By Kelly Huegel Madrone, author of LGBTQ: The Survival Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens
When adults find out that I wrote a survival guide for LGBTQ kids and teens, they frequently ask me what they can do to help support kids in their area. Parents reach out to ask about how to support their child who just came out (or who they suspect may be queer) or how to be a safe space for their children’s LGBTQ friends. Teachers ask how they can make their classrooms feel welcoming.
Each time, after asking some questions I go through a standard series of suggestions (many of which I’ve outlined in my previous blog posts). But those responses are almost always about supporting queer kids as queer kids. One of the most important ways we can support LGBTQ young people is by doing something that benefits all young people: foster their self-esteem.
My Struggle with Self-Esteem
A few weeks ago I had the honor of talking to a group of young people at an LGBTQ community center in Florida. It was casual. We sat cross-legged on couches, some of the kids cradling overstuffed pillows. I talked to them about some of my experiences as a kid growing up queer in rural Pennsylvania. I was real with them. I took them into my experiences with depression, an eating disorder, self-cutting, and an eventual suicide attempt that landed me briefly in a hospital psychiatric unit.
Then I told them about my life now. About a career I love where I get to spend most of my time helping people. About my incredible wife. About our two kids—one who just turned one and the other about to turn four. About loving where we live. And about our incredible friends.
And the mood shifted. The heads that were nodding in empathy when I talked about my struggles stopped, and the eyes that had held sadness filled with something that looked like hope.
Then we talked about how I got there. About how one can transition from the deep self-hate that often comes from years of harassment and internalized queer-phobia to a place of self-love and self-esteem. And that’s something pretty much all of us could use more of.
Our Role in Helping Kids
I never like to talk exclusively about how to help LGBTQ young people. I always want to include those who bully too. How do we help them? How do we change the world so that we’re no longer dealing with ignorance-based hate and harassment? We can’t do that until we’re all on board, until we all—and that includes us as parents, teachers, and other adults—foster greater self-esteem within ourselves and among young people.
We’ve all had that teacher who was hard on us. Maybe the teacher was even hard on most kids. Chances are these teachers were also hard on themselves in ways we never saw.
It’s up to us, as the people these kids are looking to for help, to tend our own gardens first. Only then can we truly support others in creating fertile ground for their own self-esteem to grow.
How We Can Do It
In addition to cultivating your own self-esteem, here are some tips for nurturing the kids around you:
- Compliment them. I know it seems basic, but being recognized counts for a lot. Yes, kids might roll their eyes, but they do hear you. Keep in mind that the most impactful and positive comments have to do with things related to our actions, which are under our control, rather than our “gifts.” In her excellent book Mindset, researcher Carol Dweck discusses the value of fostering a “growth” mindset versus a “fixed” mindset. The latter is the concept that, in short, either we’re born with “gifts” or we’re not. Intelligence and aptitude are relatively limited. The former concept—growth mindset—holds that we can develop our skills and intelligence. To encourage a growth mindset in kids, compliment them on things like their work ethic rather than on how smart they are. Or you might say, “You have such great style,” instead of, “You’re beautiful.” In each case, the former speaks to a growth mindset, the latter to fixed.
- Give kids chances to succeed and support them in doing that. Even if the chances seem tiny, they can make a big difference. I see this all the time with our nearly four-year-old. Recently she really wanted to help make her baby sibling’s birthday cake, but obviously there’s a lot she is not yet capable of. So I isolated the tasks that she can do, such as measuring out the dry ingredients, adding them to the bowl, and mixing everything together. She was so proud of being able to contribute to the celebration in a meaningful way.
- Encourage kids to identify and cultivate their strengths and help them do it. One of my proudest days in high school (and those were few and far between, let me tell you) was when one of my favorite teachers held me after class. She told me she was going to be out one day the next week and said that since I seemed to really enjoy the metaphysical poets we’d been reading, she was wondering if I would like to take one of the poems on the lesson plan for that day and “teach” it to the class. She gave me her notes and encouraged me to make my own. It was nerve-racking for me and required me to stretch, but that vote of confidence is something that has clearly stuck with me. (And I ended up getting a degree in secondary English education.)
- Like them. I know, I know—as teachers and parents, it’s not really our “job” to like kids all the time. We’re there to nurture them, to teach them, and—in the case of parents—to love them. Sometimes, with some kids, it might feel hard to like them. But when kids sense through your words and actions that you, as a central adult figure in their lives, don’t like them, it has a deep and lasting impact—one that makes it harder for them to like themselves. As much as possible, as difficult as the situation with a kid might be at any given time, look for the positives, and then foster them. Seek out and support what’s going well, even if it’s something tiny. Remember—you were once there too. Your willingness to hang in there with kids goes a long way.
- Model it. As adults, modeling is one of the most powerful ways we can make a lasting impact on kids. Model self-esteem, and they’re more likely to adopt it for themselves. And remember that the opposite is true as well.
Kelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, writing coach, and speaker. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to LGBT people and their families. The author of two books and more than 100 published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in New Mexico with her wife Mala and their daughters. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter @LGBTQguide or visit her website at kellymadrone.com.
Kelly is the author of LGBTQ: The Survival Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.
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