Article at a glance:
The teen years can feel like a chorus of “don’ts” for both kids and parents. Don’t use drugs, don’t text and drive, don’t drink alcohol, and pretty-please don’t ever meet up with someone from the Internet. But do all these warnings turn out healthier young adults?
The brief pulls from a study called The Flourishing Families Project (FFP), which examined 500 families over a ten-year period. The study found that young people flourished when parents focused on encouraging positive behaviors instead of only discouraging bad behaviors.
“If we ignore the good, we tell children what they shouldn’t do, but don’t replace it with what they should do. We focus so much on eliminating bad behavior, but it is important to know that you can discourage bad behavior by encouraging good behavior.”
—Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker, Family Studies Center Research Brief
The brief defines four important behavioral traits that can help teens flourish:
All four develop throughout childhood and adolescence and can be encouraged by our parenting styles and choices.
In the study, self-control is defined as “the ability to manage one’s thoughts and emotions so that one can set goals, solve problems, and control impulses.”
Parents can best teach self-control by exhibiting it themselves. So, it is important to model good self-control in your own frustrating situations like traffic jams, a computer crashing, or a long line at the grocery store.
More tips from the study include:
As Padilla-Walker explains, self-esteem suffers most during early and middle adolescence when teens are experiencing the biggest changes from puberty combined with the stresses of school.
A few ways to better foster self-esteem:
The study reports the importance of guiding values during early adolescence (10-14 years old) when values are solidifying, noting that “once values are a part of how a child sees themselves, they usually don’t change all that much.”
Children need to accurately perceive parental values before they can learn or adopt them, so parents must “walk the walk” by modeling their own values consistently.
Children are most likely to adopt values when:
Empathy is the ability to understand and imagine the emotions and experiences of others. It’s the foundation of many of our socially positive behaviors and helps us to navigate relationships and avoid behaviors that could harm others.
The study notes “prosocial behavior,” or voluntary behavior meant to benefit another, as one of the most consistent behaviors to promote empathy.
Further, Padilla-Walker notes, prosocial behavior towards a stranger is “the most strongly related to empathy and the most directly protective against negative behaviors like delinquency and aggression.”
Examples of prosocial behavior might include:
Tips for teaching empathy:
Warning our kids against bad choices has its place. And really, most of us couldn’t stop if we tried. But a conscious effort to build their self-control, self-esteem, values, and empathy is more likely to develop our children into teens who can make good decisions on their own.