Care and Feeding

I Can’t Convince My Son to Love Himself

A teen boy looks upset. Two teen girls are in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Valeriy_G/iStock/Getty Images Plus and DGLimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son “Adam”, age 18, has had a major attitude shift over the past several months. For most of his childhood, Adam was an easygoing and happy kid. Suddenly, he’s become angry and resentful, specifically about his height. Adam is 5-foot-4, certainly on the shorter side for an American male, but not in any way unusually short. He has developed a fatalistic outlook around his stature and expresses his frustration on a daily basis.

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Adam believes that his height is going to doom him to loneliness and will sabotage his career. He frequently rants about women who are attracted to tall men. When I responded that plenty of short men have been able to find lasting, fulfilling relationships, he argued that the women in his generation are much more shallow and have been brainwashed into only being attracted to tall men who look like models. He has expressed that he feels upset with my husband and I for not giving him taller genes. Additionally, he has had a couple of job interviews that didn’t lead to job offers, and he always says that it probably went to a “6-foot-4 Chad.”

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It’s hard to have a conversation with him where he doesn’t wind up complaining about being 5-foot-4. I know from personal experience how painful it is to experience insecurity about one’s looks, but it hurts to hear him speak that way about himself and others. Adam has had so many advantages in life, but insists that he has no future in this world due to his stature. I tried to set a “no negative height talk” limit when he has conversations with the family, but that only lasted about a day. I’ve also mentioned that I’d pay for a therapist to work through his feelings about his height with him, which he shrugged off. He thinks it’s pointless because a therapist can’t make him taller and said it’s condescending and unfair to “expect him to accept a subpar existence.”

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I sympathize with him, but I’m exhausted. I don’t want to deal with these angry rants every time I talk to him, and I want him to have a better self-image. I think his bitterness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, he’s an adult, so I only have so much control over him.

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Is there any way that I can push him towards not being so angry about his height all the time?

— Height Plight

Dear Height Plight,

If Adam’s an adult, then no, you can’t “push” him toward height positivity. The best you can do at this point, is to counter each of his sentiments with solution-oriented questions. Things like, “You’re right, Adam. A therapist can’t make you taller. But it’s clear that you could use some strategies for coping with the fact that you can’t get taller. What kinds of strategies can you come up with on your own?” If he’s disinclined to brainstorm, suggest again that he seek the help of someone who can steer him in the right direction.

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It would be good for Adam to be reminded that many things about our physical appearance and stature are beyond our control, but in situations where we are capable of managing our mental health, nearly everything about our outlook and attitude are within our control. Adam needs an attitude adjustment, one that decenters height and emphasizes confidence. That’s the sort of undertaking that requires daily practice. It doesn’t sound like that will be easy for him to implement without some help, so it may be a good idea to revisit the idea of therapy. It will be his decision whether or not he wants to go, but encouraging him is the best step for you to take right now, as it seems that you may have exhausted your efforts to motivate him by yourself. Best wishes to you both.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My six-year-old has very big feelings. When she is in a good mood, she is the angel of sweetness and light, funny and full of energy. But when the slightest thing does not go her way, she throws an absolute fit. Screams, cries, and wails over the most minor issue. I feel like I have tried everything (ignoring, being stern, putting her in a time out until she can calm herself down) and nothing has helped. I’m exhausted by the constant roller coaster and I’m really worried that when something truly bad happens she will be inconsolable. Most people find her a joy to be around—it’s only those of us in the immediate family that regularly experience the deep lows. Is there anything else I could be doing? Will she grow out of it? Her 10-year-old sister never went through extremes like this so I am at a loss.

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— Tired of Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster

Dear Tired,

I have to ask this, because you didn’t list it among the “everything” you’ve tried: have you talked to your daughter when she’s upset? I mean really talked to her. Have you tried recapturing her attention while she’s crying – or just as she’s winding down – and asking her to try to tell you what she’s feeling? Do her feelings make her tummy hurt? Or her head? Does she feel like she could burst? Or sprout horns? Does she feel like her own evil twin? Ask her to explain in her own words what her anger feels like. Tell her you want to understand what’s going on in her mind and heart and body, because it may help you figure out how best to be there for her. Then, ask her what made her so upset. Even if it feels like the most minute thing in the world to you, let her know that you can understand why this incident left her feeling so out of control. Tell her grown-ups also feel lost and grumpy and out of control. And it’s scary and big and we don’t always know what to do with our feelings. And sometimes, grown-ups feel like screaming, crying and wailing, too. But instead, we try [insert whatever calming effort you’d like her to attempt here. It would be deep breathing. It could be hugging it out. It could be drawing or turning on music and dancing. Anything that redirects her anger and places her attention on something more constructive].

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This approach requires you to be more present for your six-year-old. It requires more of your time and undivided attention. It can feel tedious. Or silly. You may have to tinker with your timing, trying to engage her in conversation both in the moment and after it’s passed. And even after all of that, it’s not guaranteed to work. But most kids respond favorably to being seen and heard, especially when they’re feeling their worst. So it’s worth a few tries. Good luck!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a soon to be 9-year-old daughter who for some time now (probably over a year) tends to ask for confirmation if what she likes or what she wants to do or wear is cool, or pretty, basically “worthy.” Her personality used to be that if she liked it and found it interesting, she went for it. She still has some semblance of that but not like she used to. When she asks me things like if I think what she’s wearing or how her hair is done up looks pretty or if her friends will think it looks pretty, I respond, “Yes, I love it, because you’re beautiful and awesome 100 percent of the time and other opinions don’t matter if it makes you happy. That’s what really matters and everybody is allowed to have different interests and like different things.”

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I’m afraid that there is something I’m doing or saying that has subconsciously lowered her confidence. I’m pretty low maintenance when it comes to my looks, I maybe do partial face (not even full face) makeup and heels like 3 times a year. Yoga pants, tees and ponytail 95 percent of the time. I consider my relationship with my spouse, family, and friends meaningful and anchored in love, respect, and appreciation. So I’m confused when she approaches me with these types of questions, and I think back to my young teenage years when I didn’t have high confidence and anguished over others liking me. I miss my super confident, go-getter-spirited daughter and want to build that back up. How can I reignite her confidence?

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P.S.  I have not shared this concern with her at all.

— Build Back My Daughter’s Confidence

Dear BBMDC,

First, I want to reassure you. This probably isn’t about anything you’re saying or doing. Your behavior around hair and makeup hasn’t “subconsciously lowered” your daughter’s confidence. Peer approval is a big deal to almost-nine-year-olds (and it may continue to be a big deal for the remainder of her childhood and adolescence). Being liked, admired or validated by kids her own age can play a significant role in helping her establish a sense of self-acceptance. You and your spouse help with that, too, as do the rest of the people you consider to be part of her family and friend community. But she may be seeking validation from you about her style choices and overall “cool factor,” because it’s become really important to her that her same-age peers consider her to be pretty, fashionable, and interesting.

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Try finding out how things are going in her friend circles, at school and outside of school. Figure out if it might be helpful to provide her more opportunities to socialize with kids whose hobbies and interests are aligned with hers. She’s likely to find the acceptance she seeks among peers who consider the same things cool that she does. If she has a talent or skill that she’s proud of, encourage her to continue pursuing it, as talents and special skills can be big confidence-boosters. And keep doing what you’re doing: take her and her questions seriously, provide her validation when she seeks it, and keep communication open about what’s going on with her socially at school and elsewhere. The goal is to get your daughter to a point where she can answer her questions about whether or not she’s pretty or cool without asking anyone else—and that her answers will be resoundingly affirmative.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m thirteen years old and I hate my life.

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It may seem drastic to say so, but I don’t feel happy the way I am. I have severe anxiety and mild depression. I am paranoid. I am an introvert, and my best friend lives in another country with a seven-hour time difference. The other people at school either make light of bigotry and think it’s a joke that people were discriminated against, or are bigots themselves. I am a closeted lesbian in a very conservative area, and my parents seem to think I’m not sure if I even like girls at all when I know I do, as I pondered it for a year before confessing. My school counselor doesn’t take my concerns seriously. My parents don’t know me very well, and they often don’t start important conversations with me. I’ve grown up with strict parents who have expected me to obey the first time and then chided me for not having more friends. I love them but they don’t know me. I’m worried my sister is a psychopath. I’m worried my brother is going to be permanently scarred by my parents’ way of raising their last child (screaming at him until he obeys, saying he eats too much unhealthy food when they’re the ones feeding him, etc.). I’m the eldest, but I feel like I can’t take care of my siblings. I’m afraid of what I’m going to do. I’m on the verge of a breakdown and I don’t know who to talk to or what to do.

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But I also feel really ungrateful for the good life that I have. I’m not starving in the street. I’m not in a homophobic place like Poland or Lithuania. I’m not afflicted with a strong case of schizophrenia. I’m not being raised by a horrible family that doesn’t care about their kids. I live in a nice house, and my family is upper middle class. My family is left-leaning and accepting, even though they don’t think I’m sure about my sexuality. I see what is real to everyone else, and can, for the most part, think clearly. My parents, however misunderstanding and misguided they are, love me and my siblings more than anything. I feel like my problems are trivial.

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Am I right? Am I wrong? Who can I talk to? How can I help my parents take me seriously?

— Lost in Life

Dear Lost in Life,

You sound like a person who deeply considers herself, as well as those she cares about and the world around her. Being so thoughtful can make you feel frequently overwhelmed or exhausted, or, because so many things feel like they’re beyond your control, discouraged. Know this: you deserve to be taken seriously. You deserve to be heard. You deserve for your feelings to be accepted as real and genuine. You deserve ease and rest and the occasional respite from worry.

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It’s hard to tell from your letter what you mean by “I’m afraid of what I’m going to do,” but if you are worried you are going to harm yourself, please seek help immediately. If there’s no one in your immediate orbit that you feel you can trust—a teacher, a counselor, a doctor, a parent or loved one—there are free national and state crisis and counseling hotlines you can call. YouthLine is one option, as is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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It is hard to be 13. I’m sorry to hear that you feel like your school counselor is dismissive and your parents don’t understand you. Sometimes people don’t know how to be understanding, helpful or supportive, despite their good intentions or their sincere desire to be there for you. Those shortcomings are not yours to own. You aren’t difficult to believe or to understand.

Is there anyone in your life with whom you feel safe, anyone with whom you think you can be your most authentic self? Is there a teacher in whom you may be able to confide? Your doctor? Is it possible to appeal to your parents for help connecting with a counselor or group that might be able to provide you some support or solidarity? If at all possible, try to impress upon someone you think may be able to hear and help you that you’re feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about how best to take care of yourself right now.

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Remember, too, that at 13, despite being the eldest sibling, your only caretaking obligation is to yourself. Though your concern for your brother is understandable, you aren’t responsible for raising him, protecting him, or ensuring his well-being. That’s still your parents’ responsibility— and the responsibility of any other adults they may reach out to for assistance with the task.

I sincerely hope you feel better soon.

—Stacia

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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