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Posted June 9, 2003 

By Lon Woodbury

Feeling that they are not “OK” is one of the most common characteristics shared by students in Emotional Growth/Therapeutic Boarding schools and programs. A “lack of self-confidence”, “poor self-esteem”, or a “negative self-image” are terms often used to describe adolescents who feel that something about them is just not right. Most of their the self-destructive activities are attempts to conceal or avoid this belief that they are not OK. Often they confess to feeling they are “damaged goods.”

Where would they get such an idea? Well, there are several sources in our society.

A favorite scapegoat is American advertising. It is true that kids are constantly exposed to the message that happiness comes from expensive material possessions such as designer clothes, or high tech entertainment equipment. Yet while it can definitely be a contributing factor, most kids are well aware that advertising is probably the most fictional part of the media, and they usually find it fairly easy to ignore.

Or, “it’s their parents fault; their parents don't care." Although this might be the accurate in a minority of cases, in my experience, children more frequently feel they are not OK as a result of what is called “permissive parenting”. This is a style of parenting in which parents won’t create or accept the boundaries against which their children need to struggle in order to achieve their necessary growth. Permissive parents usually work hard at parenting, and care very much. The problem occurs because these parents think they should protect their children from the consequences of their actions, rather than helping them learn as a result of experiencing those consequences.

Another reason adolescents experience the feeling of not being okay stems from negative peer pressure. Being accepted by a group is usually vital to teens’ sense of belonging. In order to “belong”, teens must conform to the dictates and styles of the group with which they wish to associate. This need has been made especially powerful in modern American society due to our 20th century education policies that requires large numbers of hormone-hopping, authority-testing teens to assemble in one place during the day. Our implementation of mass schooling through large schools that frequently have a thousand or more students, fosters an adolescent sub-culture where peer pressure in many ways is far more powerful than the authority of the school. Those who are not accepted start to wonder if something is wrong with them, and even some of those accepted by the group fear their shortcomings might be discovered.

Another source of adolescent insecurities is the strong competition for academic success. Often the message is conveyed that a “good” career overrides all other considerations, and the best career opportunities are granted to those who graduate from select top colleges. This creates a struggle to get into the “best” colleges, which is preceded by competition to get high scores on college entrance exams. Sometimes this sequence is an evolution of a lengthy struggle. It began with parents’ attempts to get their child into the “right” kindergarten, in an effort to create the possibility of getting into the “right” primary school, in hopes of getting into the “right” high school. The pressure was then on to achieve the highest test scores and grade point averages, to be accepted into one of the “best” colleges and thus have a chance at a great career. Children who buy into, or are forced into, this “dream” walk on eggshells throughout their schooling, always in fear of not measuring up. Those who are screened out are forced to confront their shortcomings and failure at a very early age.

Coupled with insecurity about not “being okay” as an adolescent, is a sense of confusion about the point at which one can actually be considered as an adult. Since our society no longer has any real “rite of passage”, the process of becoming an adult is very unclear to an adolescent. Arriving at the age in which they can legally drink alcohol or obtain a drivers license is not a challenge that will impress anyone.

Traditional societies always have had some kind of clearly defined “rite of passage.” Usually, selected members or the whole community participated in a ceremony and ritual that included moral teachings. Sometimes a test was also involved to demonstrate the acquisition of personal fitness and skill. Usually the rite of passage would occur around the time of puberty, or shortly thereafter, although the formal process would start in childhood. Successful completion of this process would allow the adolescent to be accepted as an adult by the whole community, with the accompanying privileges and responsibilities.

Though there are many indications that adolescents desire to be recognized when they have become adults, yet we have dispensed with a formal “rite of passage” in modern society, considering it to be unnecessary. Often the result is that an adolescent decides he or she is an adult either after the fact, or before it is truly the case. Worse yet, sometimes adolescents take it upon themselves to establish their own rites of passage, which are often humiliating and dangerous, usually taking the form of “hazing”, or initiation into some kind group which lacks adults altogether.

Children face a society that attempts to foster self-confidence through the acquisition of material possessions, acceptance by a particular peer group and academic success. These external forms of validation leave the child’s sense of self worth subject to the whims and pleasures of the larger group, a very shaky foundation that could disappear overnight.

In order to have emotional health, children need a strong internal sense of self worth, which comes from authentic success in overcoming real challenges. One way this can be achieved is through “rites of passage” that are developed by insightful adults. Another way is by learning self-discipline as a result of struggling with natural or parent-imposed boundaries. When children learn to anticipate and live with consequences, rather than being sheltered from the consequences of their actions, they develop skills that give them the confidence to “feel OK”. In this way their self-confidence becomes internalized, making them far less vulnerable to external circumstances.

Considering the tremendous pressures for external validation with which modern teens are faced, it is miraculous that most teens manage to muddle through childhood and become responsible adults. Fortunately, millions of parents, families and friends have struggled to ensure that children experience true success by overcoming real challenges, while attempting to shelter them from the harmful influences in our society.

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