A friend bought two copies of a book subtitled “A down-to-earth guide to parenting teenagers”, and gave me one copy.  It’s good – or at least what I’ve read so far has been full of good advice well put.  There are lots of practical exercises which you might like to try with your teenager (I’ll share the fruits of our efforts in another post).  Here’s a snippet – relating to self image and how a teenager’s self image is often defined by a self-imposed heirarchy of desirable attributes or possessions – which struck a chord:

“Having this sense of heirarchy has many functions.  It helps groups of young people to bond, creates society and to some degree keeps things ticking alone nicely.  However, it can be limiting and even damaging if it is the only way a young person relates to the world around them.  If a young person believes they are worth more or less than others in their way, they may make choices about their behaviour in relation to this information.  At an extreme level we see this manifest as “isms”.  Racism supposes that race determines a person’s worth and that some people are of more value than others from birth.  Likewise sexism determines that the qualities and behaviours associated with one sex are of less value or worth in the world than those of the other.  Hierarchical thinking is also strongly ingrained in those young people who are likely to bully or use power tactics over others as it allows whatever qualities are deemed desirable by the group to be more important than broader concepts of fairness or value.

A more healthy view of the self in relation to others is to see it as recipe that contains the same “ingredients” as everybody else but in differing quantities and mixtures.  We are all unique but all made up of the same bits and pieces.  Some of us have tremendous skills in some areas, some of us don’t.  Some of have one kind of motivation in life, some of us have many and we change motivations as we develop – perhaps a love of music is supplanted by a love of amateur dramatics after coming across an enthusiastic local group.  We are all different but we share a broad cloak of humanity and common experience.  We are therefore able to empathise with people we have never met and whose lives are very different from our own.

I’ve often heard it said that everyone is good at something.  I’m not sure I completely agree.  I think many people are average at most things and they are still unique, worthy and valuable.  It’s not being good at something that matters; it’s being somebody.  And it is entirely by encouraging your young person to understand and share this view that parents can influence their child’s lifelong self-esteem.”

The authors make the point that self esteem often runs in families.  I wonder if racism – that is, an over-developed sense of ethnic pride – is not something that children pick up from their parents who, for whatever reason, choose to emphasise their own ethnic identity to counter their feelings of inferiority.  As with racism, so with sexism and extreme religious supremacy.  First generation immigrants often feel an understandable anxiety in relation to the indigenous majority and, not unnaturally, respond by vaunting the very thing that makes them different.  Sons smothered by their mothers may grow up to brandish their masculinity in a hierarchical way. 

In their children, however, this defence mechanism may take on a more dangerous hue as it is expressed as unthinking, immoveable prejudice learnt at an esteemed parent’s knee.  The book, then, offers advice to parents as well.  To value themselves.  To offer themselves the unconditional love that means being somebody – a person worthy of love even when all the achievements and badges are stripped away.

Gill Hines and Alison Baverstock, Whatever! A down-to-earth guide to parenting teenagers, Piatkus, 2005