Here’s a Quick, Easy Way to Boost Your Teen’s Self-Esteem and Build a More Fulfilling School Year

If you have a typical teenager, chances are their self-esteem could use a lift: Acne outbreaks. Wardrobe crises. Concerns about body image. Relationship dramas. Romantic crushes. And, not to be forgotten, the daily pressures to fit in and be “cool.” Such garden-variety challenges are inevitable in that awkward stretch of life dubbed “adolescence,” and can shake the self-esteem of even the most well-adjusted teenager. Now, recent findings from a study at New York University, published in the Journal of Experiential Psychology, can help you boost your teen’s self-esteem just in time for the new school year.

Your Weaknesses Have a Silver Lining

If we believe that one of our weaknesses is related to a positive characteristic or strength, we’ll be more productive in that particular area of strength, NYU researchers found. They dubbed their hunch “silver lining theory” — meaning that even our negative attributes can produce positive results— and set out to test how this dynamic plays out in a series of experiments. Here is what they discovered:

  1. Finding the silver lining in our weaknesses isn’t impossible; in fact, it’s usually very doable. When test subjects filled out a survey that asked them to evaluate whether self-perceived negatives about their personalities also had a “silver lining” (in the form of positive traits), a great majority of those surveyed were able to provide an accompanying positive trait when prompted with a negative one. Chances are your teen can do the same without too much hassle and a little encouragement from you.
  2. Knowing how a particular weakness has its upside in the form of a particular strength makes you more productive in that area of strength. Before arriving at this conclusion, researchers decided to test their silver lining theory on a specific weakness, impulsivity, and its correlate strength, creativity. The researchers randomly divided a second set of test subjects into two groups and assigned them the label “impulsive” or “not-impulsive,” before administering the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (a personality survey commonly used to measure impulsivity). Test subjects then read articles that either established or refuted links between impulsivity and creativity. Strikingly, those who read the articles establishing a link between impulsivity and creativity significantly outperformed those who read articles that refuted this link on an ensuing test of creativity.

Strengths-Based Approach Can Help Your Teen Thrive

The results of the NYU study and its corresponding “silver-lining theory” support the notion that a strengths-based approach to problems can help teens thrive, and in turn build bigger reservoirs of self-esteem that protect them from risky behaviors like substance abuse. Some of these same principles from positive psychology form the basis of the groundbreaking treatment for addiction known as “Positive Recovery,” which has proven very effective for treating addiction among both adolescents and adults — mainly because of its emphasis on developing clients’ strengths and boosting their sense of well-being, as opposed to merely focusing on their weaknesses and correcting what’s wrong with them. So says the pioneer of Positive Recovery, Dr. Jason Powers, MD, MAPP, the chief medical officer for The Right Step and one of Houston’s “top doctors,” according to H Texas Magazine: “While we do not pretend everything always works out for the best, Positive Recovery empowers guests to find the best in what happens. The NYU study confirms what many addicts have long known: while no one would wish the hell of addiction on their enemies, it can still be a source of deeply meaningful transformational change. Fortunately, we can all learn how to turn traumas into growth opportunities; it all comes down to how we explain the good or bad things that happen to us. The mission with Positive Recovery is to experience the joy of helping others flourish in recovery. We do this by applying the science of positive psychology, such as learned optimism and growth mindsets, with current effective strategies to fulfill our mission.” Whether your teen is seeking treatment for a substance use disorder or navigating the more mundane, daily challenges of adolescence that can batter anyone’s self-esteem, you can help in one quick, easy way: have your teen brainstorm all of the ways that their so-called negative attributes or problems actually signify positive traits or gifts that they may have overlooked. Then help your teen focus their energies there. You’ll be building both their self-esteem and a more fulfilling school year. Sources:

  • “Traits: Silver lining playbook for performance,” Science Daily
  • “Holding a silver lining theory: When negative attributes heighten performance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
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