Is Your Kid the Shopper or the Merchandise?

Many kids struggle with low self esteem. As a parent, this is hard to deal with, especially when kids are having a hard time with their peer relationships. No matter whether they are being teased, left out of weekend plans, or ignored on someone’s Instagram post…it all hurts.  As parents we are often powerless against our children’s negative thinking because no matter how many times we tell them how beautiful, wonderful, funny, smart, and interesting they are, we get the classic line “You’re just saying that cause you’re my Dad (Mom).” There’s no defense against this because mostly they’re right: we are biased. But we are also powerless in fighting negative thinking because self-confidence comes from within.

A lot of my job as a psychologist revolves around helping kids to cultivate a positive sense of themselves. The world is seemingly divided into Shoppers and Merchandise. I often use this metaphor to help kids think about themselves in a different light, in a way that empowers them to build a tailor-made social network that is reliable over time. Let me explain:

The problem with being the Merchandise

Many kids (and adults) who struggle with low self esteem think of themselves as Merchandise. They feel that they need to change something about their packaging (the way they look, the topics they talk about, the way they talk, the way they dress) in order to attract and maintain relationships. They are constantly making adjustments to themselves to better fit the potential Shoppers (sought-after peers) out there.

The problem with being Merchandise is that they are always dependent on the attention of Shoppers to either pick them up or let them down. The fear of rejection is a powerful inhibitor here, as it’s very hard for Merchandise to hop off the shelf into someone’s cart, because a Shopper might look at them and say, “Ewwwww I don’t want you in my cart!”

Merchandise never truly feels safe in relationships, because Merchandise only shares things that might be of value to potential Shoppers. At the same time, Merchandise must hold back or hide the things Shoppers might not find interesting.

I worked with a college age boy who was very passionate about building models. He shared this information with no one, fearing that people would laugh at him for having such a “childish” hobby. He had a history of being unable to make and maintain friendships. We discussed what it would be like to begin talking about his hobby and actually finding a friend or group of friends with the same passion for models. The sense of security in this would be unlike any other peer relationship he’s had because he’d know his friends really see him for who he is…and like him. Herein lies the key to being a Shopper.

How to be a Shopper

The key to being a Shopper is really having a sense of who you are and what you like. Once children have this knowledge, they can set out to try and find these qualities in their peers. However, this is especially hard for kids who are naturally worried about what other people think of them because they fear being rejected. So the idea of actively expressing these passions to others is very scary. So how can we parents help our kids to be Shoppers?

The first step is helping kids figure out what they like. Often kids start with activities that they like to do with friends, but encouraging kids to think about what they like or want in relationships is probably more important.

So let’s ask our kids which qualities they would like in a friend. This can be a hard exercise for kids, but my father once said that if you don’t know what you like, then start with things you don’t like. We can help our kids process both the positive and negative qualities of their interactions with peers to form a unique picture of their ideal friend. Essentially, we’re creating a shopping list.  

Once the list is formed, I often suggest that kids take a few weeks to simply look around them at school and in social situations. They are supposed to get a layout of the store and the merchandise on display before actually shopping.

This middle step of being an observer allows for two things to happen. First, kids can ease into the idea of actually reaching out and picking friends, which can provoke a lot of anxiety as it involves the risk of rejection. Second, by observing first, kids can begin to feel like a Shopper and in doing so, start to move away from the idea of being the Merchandise. They’re now looking instead of being looked at.

Observing may in fact be the most important step in all of this. Observing helps kids to stop trying to keep up with the cool kids and to realize that they don’t have to work so hard. Observing also helps kids to look at their peers with a critical eye, allowing them to start seeing some of the positive and negative qualities of the people they’ve been chasing as the cool kids all this time.

The last step in becoming a Shopper is actually shopping. I’ve often seen that the observation process allows many kids to re-notice old friends who may not have made the cool cut: the friend from elementary school who fell to the wayside in middle school; the one we absolutely loved who was cast aside for the obnoxious cool friends. Additionally, new Shoppers seem to generally gravitate toward more approachable, kind, and sensitive kids making the task of reaching out much easier. I often encourage teens to listen to their peers in class for interesting responses. Several have then been able to approach their peers by simply saying “I liked what you said in class”.

A final word of caution to parents reading this…Helping our kids see themselves as Shoppers rather than Merchandise is a process that takes a lot of time, perhaps even years! I suggest many conversations about likes and dislikes in evaluating current friends and known associates to really develop that shopping list before moving on. As my wife has told me countless times, "You can’t be a good shopper without a good list!"