Labeling Teens Is More Powerful Than We Think


It’s natural for us to try to understand the world around us so that we can make sense of it. Unfortunately, this often results in labeling the people we come in contact with regularly.

It’s easier to feel like we “know” somebody if we can put them into a nice neat box with a label. For many troubled teens, getting stuck with a label at school can make their lives a lot more difficult.

Why do we label people?

As a species, humans want to understand what’s going on to make sense of it and control it. From an evolutionary standpoint, we need to understand anything that might be dangerous to avoid it. Likewise, it’s important to know what’s good for us so that we can use it well.

Fundamentally, this is why it’s handy to know that animals like lions can kill us and why we label them as dangerous. Even today, we categorize some pets as too dangerous to legally own (i.e., lions) and some pets as harmless (i.e., gerbils). This is also why debates rage on about which pets can be labeled as dangerous even though we might love them and want to keep them (i.e., certain dog breeds).

It makes sense that humans would label things like pets, or even food, for safety reasons. We use words like “edible” or “inedible” to describe the foods we can and cannot eat. If something is labeled as inedible, we know it’s dangerous to eat it.

But, why do we label other people?

Though humans need to be social and feel like we belong, we are also a tribal species. We tend to gather together with like-minded people who make us feel safe. They have our backs, and we have theirs. Unfortunately, these tribal tendencies can backfire on us. When someone isn’t part of the in-group, they become part of the out-group.

History has shown repeatedly that people will go to great lengths to stomp out their enemies. Battles have been fought over land, food, water, religion, race, and everything else that divides us. People want to feel safe, and they will do whatever they feel is necessary to protect themselves and their home. Thus, the label “enemy” is given to the opposing side, and all sorts of evils feel justified.

Just as we label things like animals or plants that we deem to be dangerous, we label people who we deem to be dangerous.

However, not all labels describe danger. Sometimes, the labels that we give people can seem harmless. Words like “jock” or “nerd” conjure an image of a certain type of person, but neither of them is automatically threatening. Those labels help us sort people into categories that make it easier to quickly assess their danger and ability. Labels are often linked to stereotypes that make it easier for us to feel like we understand someone even though we might not know them.

How does labeling affect teens?

If your troubled teen is being called names and being labeled at school, they might be struggling to shake off their label to be seen as an individual. Labeling can affect teens in different ways depending on a couple of factors.

Who is labeling them?

When teens are labeled by their peers, they might feel like they don’t fit in or like they aren’t truly being seen. Negative labels can have negative social impacts on troubled teens. Even seemingly positive labels can make someone feel short-changed or misunderstood.

When their teachers label teens, other complications can arise. If a teacher starts labeling a student, the student can get in more trouble than their peers or has different opportunities.

Is it a positive or negative label?

Some labels can seem good at the moment (i.e., popular, cute, smart, etc.), but others can be hurtful (i.e., weird, slacker, troublemaker, etc.). If a teen gets a negative label, whether, from their peers or a teacher, it can be tough for them to bounce back from it. Once a negative label has been given, other people tend to glom onto that label and treat it as truth.

If the label is positive, the same thing tends to happen. Kids who get positive labels like “smart” or “hardworking” can come into a new classroom and be perceived as showing their label immediately. The longer the label sticks around, the more people treat it as truth.

As a parent, it’s important to note that people (both teens and adults) are prone to accepting labels as truth. Once the label is accepted, people start to act on it. As more people act on it, the label is often reinforced and can gain more traction.

How can you help your teen reverse a negative label?

If your troubled teen has a negative label at school, you may need to step in to help. This is especially true if they’re being labeled by teachers or other school faculty. Here are a few ways you can step in to help your teen reverse a negative label.

  • Set up a meeting with their teacher to discuss the problem. If a teacher is negatively labeling your troubled teen and affecting their performance at school, meet with the teacher to discuss it. If the problem is severe, you may need to pull in the principal or vice principal for the meeting.
  • Talk to your teen about their goals. If your teen has a label from their peers that they don’t like, the root issue might be that your teen wants to be known for something else. For example, they might want to be known for being good at basketball, but their peers don’t currently see them that way. If your teen would rather be known for something else, help them develop a plan to achieve that goal.
  • Talk to your teen about their self-worth. Sometimes, other kids are just mean. They might be giving your teen a negative label completely out of spite and to be hurtful. If that’s the case, remind your teen that other people do not decide their self-worth. They are valuable as a person with or without the approval of their peers.

If you are worried that your troubled teen might be struggling with depression due to being negatively labeled, consider getting professional help. Teens need to feel valued and need to have healthy self-esteem even in the face of adversity.

Ttroubled teens don’t always have the necessary life experience to move past a negative label and build their self-esteem. If you are looking for help finding the best therapeutic services for your teen, contact us at Help Your Teen Now.

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