Q: My 14-year-old daughter always seems so confident. I've never worried about her self-esteem "¦ she has good grades, creative abilities, friends and enjoys extracurricular activities. But on television recently they mentioned a serious problem among many young teen girls. They're going online and sending out pictures of themselves, asking complete strangers if they are pretty or not. This is really scary and it's also dangerous. How can I find out if my daughter's done this? I'm afraid to ask. — Worried Mom
A: It's not always a good thing that technology gives us the ability to communicate with anyone and everyone. This kind of communication is a privilege, but it seems that parents and society in general have not tried to find a way to ensure that all privileges go hand in hand with responsibility.
Yes, this trend is real. You might bring up the subject by telling your daughter you saw this issue discussed on one of the morning shows and ask what she thinks about it. Then ask if any of her friends do this.
You can and should talk about the very real dangers of online predators looking for insecure or vulnerable children. Even worse, teens who ask for approval of their looks are perfect targets for online bullies who can devastate them with nasty replies.
But the real problem is WHY does this happen? We can't just lecture about the dangers; we need to understand and deal with the reasons for this behavior in order to prevent it from happening. We need to understand that true self-esteem is not based on the way we look, but based on our inner feelings about ourselves.
We need to feel capable, worthwhile and competent, but we also need to feel lovable "¦ lovable for just being, not for achieving a single thing.
Both of these feelings — feeling capable and feeling lovable — must be nurtured in our children to give them a strong and well-balanced self-image. Moreover, we need to do this not only when they are cute little preschoolers, but right on to adulthood.
Think about your own childhood and self-image, and then think about right now. We continue to need approval throughout life for both being capable and for just being lovable. What if that doesn't happen for us? Won't we try to compensate or make up for what's missing? Same goes for teens.
Don't just praise your child's achievements or competence; he/she needs to feel important for a sense of humor, for persistence and resilience, for a sense of fairness and honesty, for an appreciation of beauty, for an ability to listen to others and perceive beyond the words, for a generosity of spirit, for curiosity, for the willingness to try and the courage to risk. These are traits based on the uniqueness and "lovableness" of each child.
When kids are little they got lots of praise, mostly for achievements. But we often forget to keep praising them after they are in grade school.
Even though WE continue to need praise, (often for being lovable) somehow we think they don't need it.
Then we wonder why they go online to ask someone else for approval.
Don't stop praising. Keep on telling them, in many ways, even when they roll their eyes at you, that they are both lovable and capable.
Evelyn Petersen is an award-winning parenting columnist and early childhood educator and author who lives in Traverse City; see her website at askevelyn.com.