dialogues about challenges also promote emotional competence in adolescents by facilitating a space for sharing, processing, and managing emotions.
Example of How to Employ These Skills
If your child comes to you with a challenge they are facing, this is the perfect opportunity to begin using your two new skills: autonomy-supportive parenting and parenting about challenges. Say your child who normally does very well in school just started freshman year of high school and comes to you expressing their overwhelm with the new course load and feelings of self-doubt because of their lower performance. Encourage them to express their feelings about the situation. Validate those feelings and relate your personal experiences, if relevant – “It is a lot more work than in middle school. I remember it being hard for me, too. I didn’t do too well in the first semester of freshman year, but once I got the hang of things, I was on a roll. It might take you some time to adjust.”
When your child feels ready to begin pursuing solutions, ask them what they think would work best for them. If they have a healthy solution like time management, dedicated study periods or rest times, etc., then lean into it. Let them know that their idea is excellent and that you think it will make a difference. Add suggestions only if necessary – sometimes it’s better to add suggestions after they’ve tried and failed. And ask your child if they need help implementing those solutions. If they consent, then help them. The point is to be a supportive parent while also promoting their autonomy – which, like any skill, takes practice!
If your child does not offer any healthy solutions, try offering remedies for stress and overwhelm that you have seen your child use in the past. For example, if your child likes to go running to alleviate stress, suggest blocking out a few running sessions in their schedule each week. Exercise is a fantastic way to alleviate stress while also promoting “feel-good” neurochemicals that may over time contribute to improvements in your child’s academic performance and perception of themselves.
By supporting your adolescent’s autonomy and helping them talk through challenges that they are facing in their academic transitions, you will likely find that their feelings about themselves will shift in a more positive direction. With this boost in self-esteem, your child will see a shift towards the better in many different aspects of their lives.