Ask the Expert: Braces, Bullying, and Self-Esteem

Kids having braces is a common thing these days, so why are they still being bullied? We spoke to Jill M. Emanuele, Ph.D., from the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute to find out why and how we can help build kids’ self-esteem.

girl with braces

Kids can choose different colored bands for their braces to show off their personality.

With braces being a fairly common need in teens and tweens, why do some kids still feel self-conscious or get bullied for having them?

I think it’s the way that braces are different. In our society, particularly in that age group, how people look really relates directly to their popularity. And a good chunk of kids want to be popular. Their self-consciousness comes from the fear of whether they will be popular because now there’s something making them look different. I think that some kids take advantage of this by pointing out these differences and bullying those children with braces.

A lot of people get braces and want to hide them—a fact that our culture has embraced and has come up with invisible options such as Invisalign. We want kids to be proud and show their braces off. We want them to put it right out there and say, “Yep, I have braces. I’m proud of them. They are going to make my teeth healthy and look great.” There is a website ( where there are pictures of girls with big smiles showing off their braces. Their approach is having braces is a positive thing rather than hiding in fear.

If a kid gets braces and approaches it with fear and wants to hide, other kids pick up on that fear and that’s where a lot of the teasing really comes in and it really erodes their self-esteem.

How can I help boost my child’s self-esteem when she has braces or if my child needs braces, but we can’t afford them?

Parents are always looking for different ways to boost self-esteem. Modeling for your child is the number-one way. How you view the situation is predictive of how they will view the situation. Saying, Yeah, you look ugly or You are going to be different, and you have to hide this because kids are going to make fun of you—let’s do something different with your hair is not the approach you should take. The correct approach is to really model self-acceptance (You have crooked teeth, it’s who you are right now.), and for the child to really be able to say, I have crooked teeth right now, and perhaps I’ll get braces down the road to fix them.

Another thing would be to listen to your child to really hear her fears and concerns and reflect back on what you’re hearing—really sitting down with her and having a conversation rather than dancing around it. Parents sometimes rely on techniques such as judging, criticizing, and nagging when they get frustrated or are tired of fighting with their kids. These techniques don’t work. Listen and pay attention to your child but also make sure you provide appropriate structure that she needs to feel safe.

Try to build up and highlight your child’s strengths and praise her for them—not just for her looks. A lot of parents and people in society praise kids, especially girls, for their looks. The goal is to find attributes to praise other than looks. Praise talent, intellectual ability, sense of humor, or sports ability to produce well-rounded children who don’t rely on one thing to have their self-esteem based on.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for a child who is being bullied?

What really promotes bullying is when no one speaks up, when no one says anything. So we are always teaching and encouraging children to speak up and talk about. We want the kids who are being bullied to talk to an adult try to get help from parents and the school and learn how to speak to the bully and say I’m okay with who I am and I don’t know why you’re making fun of me—learn how to stand up for themselves.

Sometimes children aren’t able to do that and they need assistance from others, so the purpose of speaking to a parent is to figure out how they can handle the situation on their own. Parents may even want to get involved, tell the school what’s going on, and assist their child in getting assistance. It’s the school’s responsibility to provide education on bullying and teach children to stand up for each other. When the bully told by many different kids “Don’t make fun of or pick on that kid,” the bully pretty much stops.

Jill M. Emanuele, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center for the Child Mind Institute.