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How to Boost Your Teen’s Self-Esteem without Feeding Their Approval Addiction

Who doesn’t like being rewarded for their hard work?  From stickers on exemplary school papers to receiving money for good grades, that little extra incentive not only makes the work all worth it, but also motivates children and builds their self-esteem through positive reinforcement, right?   Unfortunately, this methodology may be wrong.  According to the blog post “Are Parents & Teachers Raising Teenagers to be Approval Junkies?” author Kelly Pfeiffer states that using methods like token economies and reward systems that became popular in the 1970s actually create teenagers and young adults who do not feel confident and secure, as intended, but rather who are approval junkies.  Pfeiffer refers to a couple of books to reinforce this stance.  In one example, Punished by Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) by Alfie Kohn, the author reviews many studies that showed using methods like reward systems and even verbal praise does not ensure a child continues to behave in the same manner in the long run.  Instead, these children’s self-esteem becomes based not on their own internal self-evaluation, but rather on the judgment of others.  Pfeiffer also refers to findings by a team at the University of Ohio and published online in the Journal of Personality.  In their studies, researchers found that the most desirable craving for young adults from the choices of sex, a favorite food, seeing a best friend, drinking alcohol, or getting a paycheck was one of those that gave a boost to the student’s self-image.  These studies suggest that approval can be addicting, just like drugs and alcohol.

So how are parents supposed to build their teen’s self-confidence without turning their teens into “approval junkies?”  According to Jan Nelsen in the book Positive Discipline (Ballentine Books 2006), “Self-esteem can’t be given or received…it is developed through a sense of capability and the self-confidence gained from dealing with disappointments, solving problems, and having lots of opportunities to learn from mistakes.”  In a separate post by Pfeiffer entitled “Parenting Teens: Ways to Boost Self-Esteem & Build Confidence,” she gives a few suggestions as to how to help build your teen’s self-confidence:

  • Teach life skills to teenagers, such as doing their own laundry, cleaning the bathroom, or preparing dinner
  • Avoid being a helicopter parent and over-indulging by rescuing your teen from an uncomfortable situation, or making sure they own all of the “right” things
  • Spending quality time with your teen
  • Using encouraging words to express your belief in your teen and to allow your teen to self-evaluate

Parenting teens has its own set of challenges, especially if the parenting pattern thus far has been one of rewarding for behavior change.  It can be very difficult to find that line between approval and encouragement.  These blog posts and books and articles mentioned within them can certainly assist parents with finding this line, and for strategies for improving your teen’s self-esteem without external motivation.   Another great resource that can help is the Kidtelligent assessment!  The Kidtelligent assessment can give you insight into your teen and offer suggestions based on his or her unique personality type.  Find out more at, and follow us on Facebook at

Sarah is a guest mom writer for Kidtelligent. If you are interested in submitting an article to be shared on the Kidtelligent Blog and Facebook please email us at