Dr. Gus Haracopos on How to Help Your Teen Build Self-Confidence
Pelham Together is a not-for-profit, community-based coalition located in Pelham, whose mission is to ensure a healthy and vibrant community for and with the youth of Pelham. One way they do that is by talking to parents about their concerns and finding local mental health providers to ad-dress those concerns in various forums. Gus Haracopos, LCSW, PhD, a social worker at The Spence School in Manhattan with a private practice in Larchmont, spoke with Melissa Ronan, a board member with Pelham Together, on how parents can help their teens build self-confidence. (Interview has been edited for and condensed for publication. A more detailed version of the interview is available on Pelham Together’s website, www.pelhamtogether.org.) Dr. Haracopos, and many other vetted local mental health providers, can be contacted through their website at www.pelhamtogether.org/service-providers.
MR: When we talk with parents of tweens and teens, a common question we hear is, “How can I help build my child’s self-confidence?” Do you have any suggestions?
GH: The reason behind that dip in confidence is actually related to new abilities that adolescents are developing. An 11- or 12-year-old feels certain about who they are and has a conception of the world that’s fairly simple, compared to a 14- or 15-year-old, who suddenly might describe feelings of confusion, being unable to really figure themselves out or figure out their place in the world. Part of what kids need to understand is that the confusion shows that they’re actually taking a developmental step forward.
MR: It sounds to me like all of a sudden you know what you don’t know.
GH: Exactly right, you can go from feeling pretty confident and comfortable to feeling like you’re at sea. I think a lot of kids do secondary damage to themselves because they think what’s going on shouldn’t be happening. They get depressed about it, they feel helpless, and they get angry at themselves for that, so if they learn there’s an explanation, they can stop beating themselves up.
The other change at this stage is a leap forward in empathy, and now they can actually see through their peers’ eyes and read their expression and read their body language. Obviously empathy is great, in their ability to tune in to other people. But it also means that you start to wonder, “Well, what must that person think of me?” Social media exacerbates this because it allows them to look through the eyes of their peers 24/7.
MR: As parents, we can explain about development and that these feelings are normal. Is there anything else we can do to help them maintain or rebuild their self-confidence during this stage?
GH: To answer that, you have to understand that at the time when adolescence starts to hit, two things happen: the problems get a lot more complicated, and the openness to receive help gets a lot smaller. That means, one, parents have to get even better than ever before at picking and choosing where they’re going to weigh in, and two, they have to approach every problem realizing that maybe they’re not going to be able to offer a solution. You’ll be more useful as a sounding board, as a coach from the sidelines, as someone they can just dump their feelings on and just get the relief that entails.
MR: How do parents know when to make this shift from problem-solving to coaching and supporting?
GH: Definitely starting earlier is important, and the preteen years are a good training time. I encourage parents of younger kids, even if your child still wants you to give them the advice and give them the answers and walk them through it, try to have the presence of mind to step back and say, “What do you think? Let’s try your idea.” Then, one, you’re practicing with them. Two, you’re showing them that you have more confidence in them than they have in themselves.
MR: You mentioned earlier the impact of social media, that it intensifies adolescents’ feelings of insecurity about who they are. Can you say more about that, because I know most parents worry about the effect of social media on their children.
GH: If parents can help their kids focus on what they’re capable of, what they’re passionate about, what they enjoy doing, that helps the kids stay focused on what is important to them. By doing this, parents can help balance out the effect of social media, which is pulling them to focus on a lot of other things.