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Teach your children to find real self-esteem in the unconditional love of God

Melissa is an attractive, intelligent and musically gifted 14-year-old whose self-esteem has plummeted in the last year. Outwardly, Melissa appears to be a well-adjusted happy teenager whom everyone likes. But inside, she's suffering.

The warning signs of her diminished self-esteem blinked loud and clear when Melissa's grades took a dive, angry outbursts at home became a daily event, and get-togethers with friends were replaced by nights in front of the tube. Although Melissa is a leader in her youth group at church, her spirituality quickly evaporated in the face of social pressures at school and the stresses of eighth-grade academics. She has alluded to suicide and is now in counseling where she's confessed she is unable to shake an inner voice that tells her she doesn't measure up.

Sadly, Melissa's shift from a happy, confident girl to an insecure, anxious young teen isn't all that unusual. In her book Reviving Ophelia (Putnam), sociologist Mary Pipher says, "Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. ? In early adolescence, studies show that girls' IQ scores drop and their math and science scores plummet. They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks. They lose their assertive, energetic and 'tomboyish' personalities and become more deferential, self-critical and depressed."


For Christians, the challenge to build a healthy sense of self-esteem in our children takes on an added dimension. We recognize that real self-esteem involves a sense of how deeply and unconditionally we are loved and valued by God. But we also know that in order for our children to grow spiritually, they must understand the reality of sin.

For many Christians, the concept of self-esteem seems in direct contrast to understanding our need for a Savior. So we find ourselves walking this tight rope between the idea of a God who judges humans and finds none righteous and a God who finds us so valuable that he would send his only son to die in our place?a tough concept for even adults to grasp. So perhaps it's no surprise that Christian adolescents are as prone to falling into that "Bermuda Triangle" as their non-Christian peers.

Lisa McMinn is assistant professor of sociology at Wheaton College in Illinois and author of the book Growing Strong Daughters (Baker). She sees the loss of self-esteem in adolescent girls as a direct result of sin. "Our daughters have been created in the image of God," she states. "Yet because of sin, our ability to [be aligned with] God's will has been perverted."

So what does healthy self-esteem look like? For McMinn, the answer is Jesus and his example of living as a child of God. She writes, "[Strong daughters] know they have been made in the image of God and are empowered by God to reflect that image in a broken world." That confidence and belief that God can and does act through them is the mark of healthy self-esteem. And this underlying confidence is what separates a child with poor self-esteem from a child who is simply experiencing normal teenage insecurities. With this understanding of self-esteem, it's easy to see that helping our children develop a strong, healthy sense of their own value goes hand-in-hand with helping them develop a strong, healthy faith.


As the mother of three girls, McMinn knows she must help her daughters gain confidence in themselves in order to guide them toward healthy social and spiritual development. "This is particularly challenging given the obstacles in our present culture," she says.

One of the best ways to build confidence in your daughter is to look at ways you talk about your own appearance and self-image. McMinn asks, "Are mothers obsessed with weight control? Beauty? Is aging an enemy? Do fathers perpetuate this obsession by their own response to beautiful women portrayed in the media? If parents can resist the tendency to judge and critique others or themselves on the basis of beauty, they will begin to break a cycle that negatively impacts how their daughters think about their bodies."

Another major factor is the media. For McMinn, the best way to battle the prevasive messages of the media is to teach our daughters to be critics of the culture. "Point out unrealistic portrayals of beauty," she says. "Are the models they see starving themselves? My daughters are finally beginning to recognize that an anorexic model is not healthy and beautiful. They recognize that large breasts on a skinny body are probably not natural."


Melissa and her family live in a prosperous suburb outside of Chicago. Most of her friends have parents who make a generous living. They can afford a school wardrobe for their children that includes trendy and expensive labels. Melissa comes from a large family that sticks to a clothing budget so she sometimes has to wear the same jeans two or three times a week. Although she's never been mocked for her alleged fashion faux pas, Melissa feels self-conscious and judged.

Our consumer society certainly promotes the idea that having enough of the right stuff will make us feel good. And with teens being the primary target of advertisers these days, they're getting that message loud and clear.

But this emphasis on finding happiness through material possessions actually creates young teens who remain chronically unhappy. Sean Thomas, a social studies teacher and leader for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Melissa's middle school, sees the impact of this hollow materialism every day. "It's hard to build self-esteem on God alone when you have so much. So kids build their self-esteem around the cliques they're in or the clothes they wear or the grades they get. Before long you have to do a better project, have a cuter girlfriend, and accumulate more Abercrombie shirts."

The solution is to start giving our children a sense of who they are in God even before they hit their teenage years. This confidence to follow God, make their own decisions and stand apart from the crowd will go a long way toward helping them fend off the pressure to dress and act like their peers when they hit middle school.

McMinn recommends parents encourage early adolescents to practice problem solving. Whether it's how to spend their allowance wisely or how to get out of a friendship that's gone bad, parents need to resist the urge to tell our children how to solve the problem. Instead, McMinn suggests, "We need to dialogue with them, help them ask the right questions, and lead them toward a solution that emerges from within them, rather than from us." This approach teaches children to trust their God-given instincts and learn to think and act according to their values, not the whims of their peers.


While we as Christians believe that true value, true esteem can only come from God, it's sometimes tough to convince our children of that eternal truth. Ironically, our Christian culture might even contribute to the drop in self-esteem we see in our children.

According to Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, Christians are taught to live as if they have high self-esteem. "We think we have to look good, sound good and perform well," says Burge. "A surprising number of my students come from backgrounds in which their performance is the basis of their value. That erodes their self-esteem because they discover they don't have intrinsic value. Instead they have earned value. None of us can perform our best forever, so if I fail or fear failure, I am constantly feeling insecure."

Sadly, that expectation of performance can often extend to our children's perceptions of what it means to be a Christian. "In many parts of the evangelical world, people are seemingly beautiful and financially successful," says Burge. "If I'm someone who already feels critical about myself, I feel like I have to perform and wear a mask. Kids often get tired of performing and decide to bail out of the whole system. It's almost like their first act of self-esteem but it manifests itself by turning to alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity. They see the church as a perpetuator of this mentality that's bringing them death."


With all of these forces pressing on our children, it's no surprise that we often fail to build genuine, lasting self-esteem in our kids. So where do we begin?

Gary Burge has found that the turning point for many of his performance-oriented students comes when he teaches a section on grace and the character of God. "Frequently, students are moved when I talk about the unqualified affection of God that cannot be earned or lost," he says. "It's as if they are understanding God's grace for the first time. The only time a child will ever glimpse a genuine, unqualified affection, unfettered by sin, is when they experience the love of God."

That's the real challenge for parents: to show our children that genuine, unqualified love at every turn. Chap Clark, associate professor of Youth and Family Ministries at Fuller Theological Seminary in California encourages parents to show that love through action, not just talk. He says, "Research shows that when parents model and talk about faith regularly, adolescents will come to under stand that God loves them. It's not about imposing your faith, but living it everyday." To figure out what messages you're sending your children, Clark recommends parents ask themselves a few questions:

How do we talk about people at home? Kids pick up on those parental impressions and use them to figure out what makes a person worthy of their parents' approval. For instance, if Dad talks disparagingly about the heavy woman he works with, his kids may get the message that appearance is more important than character.

How do we talk about faith and Christ in the context of the family? This has an enormous impact as well. Is religion seen as a tool for restricting behavior or is it something that brings grace and peace to the family? If a teenager gets into trouble and her parents react by scolding her with Bible verses about God's anger and wrath, she's likely to see God as a someone to fear, not someone to trust and turn to for forgiveness.

Do we treat our children in a way that reflects the way we talk about faith? Parents who conduct devotionals, talk about faith and go to church, but who are unreasonable or aren't willing to negotiate or listen to their children completely undercut anything they've said to their kids. To impact adolescents, parents need to treat them with kindness and respect and live their faith for the kids to see.

To some degree, the sense of being weird and different and misunderstood is part and parcel of early teenage life. Clearly, raging hormones, body changes, emerging independence and the social pressures of junior high play an enormous role in the confusing feelings adolescents have about themselves. Yet we as parents can also take an active role in shoring up our children's sense of value and worth by giving them the tools to see their culture more clearly and understand God's intense love for them more fully. With our help, kids like Melissa can be rescued from the mire of self-hate and doubt and brought to a place where they see themselves as unique, beloved creations of their heavenly Father.

Jennifer Mangan is a writer and the mother of four. She and her family live in Illinois.

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