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Helping Tweens Deal with Feeling ‘Not Enough’


Hi Michelle

I hope you don’t mind me asking but my 10 year old has been feeling a bit defeated at school. He’s not sporty and no matter how hard he tries he doesn’t get the trophies or the medals which upsets him. I try to cheer him up but it doesn’t work. He recently set the scholarship exam. He did so well and he was invited for a scholarship interview. He is not excited because he thinks he won’t get it. How can I teach him that what really matters is him trying and persevering and not the medals and trophies?

I remember being incredibly embarrassed by my five-year-old who constantly wanted to sell artwork to family, friends and neighbours without the slightest clue (or care) of its zero, zip market value!  Little kids often believe that every picture they draw is award-winning. They believe they can be a pilot and an Olympic medallist before lunch and then fly to the moon with the paper wings they just made. However, in the tween years, children gain a boarder understanding of the world and start to receive more honest feedback from the world around them. Praise no longer meets them at every turn. The adults in their world understandably expect more from them. What complicates things even more is their growing capacity to compare themselves to others.

Social comparison theory suggests that people come to know themselves by evaluating who they are in comparison to others. Tweens might make an upward social comparison, where they aspire to be like someone else who has greater social status or ability; or they might make a downward social comparison, where they compare themselves to someone worse off than they are. Downward social comparisons often lead our kids to say, “At least I am not as bad at maths as Amy is!”

At ten, it’s normal for them to be looking around, getting a gauge of how they stack up compared to others. Although a critical part of identity development, it is not without their age-related complications. Tween’s limited cognitive ability may lead them to compare their peers’ social media lives, houses, outfits, grades, athletic abilities and freedoms in naive ways. They may begin to say things like, “Why does she get a big house and we don’t?” or “Why is their life so good and mine isn’t?”  Late bloomers can particularly struggle when they see their peers’ charging ahead of them. It can lead them to conclude that they aren’t going to be able to keep up, which is not the whole picture, but their current reality.

There are also times when social comparisons are very fronting for our kids, especially in a school or social setting where they may feel their value is hinged on performance. I imagine they experience a gigantic (completely understandable) internal “huff” when they are confronted with comparisons (and feedback) that is difficult to digest. An internal huff might sound like,
If I can’t be the best, I don’t want to try at all.
If I can’t be like him, I don’t want to be me.
If I can’t be seen as the prettiest, I am not going to like anything about my body.
I can’t believe I can’t be good at everything! How unfair!

Here’s where they often get roadblocked. I’d like to offer three things that I always offer twee or teens who have come to the strong conclusion that they are not enough.

Response 1: I try not to get my pompoms out and tell them how fantastic, wonderful or spectacular they are. What I want them to do in that moment is sit with reality. Sometimes the truth is that no matter how hard they work they may actually never be “the best” at soccer. It’s those feelings that help nudge them onto a life path that energises them.

Response 2: I try to prompt curiosity by using a succinct little statement that says, “That’s one way to see yourself, but it’s not the only way to see yourself.” I’m hoping that this will help them get curious about alternatives. We know that lifelong happiness exists beyond achievements and spectacular moments, but they are yet to discover that. It pays for us to appreciate the journey they are on and get on board for the ride. 

Response 3: I always ask is, “If you can’t be the best, what can you be?”  Self-esteem doesn’t just fall out of the sky. Our tweens need a reason to feel good about themselves. If they can feel like they’re showing up and contributing something worthwhile it gives them something tangible to move forward with. I can’t help up ending with this statement from Ed Mylett, “Kindness is the ticket into the stadium, but you have to get on the field. It’s not enough to just get into the stadium. You have to do something when you get in there.” From a foundation of being do we have the great privilege of doing.

RECOMMENDED READING: Everyday Resilience: Helping kids handle friendship drama, academic press and the pressure of growing up is great extended reading. You can find out more here

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