The United States is in an age when media dictates societal norms. Teens need a filter to identify healthy boundaries, choose reactions to their changing world, and find a sense of identity and connectedness. Childhood experiences have laid a foundation in the development of self-esteem and interactions with the world, yet these are not permanent. While peers remain a very strong influence, adjustments to puberty are made easier with support of parents, family, and adult mentor relations.
A strong predictor of the developing adolescent’s self-esteem is that of body image. Timing of puberty in relation to their age group strongly influences their responses to this transition. Reactions to this change and its timing is nearly opposite between males and females. While there is no set time frame for changes, peer identification steers their social encounters. Adolescents often hang out with peers that look similar to them.
If changes occur early, females are often anxious, depressed, and may begin to act out or “hang-out” with older people engaging in risky behaviors. Or perhaps they may turn to destructive eating disorders in an attempt to reduce size and embrace their idea of the perfect girl—usually this is a very thin image in American media. Males tend to embrace the changes in body shapes occurring in puberty. Masculine image of muscles and athletics are emphasized in US society, so the changes are more welcome. Those individuals struggling with gender identity may be further at risk during body changes. Response to this conflict may produce dangerous eating behaviors or risky acts.
Because changes in body shapes affect males and females differently, parents need to be aware of the individual’s needs. A sense of belonging and acceptance will enable healthy self-esteem and body image. By encouraging communication, knowing what their interests are and being involved with their daily lives, parents can be a safe vessel in a stormy time of change. Emotions are heightened and adolescent-parent interactions may be tense at times. The phrase “pick your battles” is useful when addressing resistance from teens. While their responses may seem disrespectful or irrational, it is quite natural for teens to seek some autonomy. Their world is changing. A balance of give and take, while keeping firm expectations and a presence in their daily activities will give a strong message of love.
“Outside stressors” such as family and peer relations, and school, work expectations also play a vital role in how they see themselves. Adolescents with higher stress factors (lower educational and employment options, dangerous examples of risky behaviors or alcohol/drug abuse, and less family structure) can suffer the most and are strongly influenced by the messages in media and peer groups. To reduce the effects of stress and hardships, adolescents need a strong support base from parent, family, or mentors. Such relationships will allow them to explore their changes in a way that encourages acceptance and a healthy body-image. In this way, they will be less vulnerable to internal insecurities or self-doubt.