It breaks your heart to hear your child describe themselves as not good enough or rubbish; to see them overcome by self-doubt. You see a talented, bright kid with lots of strengths and abilities and you reassure them of this all the time, but it doesn’t seem to go in. They are stuck on thinking bad stuff about themselves and you can see it starting to take its toll on their confidence. So why doesn’t your reassurance make a difference? Thinking about what is going on psychologically can help us to understand and give us ideas of how to approach this concern.
Let’s start by considering two important things we know about the human teenage brain:
The human brain evolved over 200,000 years ago when we lived in a very different environment than we do now. There were many dangers from wild animals, and other humans. Therefore the brains of these early humans needed to be on the look out for all the things that might harm or hurt them and also to predict when these things might happen, otherwise they simply wouldn’t survive. This meant that the brain evolved to consider safety first. In our modern lives our minds still do this, constantly on the look out for things that might harm or hurt us and this is felt as worrying, predicting the bad things that could happen and warning us to stay away from things that might hurt us. When our minds evolved, if we survived an attack from another tribe it would be useful to think it over, remember what had happened and what we did to survive so we can be prepared next time. But in modern life when our minds do this we go over and over difficult times, dwelling on them and reliving them. As an early human, you were more likely to survive when you were together with others, in a group, as being alone meant you were more likely to die. So, our minds developed to compare to others in the group posing questions such as “am I contributing enough, am I doing what’s needed to continue to be part of the group”. In modern life we are always comparing ourselves to others but now we can compare to 1000s of people through our phones, TV, newspapers and magazines and social media. We experience a near constant feed of information about what others looks like, what they are doing, and what they have achieved which can lead to common fears of being judged, rejected, not being good enough and not fitting in.
The teenage brain prioritises independence from parents, developing relationships with peers and forming a sense of self-identity. The teenage brain is again evolved for safety first and to survive as an adult you need to be able to take care of yourself but be within a group where you are more likely to survive.
What does this mean for your teen?
It is normal and expected for your teen to be comparing themselves to others, to be plagued by negative thoughts about not being good enough and worries about not fitting in. This is all due to the way the human mind has evolved. When it comes to exam time, the whole process involves comparison with others, after all that is what you grade or score is; a direct comparison to others.
When they listen into and believe the thoughts their mind is telling them, of course they are going to feel rubbish, scared, or anxious. This can lead to them avoiding putting themselves forward for things as this would only bring more of those painful thoughts and feelings. This avoidance can include engaging less with revision, school work and can be reflected in your teen saying things like "I don't care", "what does it matter anyway?".
They are less likely to listen to parents at this point in their lives as they are focused on the task of building their independence.
So why can't your teen make use of the reassurance you and their teachers give them?
Offering reassurance is of course the first thing us parents rush to do, we can see how special and wonderful our children are and we want to share this. But consider your words are just one of the noises battling against the constant internal chatter coming from the caveman mindset of comparison, their worries about not being good enough, and with their strive for independence, your words do not have an impact. In fact, they perhaps sound ridiculous and very untrue against the barrage of all of those negative thoughts and worries.
So what else could you do to encourage your teen when they come across self-doubt?
When your child makes a comment comparing themselves to others or you notice them saying they are not good enough in some way, resist leaping to the reassuring response for a moment. Instead, try being curious about what is like to feel this way for example say something like ..“it must he hard to feel you are not as clever as your your friends, what's that like?" "I wonder what makes you feel that way at the moment?”. Being curious may allow your child to start to consider what is going on for them and allow you to have some conversations about this. Let them know you can appreciate how hard it is when you feel this way about yourself, show empathy for what they are experiencing.
Share with them that it is normal to compare to others and have negative thoughts about this, that is what our human brains do, that is what we all do. However, when you hear them talking about making negative comparison, this can be a really good opportunity to explore what is going on. I love the waiting room analogy written about by Philippa Perry. I share this a lot with young people I work with to help them see how comparisons can lead us to draw unfair negative judgements about ourselves.
Ask your teen to imagine three rooms; a waiting room which has two doors leading off it to the second and third room. Ask them to think of this three-roomed place as how people consider themselves. Consider the waiting room as the place you receive visitors, what you show other people and what other people see.
Now consider the two rooms off the waiting room, one is where you feel most unsure of yourself, worried, scared, angry, uncertain. This is the room of difficulty, this is not shown to many people. The other room is where you feel most positive, where you are proud of the things you are doing in life, again this is probably not shared or shown to many people. Standing in the waiting room you know what is behind the doors of the other two rooms.
Remember, everyone has these three rooms. When we compare to others what happens is that we tend to compare our room of difficulty to their waiting room, the room we can see. We then of course conclude that we are doing less well than others. The truth is we never know what is in other people’s rooms of difficulty or positivity but comparisons tend to mean that we only conclude negative things about ourselves. Help your teen to remember this when they are comparing – “you never know what is in the other’s room of difficulty”.
This is so true and I remember a good example of this happened in my own life when I was sitting A-Level exam in economics. For me this was a tricky subject and one I needed to work hard at. I felt so uncertain coming out of the exam, had I done enough? My negative thoughts were triggered even more when I heard a another young person who I didn't know very well bragging how it had found it, how he was certain he had aced it. I went home feeling worried and anxious about whether I would get the grade I needed to get into university. On the results day, I was so chuffed with my C, the grade I needed to get on with my plans. I then noticed that same lad who had been bragging. He got a U, a big fat fail. On that exam day I was definitely comparing my room of difficulty to his waiting room, to my detriment.
Share with your teen that the human brain churns out lots of thoughts every day, it is thought around 48,000! These are just thoughts. Not necessarily things to listen to or truths.
Encourage them to start to notice them as thoughts, ask them to try saying “I am having a thought that...... I am not good enough”. "I notice I am having lots of these thoughts about not being good enough"..... Remember they are just thoughts. There are various techniques you can use in these moments and I will post more about these in future articles.
Help your teen to widen their focus onto the things are they feeling positive about and focus as a parent on building up their acknowledgment and confidence around these strengths.
Help your teen to focus in on what is important to them and what they are doing, not others.
Want to know more?
These are some initial suggestions about things that may help you to support your teen when they are overcome by self-doubt. Would you like to know more the things you can do to support your teen? Please comment below or email me with any questions you have or with anything else you would like to learn about.
Dr Beck x