Adolescent self-esteem, can you relate to this?

One of my clients noticed that her 13 year old daughter is overly anxious about whether she’s on good terms with her peers.  Her daughter asks often, both in person and over text, “Are you mad at me?”  “Are you sure you’re not mad at me?”


On one hand, it’s sweet that her daughter is checking in to make sure that small hiccups aren’t causing hidden resentment.  On the other hand, mom’s concern is with the power dynamics and the tone.  The daughter is anxious that something might have gone wrong and that someone might blame her, and it puts her in a powerless and inferior position.

Mom worried that this was her daughter’s personality – not at all!

Adolescent girls are sensitive to what others think of them, and measurably so.

Here’s a graph from a study which measured the level of a stress hormone in the blood of minors of various ages as they completed a task.  It was an easy task, not challenging at all, but the adult researcher was present, watching over the child’s shoulder.  That witnessing was the stress the researchers were measuring.

Adolescent self-esteem

There wasn’t much difference between the boys and girls at 9, 11, and 15 years old, but there’s a huge difference at 13 (circled in red).  The 13 year old girls are super sensitive to being witnessed.

Why?  Adolescence is a real shift from childhood.

You might have been told that it’s due to all those puberty hormones, and that’s partly true.  The hormones are certainly causing a lot of physical development, but a lot of the new behaviors are from brain changes.

I have a love for evolutionary explanations.  Imagine living a hundred thousand years ago.  A girl who begins menstruating may become pregnant at any time, relying heavily on her tribe to support her through pregnancy, birthing, and parenting a newborn.  She’s unable to go it alone, so she’d better be well connected to everyone in her tribe.  The girl who is asking “are you mad at me?” and making repairs has a real survival and reproductive advantage.  This sensitivity is adaptive.

My client found it comforting to know that this is a stage.  Not her daughter’s personality, not due to bad parenting or something else.

We agreed, however, that shifting her daughter’s language would be a good idea.  Challenge your kids to take it to the next level, maintaining more equal power dynamics, using a more mature approach.  Something like “Checking in…Is everything ok between us?” doesn’t connote that the speaker is at fault.  It’s a subtle shift, but worthwhile.

Adolescence is such a challenge, both for them and us!

If you’re hungry for more, check out the Preteens & Puberty video series.  It’s full of actionable ideas and expert advice on how to manage these tricky years and the necessary challenges, and you can stream the videos anytime, anywhere, at your pace and convenience.

Hope this tweak is helpful.

In support of you,

P.S. If you’re looking for more ideas on how to connect with your kids, click here to schedule a call with me.

P.P.S. Up for a challenge? Check out the Talking with Teens About Sex and Relationships webinar for important conversations you can have with your teens.

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  • Love the evolutionary take – as I’m a bit of a brain science geek myself. Also love the simple and subtle, though profound reframe (the one that has often been hard for me to think of for myself) “Checking in…Is everything ok between us?” I’m sure this “practice script” will be so helpful to the parents who read this.


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