How To Parent: Dealing With Teenage Self-Esteem Issues

Self-esteem and Anxiety in Teens: Plus 5 Ways to Start Real Conversations with Your Teen

Does your teen have low self–esteem? Maybe he has a lousy self image, or anxiety about fitting in at school or with peers. This week in EP, read about these difficult adolescent issues from someone who’s been there and knows what he’s talking about.

Abandoned and abused as a child, Josh Shipp was raised by a series of foster parents who tried their best, but couldn’t handle his behavior issues. Then he found one loving, determined foster family who took him in as an adolescent and got him on the right track. Josh was able to overcome the pain of abuse, neglect and bullying, and is now known to millions as “The Teen Whisperer” for the insight and advice he gives to adolescents and their parents.

I think poor self–esteem comes from running up against adversity and not understanding how to recover from it.

EP: Josh, can you tell us about your own experience with low self–esteem as a kid?

JS: I think a lot of it for me was the result of simply not fitting in and not feeling like I had a place to be. Not only did I have an unusual family situation, but as a kid I used eating to deal with my pain—food was my “drug of choice.” I became overweight as a child and I remember being bullied quite a bit. I think that no matter how good or bad your self–esteem is at first, if you hear negative things day in and day out, it’s going to wear on you. It’s going to break you down regardless of how confident you might be in yourself. As a result of being moved around from foster family to foster family until I was 14 and then being bullied at each new school for my weight issue, I always felt like an outsider.

EP: Do you remember when you finally started to feel comfortable in your own skin and accept and like who you were?

JS: When I was in middle school, I moved in with the Weidenmaiers, the family who eventually took me in permanently. The affirmation I received from them helped me get to that place of confidence and good self–esteem. My parents spoke positive words to me every single day, and that was what I really needed more than anything.

Oftentimes parents think, “Well, my kid knows that I think he’s great; he already knows I love him and believe in him.” But you have to understand that with pre–teens and teenagers, it’s almost as if all their memories are erased every single day. In the same way, if you say “I love you” to your wife the day you get married and think that will do for the rest of your married life, you’re mistaken. No marriage is going to survive on that and no kid’s self–esteem is going to survive on yearly or quarterly affirmations.

EP: That’s good insight, because many parents of adolescents tell us that their kids try to shut them down even when they’re trying to compliment them.

JS: Absolutely. Frankly, there were times as a teenager when I would say, “Aw come on Mom, that’s so annoying,” or “Stop it, you’re embarrassing me.” But deep down, I called on her positive words about my character in those moments of pain when I was being picked on or bullied or felt “less than.” So don’t feel like you’re being overbearing by being repetitive. As a matter of fact, repetition is really needed with this age group.

EP: Was there anything else that happened as a kid that caused your self–esteem to grow?

JS: I think a turning point was when I actively began to find places where I could belong at school. I tried out for a few different sports; I did some theater and tried out a few leadership activities. I won’t lie—some of those things went very poorly. But sometimes to find out what your thing is, you have to first find out what it isn’t. Eventually, I found a few activities that I felt I could be good at, where I could relate to the other kids. That gave me an incredible sense of self–esteem. School became not just a place for academics and books, but it was also a place where I could belong in something beyond the classroom.

The truth is, your child doesn’t get to know other kids in the classroom—not really. In class, you have to be quiet because you’re learning and the teacher needs to keep control. It’s in extracurricular activities where your child can get to know other kids. Something parents can do is to encourage their kids to try out a bunch of new things. When teens find something they like to do, it helps them begin to feel like they have a group or a community at school—which then leads to being picked on less. I think this is a very positive thing kids can do to bully–proof themselves and help their self–esteem. Think of it this way: even if three or four kids at school like your child and have his back, when he’s teased he’ll be able to say, “Who cares? Those other kids are jerks anyway.”

EP: Josh, you say that “If you don’t talk it out, you’re going to act out.” But a kid who is riddled with anxiety and low self–esteem won’t talk about what’s bothering him—especially to his parents. What’s the solution?

JS: This is something that I experienced firsthand as a kid. I had a lot of issues in my life and I was not talking them through with anybody. I was constantly “acting them out”—acting up in school and causing trouble. When you’re dealing with these problems as an adolescent, in reality you’re dealing with grownup issues—but you haven’t developed enough to really be able to manage them effectively. Ultimately, these issues get acted out in other ways: bullying, talking out, acting out, yelling, anger and defiance and inappropriate behavior.

I personally think teens need a venue where they can feel safe and comfortable and not be judged, where they can talk their problems through. This is something that I think parents can and should do for their kids. A lot of parents say, “Well, how can I get my kid to open up to me? They don’t want to talk to me about this stuff.” I think that it is definitely possible to get your kid to talk to you about the issues he’s dealing with. Here are five techniques that work:

  1. “Talk to me about what’s hard”: Something you can say to your teen to get the ball rolling is, “Talk to me about the things that are hard for you; tell me about the difficult things in your life.” That’s a very good way of ripping off the Band–aid that’s covering the things they’re holding in and actually want to talk about. I also find that if you can talk about the hard things you faced in your life when you were a teen, it makes you vulnerable. In return, there’s a good chance your child will feel comfortable being vulnerable to you.
  1. Use movies to start conversations: I find that teenagers are most vulnerable after they’ve seen something that moves them or brings up an issue in their lives. Movies work really well as a neutral conversation–starter. I recommend that you find out what your child’s favorite movie is and then watch it together. (Understand ahead of time that whatever their favorite movie is probably isn’t going to be your favorite movie in the world.) I always encourage parents to watch the movie without judging the content, but instead by judging what’s behind the content. Why is your child drawn to this particular movie? What is the storyline within that they find so interesting and compelling? Believe me, there’s something important that makes your child like it so much. Is it a story about a kid who everybody counted out but who ends up succeeding? Is it a movie about a girl who is excluded? Look for the meaning behind the movie.

To start a conversation afterward, you can say, “Hey, wasn’t that scene where the main character made her decision really interesting? Why do you think she did that?” Again, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Talking about the movie will lead to conversations you would not have had otherwise. Let’s face it, it’s awkward to sit down and say, “Let’s talk about your self–esteem.” It’s just unrealistic; your kid is going to shut down and think you’re being dumb.

  1. Make a regular lunch date with your teen: Try to take your teenager out to lunch at least once a month with no agenda whatsoever. You’re not taking them out of school and having lunch because you’ve got this big thing you need to talk about; don’t do it in order to grill them about doing drugs or something like that. Rather, you’re taking them out as a bonding mechanism—you’re making a deposit in a goodwill account. Later, they might talk to you instead of stuffing everything deep down inside and then acting it out.
  1. Show your child how to deal with difficulty: I think teenagers especially need role models. It’s important for you to show your child what it’s like to deal with conflict effectively. Show your teen how to handle it when you make a mistake. Apologize when you screw up or say the wrong things. Actively demonstrate good ways to deal with anxiety or stress. All of these things need to be modeled for them as much as possible.
  1. Try to speak your teen’s language: Adults are comfortable with face–to–face communication, but kids are often much more comfortable communicating via email and text message. I don’t think it’s because they haven’t developed their social skills—rather, for a teenager, an important social skill is knowing how to do that. So I often encourage parents to speak their kid’s language. By that I mean to send your child a text message once a day and say, “Hey, have a good day,” or “Thinking about you” or “Good luck on your test.” That way, you’re reaching out to your child on their turf. That goes a long way toward building rapport.

EP: Josh, do you think you can build self–esteem in your child or is it something they have to do for themselves?

JS: I think it’s both. Ultimately, anything important in life is up to the individual, because they’re the ones who are going to make the decision. But it’s certainly a situation where you might be able to help. I don’t think self–esteem is necessarily something we’re born with. I think it’s about creating opportunities to work out that confidence muscle. Sadly, for a lot of young people, that muscle is not worked out at all.

As a parent, you can give your child opportunities to fail and succeed in a safe environment. Often I think poor self–esteem comes from running up against adversity and not understanding how to recover from it. For example, let’s say some kid at school says your child is a fat loser and she doesn’t know how to recover from that so it devastates her. What happens is that her self–esteem goes down the toilet. But if she gets trained and is prepared prior to that verbal attack and knows how to deal with it, it won’t affect her as much. That’s why it doesn’t affect some kids as much as others— they’ve been properly prepared.

People are often anxious about what they don’t know or they’re not familiar with. This is why people get nervous about job interviews. It can be very nerve–racking the first few times you’re interviewed because you don’t know what to expect. The more you can rehearse and prepare ahead of time, the better. The same goes for your child. If your kid is not prepared for a test, he’s not going to do well. In the same way, if your teen isn’t prepared for the negative challenges he’s going to be presented with, it’s probably not going to go that well.

EP: Josh, do you have any more advice for parents about their role in helping to build their child’s self–esteem?

JS: There’s a famous quote that says “Every battle is won before it’s fought.” A lot of places kids go—school, the playground, the Internet—can be hostile environments where not every person has their best interests in mind. So before they leave home, they need to know who they are and how to handle it when people say or do hurtful things. That’s why I think it’s important to let your kids take risks in an environment where they’re safe and where you can be there for them. I don’t mean fix their problems for them. You can brainstorm with your child, but ultimately, he needs to be the one to pick up the phone and apologize to that relative who he said that mean thing to. Don’t ever pick up the phone for your child and say, “Oh, I want to apologize for my son’s behavior.” You can do that if he’s three years old, but don’t do that if he’s 14. Let him take responsibility and apologize himself. You’re not going to be doing that when he’s 30, are you? You’re not going to apologize to his wife for him, are you? So train him now—otherwise he’s going to go out into the world and not know how to deal with things.

Remember, your job as a coach is not to step on the court—it’s to coach from the sidelines. Just remove yourself from the court. You’re not doing your child a favor by playing the game for them. I know that parents sometimes get in there because they want to help, but if you’re doing that, ultimately you’re handicapping your child.

Look at what a coach does. They prepare the team before game time. Everyone might practice hundreds of hours for a two–hour game. The team goes out there, they try some things, they do some things well, they do other things poorly. And then the coach breaks it down at half–time. “All right, here’s what’s working; here’s what’s not. What do you need to do this better? Don’t shut down, you’re going back out on the court, but how could you improve? How could you take this to another level? How could you deal with this in a different way?” That’s what a coach does and that’s what you need to do as a parent with your teen’s self–esteem.

Self-esteem and Anxiety in Teens: Plus 5 Ways to Start Real Conversations with Your Teen reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Josh Shipp has established an international reputation as a teen communication expert. Abandoned and abused as a child, Josh was able to triumph over the tragedy and positively influence the lives of the countless adolescents he’s coached. He is a recognized authority on teens for such media outlets as MTV, CNN, and FOX. Josh has spoken at Harvard, M.I.T., UCLA, and Stanford on the science of getting teens to listen. He is also the creator of the Identity program and the host of Jump Shipp.

How To Parent: Fixing Really Bad Behavior In Kids

“My Child’s Behavior Is So Bad, Where Do I Begin?”
How to Coach Your Child Forward

“My child misbehaves so much that I don’t even know where to start!” This is one of the most common things we hear on the Parental Support Line, and it’s an understandable problem. Many parents tell me they feel overwhelmed, frustrated and anxious when dealing with their child or teen’s acting out behavior; they wonder how they’ll be able to tackle so many issues at once. But here’s a secret: thinking about the problem in this way will only make you feel defeated before you even start.

“Start where your child is and coach them forward.”

James Lehman says: “Start where your child is and coach them forward.” In other words, build on your child’s strengths and keep your expectations reasonable. We also recommend that you not try to tackle everything at once, but pick one or two behaviors you want to change and then move on from there. Remember, your overall goal is to see your child make improvements—it’s not simply to have your child do what you tell them to do.

If you feel completely overwhelmed by your child’s behavior problems, here are 8 tips to help you focus on changing your child’s behavior, step by step.

1. Try to Have Reasonable Goals

I think that many times instead of trying to make gradual changes, parents expect that all the inappropriate behavior will stop immediately. The truth is, you might see certain behaviors stop right away, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will never act out again. It’s not going to be instantaneous, and it will take just as much practice on your part as it does on your child’s part. Change takes time. It’s not just you who needs time practicing new techniques. Your child also needs to practice so he can learn by repetition. The reason you want to ask for reasonable change is because your child cannot make major changes all at once.

2. Coaching Your Child Forward: Know What His Strengths Are

It’s important to have a good idea of what your child is capable of doing. Here’s an example: Some kids have an issue like ADD or ADHD. It’s important to get a really good understanding of what ADHD looks like in your child. Is it hard for him to focus and stay organized? Maybe he daydreams when he’s supposed to be working. Every child is different, and it’s important for you to modify your expectations accordingly. It’s also important for your child to know what his strengths and weaknesses are so he can recognize when he’s getting off track and learn how to get back on. After determining what your child’s strengths and weaknesses are, understand that he will make improvements from that starting point.

I’ve seen kids who are defiant or oppositional completely throw in the towel because they’re not capable of doing what you’re asking, particularly in relation to school work. That’s why it’s extremely important to find out what your child’s abilities are and begin right there. That’s one of the most important steps in making sure your expectations are reasonable.

3. Keep in Mind That Your Child is Working Toward a Goal

Accept that your child is working toward a goal. In other words, your child is probably not going to be able to stop his inappropriate behavior on a dime. If your teen is in the habit of getting his way by intimidating others in the family with his angry outbursts, understand that this behavior is not going to go away immediately. Work with him on making small steps toward good behavior. You might say, “You need to give me your cell phone for the next two hours until you can behave and talk appropriately.” The key is that during that time, your child is practicing this new skill. You’re not saying, “That’s it—you’ve lost your phone all day.” Many kids struggle with punishments that last too long and end up giving up halfway through. Instead, you want to have short-term goals throughout the day. Work toward short-term accomplishments and successes all day long.

4. Pick One Behavior to Work on at a Time

When I ask parents what they’d like to start working on with their child, many say general things like, “I just want my kid to listen to me,” or “I want my teen to do what I ask him to do when I ask him.” I think it’s very important to pick a specific behavior to start with and a time of day when it should be accomplished. When you’re just beginning to use the techniques in the Total Transformation Program, it’s important to put some structure in your child’s schedule or else you’re too likely to get into a power struggle with him each time you ask him to stop what he’s doing and do what you want. Choose a concrete behavior, such as doing homework daily, or being home at curfew, instead of working on your child’s attitude. You might feel concerned because you’re letting other behaviors slide when you focus on just one, but realize that your child is actually learning skills when he changes one behavior at a time—skills that he will be able to use in all situations going forward. Primarily, he is learning how to do what he doesn’t feel like doing, and that there will be a consequence if he behaves inappropriately. Make no mistake, a lot is happening when you choose one behavior at a time and work solely on it.

5. Start with Physical Behavior

Many parents ask, “Where do I start?” I always recommend that you begin with physical behavior first. It could be a safety issue, like your child sneaking out of the house at night. Many parents will say that back talk is the biggest thing they’re dealing with. It’s really hard for them to tolerate, and that’s natural. But if your child is not coming home at night, I suggest putting backtalk aside for a bit and focusing on making sure he’s safe and complying with house rules regarding curfew.

Physical behavior can also apply to kids who act out and are destructive or abusive at home. If your child is punching holes in the walls or intimidating his siblings physically, you want to start there. We recommend that you adopt James’ philosophy of, “There’s no excuse for abuse” in your family. Let your kids know there will be stern consequences for their actions and follow through on them.

A lot of parents will avoid tackling these big issues because it’s easier to pick something small than it is to address the big scary things. But if it’s a health or safety concern I don’t think you have any choice—that should always come first.

6. Can’t Decide Which Behavior to Tackle First? Get Some Help

There are some instances where you may be forced to deal with two behaviors at the same time. Let’s say your child talks back to you while you’re trying to help him complete his homework assignment, and you’re not sure which behavior to address first. This is where the Total Transformation Parental Support Line can be really helpful. We can help you determine, based on your child and what his overall behavior is like, what the best issue is to address first. We can tell you what technique to really focus on and which ones to set aside for later—and we’ll help you come up with a practical strategy.

7. If Your Child Doesn’t Seem to be Making Enough Progress…

A common stumbling block for parents is when they feel as if their child isn’t making enough progress. But remember, the goal is that your child improves—not that they will listen to you 100% of the time. It’s very different.

Sometimes you can change that by changing your parenting techniques and the house rules. Power struggles between you and your child will usually cause him to dig in and not cooperate. Putting more structure into place is sometimes necessary. You might say, “You have to do your chores Saturday morning if you want to go out Saturday night. Get started at 10:00 a.m.”

At other times, your child might be having real difficulty making improvements. James Lehman says we have to “parent the child we have and not the child we wish we had.” He reminds us that our kids are unique individuals. This brings us back to the importance of determining your child’s capabilities—again, be sure that what you’re asking of your child is reasonable.

8. Don’t Take It Personally

Many parents also get trapped in wanting their kids to feel a certain way. They want their kids to care about cleaning their room or to care about the effect doing homework will have on their future. The truth is, it’s not your child’s fault; he’s really not wired to feel that way yet. The important thing is not that your child cares, it’s that he learns how to do things even if he doesn’t feel like doing them. This is a huge life skill.

When you’re working to have your child’s behavior change, try to pay attention to what it looks like rather than what your child is saying. James says to ask yourself, “What would I see if I were watching this on television with the sound turned down? What would my child’s behavior look like right now?” I think this is a really good way to visualize what behavior is when you’re having a hard time separating it from what your child says or feels. Just ask yourself, “What is my child doing?”

Let’s say the sound is turned down and you see your teenager fighting with you, then he’s stomping off to clean his room. He may be sullen and have a bad attitude, but he’s also doing what you asked. Work on the behavior first, and the attitude will come. James says, “Don’t feel your way to better behavior; behave your way to better feelings.” And that’s exactly what you want your child to do.

Sometimes in parenting, it really is “two steps forward, one step back.” But remember, even if that’s the case, you are still moving forward. Yes, your child will challenge you. He’ll come back and test you to see if things have really changed; he’ll see if he can get you to go back to the way you used to be, particularly if he was calling all the shots. But stand your ground and eventually his behavior will change. One way to stay encouraged is to remember where your child started and compare it to the progress he’s made. It’s also important to encourage your child when this happens. Keep saying things like, “I know you can make improvements because you have already done it. Keep at this.”

“My Child’s Behavior Is So Bad, Where Do I Begin?”
How to Coach Your Child Forward
reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. She has been with Legacy Publishing Company for four years working on the Parental Support Line and writing for Empowering Parents. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 10 years, and is the mother of 3 grown children and the grandmother of six.

How To Parent: Kids Being Called Names At School

“Loser!” How Labels Stick to Your Child-and Affect Behavior

“Freak. Loser. Idiot. Geek.” These are just some of the ugly labels kids throw around every day at school. Chances are, your child has been called names even worse than these. The sad fact is that the more times your kid is called a hateful name, the more he’ll start to believe it’s true. This week, we sat down with “Teen Whisperer” Josh Shipp to talk about the dangers of kids using labels, and to hear why he believes your child’s sense of identity is at the core of good self–esteem—and good behavior.

Here’s what every kid needs to learn: if you don’t identify yourself—decide who you are—other people will do it for you.

EP: Josh, you say that you were given a lot of labels growing up. How did that affect your behavior?

JS: I was a so–called “prom baby,” so from the time I was born I had a label. As a foster kid, I was destined statistically to fail, and people treated me that way. The fact is that most foster kids don’t graduate from high school. And believe it or not, a huge percentage of homeless people—some studies say as high as 50 percent—are former foster kids. If you have a learning disability or if you have ADD, the prevailing attitude is that you are destined to fail at certain things. So as a child, I felt like most people had already written me off and given up on me simply because of these labels.

The problem is that if a child hears these things over and over again, he’s going to begin to believe it. He buys into the label he’s been given, ultimately acts it out and starts to perceive himself that way.

EP: Why do you believe that to be so?

JS: I believe it’s because you come to a point where you say, “All right, fine—you think I’m a rebel, I’ll show you a rebel.” It just gets so repetitive and beaten into your brain that eventually you fold and you accept it. I believe this is why identity is the number one problem facing teens; how we see the world determines how we interact with every other part of it. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, when I was 15 years old and moved in with the family who eventually adopted me, I went to an eye doctor for the first time. He told me I had horrible vision—something I hadn’t realized. I got glasses and immediately, I saw the world differently. In fact, I could not believe how different everything in my world looked to me. I didn’t know that all that time, I should have been able to see the fine details in the clouds or the grass or in paintings. I didn’t know that you should be able to read a sign or recognize someone from 20 feet away.

The same thing is true with your identity as a person—you just don’t realize it’s an issue until you’ve dealt with it. And after the fact, you say, “Oh my gosh, it didn’t always have to be this way; the world is really not the way I thought it was. I’ve been banging my head against the wall for no reason and fighting against the wrong people all this time.” Many people are blind to this as an issue in their lives. They write it off, as opposed to taking responsibility for themselves, instead of saying, “The issue lies within me and how I’m viewing the world.” Again, this comes down to identity.

EP: What do you think happens to teens—and their sense of identity—when they’re labeled?

JS: I’ll give you an example. We had a kid in school who everyone called “Stinky.” At first I thought it was funny, but ultimately I thought it was sad, because he began to own that name. He would actually put it on his papers at school as if that was his real name. He heard it so much that eventually he just folded and said, “I guess that’s who I am.”

Here’s what every kid needs to learn: if you don’t identify yourself—decide who you are—other people will do it for you. When kids get called a loser by a few people, they begin to believe they’re losers—and then they start to act like losers. The thing is, just because you’ve failed doesn’t mean you’re a failure. I’ve been to Taco Bell, but that doesn’t make me a taco. It’s almost funny because of how ridiculous it is, but sadly, kids don’t see the ridiculousness. They think, “Wow, I’ve failed two or three times at this; that must mean I’m a failure.” But it doesn’t mean they’re a failure—it just means those times didn’t go as well. So instead of caving in and saying “Screw it; I’m a loser,” what your child needs to say is, “Well, this is how I can approach it differently next time.” Or “I wasn’t as prepared as I should’ve been. Next time I’ll try harder.” The trick is for your child to focus on how he can improve, instead of on giving up.

EP: That makes a lot of sense. When a kid starts to believe the labels they’re given, it sounds like it can show up in their behavior in all sorts of ways.

JS: Absolutely. One of the things they do is shut down. So many kids have these enormous brick walls built around themselves because they’ve been labeled. Often, they’re just trying to protect themselves. Many lash out and bully others. Personally, I believe that if kids knew who they were and felt good in themselves, they wouldn’t be bullies because there would be no need for it. When you bully others, what you’re really trying to do is siphon some energy and self–esteem off of other people, because you yourself are lacking it in yourself.

EP: In that case, how can you as a parent help your child to find their “core identity” so that labels don’t affect them? As a parent, I think I’d have a tough time finding the right words to talk about this.

JS: I believe it’s a repetition and consistency thing. As often as possible, tell your child, “We believe in you; we see the best in you.” You never know when these words are needed and where they’re going to land. In fact, I believe it’s particularly important to be positive if you have a child who isn’t opening up to you. Maybe your teen comes home after a nightmare of a day at school. You have no idea what went on and don’t understand why your child is so moody and irritable. That was me ten years ago. I will tell you that those little chats my parents had with me made all the difference. They kept saying, “Josh, you’re not a problem, you’re an opportunity.” They said it millions of times. Some days, it just bounced right off of me but there were some days I really needed to hear it, and it got through when it needed to. I want to stress that my parents were ordinary—they didn’t have exceptional skills or advanced degrees in child psychology. But they were loving, positive and consistent—and they believed in me. What they said wasn’t anything other than the right message at the right time. In a way, you can think of it like real estate: location, location, location. They were just in the right place at the right time. And I needed to hear what they said and I was eventually able to believe it. I knew it wasn’t garbage—I knew they meant it, and that allowed me to own it. So never underestimate the value of repetition—it’s huge with kids, especially at this age.

EP: What do you do with the kid who has already given in and accepted the label he’s been given? Is it too late to reach a child like that?

JS: Definitely not—it’s never too late. However, understand that reaching that child is going to be that much harder. You have a lot of barriers to break through and a lot of time that you’re trying to make up. You’re trying to break through a lot of hurt, and you might not know exactly what that hurt even is. So it’s going to be more of a process for you as a parent to get through to a child who has already accepted defeat. Saying that, it’s not impossible. I’ve seen kids do complete turnarounds. It’s especially effective when they hear it from someone who’s been through it themselves. They start to realize, “Hey, if he can do it, I can do it—I can turn this around. It’s not too late. Forget what those other kids said about me. From now on, it’s going to be different.”

And that’s the key. The beauty of life is that you can wake up each day and decide exactly who you are. You can wake up and say, “You know what, I’m going to be a jerk. I’m going to believe that everybody has it out for me and I’m going to be defensive. I’m not going to meet new people and I’m not going to try new things, because there’s no point. ”Or you can wake up and say, “All right, it’s a little bit scary, but I’m going to go out there and I’m going to be who I really am, not who others want me to be. I’m going to be open to opportunities and I’m going to be cool to people and treat them the way they should be treated. I’m going to listen and I’m going to try things and I’m going to do my best.” Every day you have that opportunity, so it’s never too late. Ultimately it comes down to a choice.

EP: Josh, what would you say to parents out there who want to talk to their teen about the problems they might be having, but are worried they’re going to say the wrong thing?

JS: I believe it’s important to realize that number one, you don’t have to be perfect to talk about something with your child. Personally, I think if you wait until you’re perfect, you’ll never do anything in life. If you wait until you’re a perfect writer, you’re never going to write anything. If you wait until you’re the perfect guitar player, you’re never going to perform. I believe it’s better to have an awkward and tricky conversation with your teen than to wait until you’ve had 12 years of training.

By the way, I believe that if you as a parent are struggling with the same issues or doubt yourself, the best thing you can do is talk to your teen about it. This will encourage your child to open up about things he’s struggling with. It makes you a human being who cares about him and not the robot that’s just an authority figure. I’m not suggesting you need to be your child’s friend. You don’t—you need to be their parent. You need to be an authority figure, but showing vulnerability makes you human and people want to open up to humans. I think that people who are flawed and who still deal with things to the best of their abilities make the best role models.

I believe you should use every resource you have available that will help you get through to your teen. I recommend using movies to bring up different issues with your child. Once you have your teen in the right mindset, it’s easier to ask questions and have that difficult conversation. You can say things like, “Where would you like to see yourself this time next year? What does Josh 2.0 look like?” or “What does the new Ashley look like?” I think it’s also effective to say, “Let’s not judge where you are right now; let’s just remove that from the table. I’m not going to yell at you and say you need to improve your grades, lose weight, or be more positive. Let’s focus on what could be, not what isn’t. So where do you see yourself in five years?”

And then more importantly, talk about what those first steps are toward making it happen. Everybody has a dream of something they want to do. Why do most people not do it? Because they never take the first step. Martin Luther King, Jr. started with a dream, but it only became a reality because he woke up and did something about it. Everybody’s got ideas, but most people don’t do anything because they get overwhelmed and say, “It’s too hard. It’s going to be this big, enormous process. I don’t know where to start. ”

If your child is down on himself, this will help him see himself in a new way. And kids think that’s fun because they see it as a do–over.

EP: As a do–over? What do you mean by that?

JS: Think of it this way. We all love make–over shows where the nerdy librarian is turned into a beautiful woman. We are drawn to this because they’re redefining themselves. And when kids believe they have that opportunity, they’re really open to talking about it. They’ll say,Here’s what Connor 2.0 looks like. I’d like to be more of this, less of that and I’d like to be involved in these sorts of things.” And that’s where you as a parent come in and say,All right, cool, what are your first steps?” And you’re on your way.

Most people see the final product; they don’t see the first step. People look at Michael Jordan and say, “I could never be as talented a basketball player as he is. ”Well, he wasn’t always that good. In fact, he got cut from his high school basketball team but he didn’t give up. What’s unique is that he was willing to put the time in and take those first steps. That’s where your child needs to start, because if he’s not careful, you can check out and say, “Well, Michael Jordan is talented and blessed and born with something I don’t have. That person who is confident and has good self esteem is born with something I don’t have.” But I don’t agree. I think it’s about discipline. It’s about making a plan. It’s about taking those first steps.

Why did my parents help me change my life? They saw an opportunity and they took action. They didn’t start with the final step; they started with the first step. It got the ball rolling—and that’s what you need to do. Seize an opportunity to make your kid’s life better. Do what you can as a parent to give him a foundation and a positive sense of self–esteem, and help him learn how to decide on his own who he is.

“Loser!” How Labels Stick to Your Child-and Affect Behavior reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Josh Shipp has established an international reputation as a teen communication expert. Abandoned and abused as a child, Josh was able to triumph over the tragedy and positively influence the lives of the countless adolescents he’s coached. He is a recognized authority on teens for such media outlets as MTV, CNN, and FOX. Josh has spoken at Harvard, M.I.T., UCLA, and Stanford on the science of getting teens to listen. He is also the creator of the Identity program and the host of Jump Shipp.

How To Parent: What To Do When Kids Lie To Parents

How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens

When you catch your child in a lie, it’s natural to feel betrayed, hurt, angry and frustrated. But here’s the truth: lying is normal. It’s wrong, but it’s normal. In fact, we all do it to some degree. Consider how adults use lies in their daily lives: When we’re stopped for speeding, we often minimize what we’ve done wrong, if not out–and–out lie about it. Why? We’re hoping to get out of something, even if we know better.

I believe that with kids, lying is a faulty problem–solving skill. It’s our job as parents to teach our children how to solve those problems in more constructive ways. Here are a few of the reasons why kids lie. (Later, I’ll explain how to handle it when they do.)

Why Kids Lie

To establish identity: One of the ways kids use lying is to establish an identity and to connect with peers, even if that identity is false. Lying can also be a response to peer pressure. Your child might be lying to his peers about things he says he’s done that he really hasn’t to make him sound more impressive.

To individuate from parents: Sometimes teens use lying to keep parts of their lives separate from their parents. At times it may even seem that they make up small lies about things that don’t even seem terribly important. Another reason children lie is when they perceive the house rules and restrictions to be too tight. So let’s say you have a 16–year–old who isn’t allowed to wear makeup, but all her friends are wearing it. So she wears it outside the house, then lies to you about it. Lying may become a way for her to have you believe she’s following your rules and still do “normal” teen activities.

To get attention: When your child is little and the lies are inconsequential, this behavior may just be his way of getting a little attention. When a small child says, “Mommy, I just saw Santa fly by the window,” I think it is very different from an older child who says, “I finished my homework,” when he really didn’t. Younger children also make up stories during imaginative play, or playing “make believe.” This is not lying but a way for them to engage their imaginations and start to make sense of the world around them.

To avoid hurting other’s feelings: At some point, most people learn how to minimize things in order not to hurt other people’s feelings. Instead of saying, “I love your new shoes,” we might say, “Those shoes are really trendy right now.” But kids don’t have the same sophistication that adults do, so it’s often easier for them to lie. I think as adults, we learn how to say things more carefully; we all know how to minimize hurt. But kids don’t know how to do that. Lying is a first step toward learning how to say something more carefully. In some ways, we teach them how to lie when we say, “Tell Grandma you like the present even if you don’t, because it will hurt her feelings otherwise.” We have a justifiable reason—we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings who’s gone out of their way for us—but we are still teaching our kids how to bend the truth.

To avoid trouble: Most kids lie at one time or another to get out of trouble. Let’s say they’ve gotten themselves into a jam because they did something they shouldn’t have done. Maybe they broke a rule or they didn’t do something they were supposed to do, like their chores. If they don’t have another way out, rather than suffer the consequences, they lie to avoid getting into trouble.

Again, in my opinion, the overall reason why kids lie is because they don’t have another way of dealing with a problem or conflict. In fact, sometimes it’s the only way they know how to solve a problem; it’s almost like a faulty survival skill for kids.

I believe it’s really the parent’s job to differentiate the type of lie their child has told, and to make sure that it isn’t connected to unsafe, illegal or risky behavior. This gets to the whole point about picking your battles. If you see your child say to another child, “Oh I really like that dress,” and they later tell you in the car, “I really don’t like that dress,” you might say something to them, but you might also let it go, especially if this is unusual for your child. If they’re lying about something that’s risky or illegal or really unsafe, you definitely have to address it. And if it’s to the point of being really significant—like a lie about risky sexual behavior, drugs, or other harmful activities—you may need to seek some help from a professional.

So pick your battles. Decipher what’s really important versus looking at what’s normal. And again, that often depends on the developmental age of your child. A four–year–old is going to make up big whopping stories as a way to be creative and begin to figure out their world. It’s a normal developmental stage. Seven– and eight–year–olds are going to do some of that as well, but they may have more black and white thinking. So they might say, “I hated that lady” when they simply disliked something that person did. I think you can let those kinds of things slide or just gently correct your child. You can say something like, “Do you mean you didn’t like what she did yesterday?” This type of stretching of the truth is really the result of concrete thinking because kids in this age group don’t have good skills to say something else more neutral or tactful.

I don’t believe lying in children is a moral issue. I think it’s imperative not to take it personally if your child lies. Most kids don’t lie to hurt their parents; they lie because there’s something else going on. The important part for you as a parent is to address the behavior behind the lie. If you’re taking it personally, you’re probably angry and upset—and not dealing with the more specific information concerning the behavior.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your child didn’t do his homework but he told you he did. When you find out that he’s lying, he admits he didn’t do it because he was playing sports with friends after school. If you yell at your child about being betrayed and say, “How dare you lie to me,” that’s all you’re going to be able to address. You’re not going to be able to deal with the real issue of your child needing to do his homework before he plays sports. The bottom line is that your anger and frustration about the lie is not going to help your child change his behavior.

So lying is not a moral issue; it’s a problem–solving issue, a lack of skill issue, and an avoiding consequence issue. Often kids know right from wrong—in fact, that’s why they’re lying. They don’t want to get in trouble for what they’ve done and they’re using lying to solve their problems. What that means is that they need better skills, and you can respond as a parent by helping them work on their ability to problem solve.

How to Address Lying: Staging a “Lying Intervention”

While it’s important to address the behavior behind the lying, if your child lies chronically or lies about unsafe, risky or unhealthy behavior, I think it makes sense to address the actual lying by having an intervention. A “lying intervention” is really just a planned and structured conversation about the lying behavior. This lets your child know what you’ve been seeing, and gives you a chance to tell them that you are concerned. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Plan ahead of time: Think about how you’re going to intervene beforehand. Plan it out ahead of time with your spouse; if you’re single, ask another close adult family member to be there with you. When this issue came up with our son, my husband James and I planned out what we were going to say, how we were going to react emotionally, and even where we were going to sit. We decided we were going to be neutral and that we would be as unemotional as possible. We made a decision about what the problem behaviors we wanted to address were. We also decided what the consequences for our son’s behavior would be. We did almost all of this ahead of time.

Don’t lecture: When you catch your child lying, remember that lecturing is not going to be helpful. Kids just tune that out. They’ve heard it over and over—and when you start lecturing, the kids are gone. They’re no longer listening and nothing changes. So what you need to do instead is to identify what it is that you’re seeing and what you’re concerned about.

Be specific and talk about what’s obvious: When you’re talking with your child, be specific about what you saw and what the problems are. You can state calmly and in a matter of fact way, “If the lying about homework continues, this will be the consequence.” Or “It’s obvious you snuck out last night. There will be a consequence for that behavior.” Remember, it has to be a consequence that you can actually deliver on and are willing to follow through with.

Don’t be too complicated in your message: Keep it very focused and simple for your child; concentrate on the behavior. And then tell him that you want to hear what was happening that made him feel he needed to lie. (You are not looking for an excuse for the lie, but rather to identify the problem your child was having that they used lying to solve.) Be direct and specific. The intervention itself would be quick and to–the–point; you don’t want to lecture your child for a long time. This is just ineffective.

Keep the door open: Because the lie is most likely a way your child is trying to problem solve, make sure you indicate that you want to hear what’s going on with him. He may not be ready to talk with you about it the first time you raise the subject—and this is where the neutrality on the parent’s part comes in. You want to be open to hearing what your child or teen’s problem is. You want to create a safe environment for him to tell you during that intervention or that first conversation. But if your child is not ready, it’s important to keep that door open. Create this environment by being neutral and not attacking him.

If You Catch Your Child in a Lie…

If you catch your child in a problematic lie, I recommend that you not react in the moment. Instead, send him to his room so you can calm down. Talk with your spouse or a trusted friend or family member and come up with a game plan. Allow yourself time to think about it. Remember, when you respond without thinking, you’re not going to be effective. So give yourself a little time to plan this out.

When you do talk, don’t argue with your child about the lie. Just state what you saw, and what is obvious. You may not know the reason behind it, but eventually your child might fill you in on it. Again, simply state the behaviors that you saw.

So the conversation would go something like, “I got a call from the neighbor; they saw you sneaking out of your window. You were falling asleep at the kitchen table this morning at breakfast. But you told us that you were home all night.”And you might then say to your teen, “There’s going to be a consequence for that. You’re not going to be able to stay over at your friend’s house next weekend. And we’re concerned about where you went.” Leave the door open for him to tell you what happened.

Remember, state what you believe based on the facts you have. Do it without arguing, just say it matter–of–factly. “We have this information, we believe it to be true and these are the consequences.”Keep it very simple and hear what your child has to say, but be really firm in what you believe.

A Word about “Magical Thinking

Be aware that kids and adolescents are prone to engage in “magical thinking.” This means that when your child gets away with a few lies, he will start thinking he should be able to get away with them the next time. Often that just feeds on itself, and the lies become more and more abundant—and absurd. Your child might convince himself they’re true in order to get out of the trouble. I also think kids often don’t want to believe they’re lying; no one really wants to be a liar.

So you’ll see kids who’ve gotten caught smoking at school say, “No, I wasn’t smoking”—even though the smoke is still in the air. And when you’re a kid, you think that if you keep repeating the same thing over and over again, it will be true. But it’s your job as a parent to say as matter–of–factly as possible what you feel is the truth. Acknowledge the lie, but give the consequence for the behavior, not for the lie.

Realize that most kids are not going to lie forever and ever. There is a very small percentage of kids who lie chronically. That’s more difficult for parents to deal with, and it requires professional help. In all my years in working with adolescents, there were very, very few kids that I met who lied chronically for no reason. Usually, kids don’t lie arbitrarily; they have a reason for doing so, no matter how faulty that reason might be. Your child really does know right from wrong, but sometimes he overrides the truth.

I’m a parent too, and I understand that it’s hard not to take that personally or be disappointed. But just remember, your child is trying to solve a problem in an ineffective way. Our job is to teach them how to face their problems head on, and to coach them through these confusing years. Over time, I believe they will learn to do that without lying.

How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.