The more I work with teenagers, the more evident is that they are their own worst enemy and biggest critic.

Check out this story from one of our facilitators, Josh Hardcastle, about a conversation that happened in his support group with teenage guys:


A couple of weeks ago, we were talking about the negative influences and negative voices in our lives. Some of the guys in the group spoke up and were talking about how when other people put them down, they believe it. They believe that they…

Are Lazy.
Are Stupid.
Won’t Succeed.
Are Slow.
Are Punks.
Can’t get anything right.

So then I threw out the question, “What if you didn’t believe them?”

I had remembered a line from a book I read that said something like, “The names that we embrace are the names that we become.” I shared with them some of the struggles with the names that I had been called in High School by a coach. After hearing it so many times, I began to believe that I was that name.

There was something about this whole conversation and group time that really clicked with them. I could actually see hope and strength starting to resonate with a few of them. They were sitting up straight and absolutely silent. Not because they didn’t know what to say, but because it looked like they were thinking about not believing they were these names that they had been called for so long.

Towards the end of the group time, one of the guys asked, “So does this work with me too? Because I put myself down more than anybody else.”

Man that broke my heart! But we were able to have a conversation as a group about what that looked like and how we can avoid embracing the negative names and voices we call ourselves. I closed out the group by asking, “What do you guys notice about everyone’s pages and what they heard from the important voices in their lives?” A few of them gave me the answers that most everybody had written down their family or best friends, but one of my quiet kids raised his hand and said, “Everyone has more than two important, positive voices who speak into their lives.”

I took it one step further and asked, “So what does that mean?” Another guy jumped in and said, “That we should be listening and focusing on the positive voices and ignoring the negative ones.”

Boom. Nailed it.


Teenagers are surrounded by all kinds of negative and critical voices, but these voices do not just come from outsiders. Sometimes, the worst thoughts are coming from inside their own heads.

So what can we do? How can we help encourage teenagers to think positively and be a better judge of their self-worth? I have a few suggestions for what we can do as parents, teachers, mentors and friends:


1. Ask questions that will allow them to brag.

Instead of bringing up that “B” on a test, or the fact that they were late getting home (…again), ask one of these questions: “What is one thing that you did really well today?” or “How did you help someone today?”

By asking these question, you are prompting their own brain to focus on the positive aspects of the day. You are telling them that they are capable of great things and you want to hear about the things that they are going well.

Let’s help train teens to engage in beneficial bragging! Bragging that fosters a good sense of self-worth and positive self-esteem.

2. Point out the little things.

Did your teen wash the dishes without being asked? Say, “THANK YOU!”

Resist the urge to say something like, “What’s wrong with you?! You never do the dishes without asking!” or “Finally! Now you’re doing the dishes every night for the rest of your life!”

I know this might be a silly example, but by encouraging the little things they do without adding a backhanded dig or sarcastic comment, they will also pay attention to the important role they can play!

Tell them when you are proud. Hang up that last report card on the fridge. Brag about the way they love on their siblings. Teenagers are necessary, helpful, hardworking and FUN – don’t forget that!


3. Encourage realistic goal-setting.

When I am hard on myself or engage in negative self-talk, it tends to be when I am disappointed in myself or feel like I haven’t reached the goal I set for myself. After a busy week, I am upset that the house is a little messy and that I didn’t cook every meal at home. I beat myself up when I miss one tiny detail on a big project, or find a typo in a blog post.

Goals are a great thing to have, but we should be realistic and not sweat over the little things! Encourage teenagers to set small goals. When they reach that goal, help them celebrate and especially if they don’t matter – forget about the tiny things that might not be perfect.

Perfection isn’t a realistic goal. But here are a few realistic goal examples for teenagers:

  • Be on time to school in the morning – who cares if you forgot to brush your hair or ate a pop tart instead of a well-rounded, healthy breakfast?!
  • Help with one thing around the house – start small by making the bed, or doing the dishes after dinner!
  • Improve on the next test – don’t get upset if the next grade isn’t a perfect 100, but strive to do better than that last test!

Once you help them come up with, write down and spend time on their goals, don’t forget to celebrate when a goal is reached!


What do you think of these ideas? How else can we encourage teenagers to engage in positive self-talk?


Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Lifeline’s original support groups and now is our Communications Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.