Helping Your Teen Gain Self-Worth

In one of the Marvel movies, Ironman reminds his fellow superheroes, “Remember, when you step out that door, you’re an Avenger!” It’s a way of urging the heroes to remember their identity, because who they are shapes how they live. Their identity as an Avenger gives them courage and fuels their pursuit of justice. It’s just as true for us; every time we step into our homes, our places of business, our communities, or our schools, our identity shapes how we live.

Identity and Performance

Unfortunately, we are taught from a young age that we are what we do. This means that our self-worth, our sense of value as a person, is dictated by what we accomplish or what we fail to accomplish. In particular, teens face enormous pressure to create an identity that secures their self-worth and assures them of acceptance from their peers. Whether it’s making the team, being cast in a leading role, earning a high GPA, or being selected first chair in the orchestra, success (or failure) defines their worth. When they are performing well, they feel confident, valued, loved. And, their success assures them that they have a place where they fit in and belong, right there with other athletes, musicians, or academics. But when they are cut from the team, fail the test, or are turned down by the scholarship committee, they can begin to feel worthless and isolated. As parents, helping our teens ground their identity in something trustworthy will give them a sense of self-worth that will last, and it will help them face life’s inevitable disappointments.

An Identity That Will Crush Us

When we anchor our worth to what we do, we soon discover that we always feel just short of the perfection we seek. An A on a term paper feels great until it sinks in that the next paper has to be just as good. Making the team is rewarding until you feel the relentless push to excel game after game. The result can be a roller-coaster. When they are succeeding, their self-worth not only soars but also invites becoming prideful, harsh, and critical of others who aren’t as successful. When your son or daughter isn’t succeeding, they feel as though their worth plummets, leading to feelings of depression, loneliness, or anxiety. The problem with tying our identity to what we do is that we can ultimately never do or be enough. It’s vital for parents to highlight the pitfalls of tying our self-worth to our accomplishments. This is a helpful first step in rewriting the script of their self-worth. Ideally, it’s best to do this before your teen is cut from the team, or doesn’t get the scholarship, or bombs the audition.

A Place to Belong

The gospel promises us a more certain place to anchor our self-worth, and a better place to ground our identity. For Christians, our identity is not something that we must create or build by our own efforts; rather, it is a gift that we receive:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:1-2).

When we embrace Jesus in faith, our identity and value are not built on what we do or don’t do but on what Jesus has done. In an age where young men and women face relentless pressure to stake their worth on what they create, the gospel promises us relief! As parents, teachers, friends, and leaders to our youth, point them to their identity as children of God. Remind them over and over again that in God’s eyes, they are not worth the sum-total of their successes and failures, but they are worth what Christ has done for them. This becomes especially important in preparing teens for the inevitable disappointments that come with the teenage years. We can affirm with them that rejection and failure hurt, and that it’s normal and healthy to feel discouraged when we don’t succeed at something that we had aimed for. But we can also remind them that God loves them every bit as much when they fail, as when they succeed because his love for us is not rooted in anything we do or don’t do. When we get an F in the class, are cut from the team, lose our job, or lose the relationship, the gospel is that God’s approval and acceptance never change!

A New Way to Obey

One of the concerns that arises out of building our identity on what we do is that it can create significant pressure to fit in with the crowd we want to belong to. Self-worth and peer pressure often go hand in hand because teens often look to a group of peers for their validation. So, if teen believes that their identity is found in making the team, they will do whatever is necessary to fit in with that team even if it means breaking rules or violating moral principles. The gospel tells us that because of Christ, we already have the approval of the one whose assessment of us matters more than anything, and therefore, we can live only to please an audience of one. Our teens can let go of their concern over what others think to the extent that they are deeply for pleasing the one who already accepts them. In other words, affirming their identity in Christ helps our teens resist the immense peer pressure that so many face.

When you step out that door…

When your teenage son or daughter steps out the door to hang out with their friends, try out for the play, take the SAT, or work their part-time job, who are they? Are they defined primarily as the athlete? The actor? The academic? Staking their identity on what they do will lead to relentless pressure and discouragement. The more important question for them to face is “whose” they are, and God’s word assures us that in Christ, our identity is found as God’s children.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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