Self-belief, avoiding negative friendships, and the right support from parents are key to sustaining teenagers, says Claire O’Sullivan
JUST walking into a secondary school is enough. Primary schools are happy places: Teachers smile at you, kiddie paintings abound and there are beautifully illustrated picture books everywhere.
Secondary schools, in contrast, remind me of a horrible time when I just wanted to disappear into my disgusting uniform. Secondary school was the land of endless white, concrete walls, of slumped shoulders, of spotty skin, of awkwardness, and constant questioning of self.
However, secondary school is also one of the most important stretches of your life. It’s when much of your sense of self, your self-esteem, is constructed and it’s when young people need the self-awareness to work out what career path to go down.
There has been a lot of talk over the past year about cyberbullying and the devastating impact it has on young people, in some cases leading to suicide. Time and again, experts warn that removing a phone isn’t the answer but rather, young people need to be taught how to behave online and the tools to cope with any onslaught.
It’s to this end that life coach and mother of four, Eileen Keane devised a course aimed at teaching teenagers how to feed their own self-esteem.
Having watched two of her four daughters (aged 16, 14, 11 and eight) make the transition from primary to secondary school, Eileen believes there should be compulsory sessions for parents on how to help first-year pupils settle into a wholly different environment. Aside from urging parents to brush up on their IT skills, such a seminar would advise parents to be aware of pressuring their children over friendships and to accept their children won’t want to bring their friends home like they did in primary school. Instead, the aspiring adult will want to socialise in their own spaces, whether that’s in town, at the local GAA pitch, or in a local shopping centre.
A teenager’s choice of friends has a huge impact on their self-esteem, she says. When we caught up with Eileen’s Jumpstart Your Confidence class at Regina Mundi College in Douglas, Cork, she was talking to first-year pupils about the difference between “positive and negative friends”.
“Building self-esteem, it takes time and effort, and so we talk about surrounding yourself with friends you admire and feel good spending time with and not people who are a drain on you,” says Eileen. “We’ve all had friends that didn’t make you feel good about yourself, yet we stayed friends with them. Why?”
Parents also need to be aware that most secondary school children make their real lasting friends in third year and transition year, she says.
Eileen’s approach is common-sense: If a person is to develop resilience, they will have to learn how to “believe in themselves”.
“Believing in yourself is an internal process,” she tells the class. “No one else can make it happen and no one else can keep you from doing it. It’s easy to look around and say: ‘God, I’d love to be her.’ You have to realise that if you want to achieve something, find out what you have to do and go off and do it. The only person stopping you often is yourself and when you achieve something, you will sit up a bit straighter.”
One of last year’s cyberbullying horror stories was the suicide of 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley following a torrent of abuse on Ask.fm. It’s a website used by hundreds of thousands of Irish teenagers, where anybody can ask you any question and say anything to you. Many of those online choose to be anonymous.
Eileen is unequivocal when it comes to Ask.fm: “Get off it,” she says.
She says it is often people with low self-esteem who get addicted to social media, seeking to forge a new identity online or else subconsciously wanting to have negative feelings reaffirmed.
“I have seen the most hurtful, vicious things that would bring you to tears on ask.fm, people posting to children that had lost a parent that it is no wonder that they died. Is that one human being talking to another human being? If you were in that situation, that vulnerable, it would be very difficult to cope.
“You have to remember that, for the owners of Ask.fm, it’s all about money, you are a market they are trying to exploit so take the control back and get off it, really.”
THE presentation is not short on self-help mantras and anecdotes but the fact is, days later, I still remember the story about how the ‘wise woman’ taught the young girl the dangers of spreading rumours by making her drop feathers between their two houses.
When she’d finished her task, the young girl returned to the wise woman, who then asked her to pick up all the feathers but the girl couldn’t. Some had blown away, some were in the gutter, some were stuck in a bush. The wise woman then turned to the young girl. “Rumours are like feathers. You can’t control a rumour once you start it,” she said. The teenage girls sat at their desks, transfixed.
There’s a lot of talk during the class of the need for “cop on” when you’re a teenager. When it comes to tricky situations, the girls are advised to use their common sense and listen to their gut as often, deep down, they know if something is the wrong choice.
“Be really careful with sexting and with sending pictures to your boyfriend,” says Eileen. “Those photos are lethal. You have to respect yourself enough to say ‘look, he could send this to everyone in the whole class in a second’. And remember, its the world that we live in, but those pictures or videos can turn up anywhere at anytime and you will be judged.”
I don’t think you can underestimate how much teenagers need to have conservation about the basics of self-preservation and self-esteem.
When Eileen asks why a teenager might not tell an adult if they are being bullied, one girl answers: “They might think you are exaggerating.” That says it all really.
Bullying takes place in many forms and in as many social situations, often happening within a group of friends. These are the “negative friendships” that undermine your self-esteem or where “banter, bitching, the small stuff” goes too far. It’s the kind of stuff that can really torment teenagers.
Eileen tries to tell the girls that they can wrestle back control in these situations: “You need to realise that in a group, you can change the dynamic, turn it around by just being assertive, looking the person in the eye and saying ‘stop, I don’t like how you are doing this, this is how it makes me feel and if you don’t stop, this is what I will do’.”
Very often, she says, this person will never have been stood up to and will be disarmed by the assertiveness.
The teenage years are a minefield and many parents are genuinely freaked out by the massive changes in their children’s personalities. Some attempt to get too involved, meaning children pull back from them further, while others often underestimate how much these ‘changelings’ still need to feel secure.
“We need to be there for teenagers, open to talk about different things but we also need to teach them how to build and protect their self-esteem so they have the confidence to be who they want to be,” says Eileen.
- Tips for parents on how to build your children’s self-esteem:
1. Trust your children and teens until you have reason not to.
2. Praise children and teens when they do something well. With smaller children, set little goals, such as setting the table, and praise them when they do it. Praise builds their sense of self.
3. Parents need to learn to make their children feel good about themselves. A sense of security is all that kids want.
4. Children and teens need boundaries to feel secure. They might outwardly resist them, but they crave them.
5. Spend time with your children, even if it’s 20 minutes sitting down chatting to them as they play. Dinner, housework, it can all wait.
6. Teach them “old-fashioned” respect and manners. It will help them navigate friendships, peer pressure, and relationships when they are older.
7. Let them grow up in an open atmosphere where they can talk about things.
- Tips for teenagers on how to build self-esteem:
1. As you get older, you have a bigger role in building your own self-esteem, so go out and find interests that make you feel good about yourself.
2. Aim to achieve. Don’t put yourself down without even trying. Getting a better grade in a maths test will give you a real boost.
3. Always have one person that you can talk to if things are tough. It might even be outside your group, an aunt, an uncle. Know who that person is.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. That is being strong.
5. Remember, the more negative labels you use to describe yourself, the more you begin to believe that is who you are.
6. Learn healthy ways to spend your time. Draw, paint, play a sport, do yoga, even tidy your bedroom if that makes you feel better.
7. Be a good friend and help people.
8. Learn to accept your good and bad points.
- Tips on how to behave online and counteract cyberbullying
1. Be aware of other people’s privacy online — don’t put up that picture of a friend in a bikini when you know she won’t appreciate it. You have to protect yourself, your friends, and your family.
2. Don’t disclose too much information online — that the family is going on holidays, for example.
3. Treat your password to your phone, your Facebook account, and your email like the key to the front door. Don’t give it away.
4. Beware of befriending people online that you don’t know. Are they really who they say they are?
5. If you are meeting up with somebody that you met online, bring a friend with you.
6. Always report bullying to Facebook or whatever site you are on.
7. Don’t ever respond to bullying messages, as bullies want a reaction and when they don’t get it, will eventually stop.
8. Save any bullying messages in case you need them at a later stage.
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