A new perspective on raising flourishing teens

Article at a glance:

  • New study shows flourishing teens have parents that promote positive behaviors
  • Most positive behaviors stem from four foundation skills
  • These skills can be taught and encouraged through careful parenting choices

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?

A recent research brief from Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life says focusing only on avoiding risky behaviors may be insufficient. 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

Teaching our youth to flourish

By focusing on four important behavioral traits, we can help our youth not only avoid bad behavior, but flourish. The brief defines these traits as self-control, self-esteem, values, and empathy. All four develop throughout childhood and adolescence and can be encouraged by our parenting styles and choices.

Teaching self-control

  • Model self-control in frustrating situations like traffic jams, a computer crashing, or a long line at the grocery store.
  • Let your kids struggle a bit with frustration and anger instead of rescuing them.
  • When kids blow up, talk calmly—when they’ve calmed down—about ways they might have channeled their emotions and stayed in control.
  • Give kids opportunities to experience putting the needs of others ahead of their own. For example, taking care of pets and younger siblings, or shoveling a snowy driveway for a neighbor before breakfast.

Boys often struggle more with self-control in certain situations. Additional modeling— especially from dads—can help.


Fostering self-esteem

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.

  • Avoid being too critical. Setting the bar high, but not out of reach is important. Make your expectations clear and meet any disappointments without attacking or berating.
  • Offer the right type of praise in helpful amounts. Excessive praise can feel false and make kids doubt the truth of all our kind words. Showering them with praise, gifts, or money each time they accomplish something also teaches them to look outside themselves for rewards. When they succeed, praise their effort, out-of-the-box thinking, or diligence. “Great job seeing your paper through to the end. I know it wasn’t your favorite topic.” is more helpful than, “You’re so smart.
  • Allow some autonomy. The experience of profiting from a good choice or learning from a bad choice can promote self-esteem. Poor choices often carry their own natural consequences. Chastising them may not be as helpful as a calm discussion and a listening ear to help them decide what they might do differently next time.
  • Focus on their behavior, not them. Just like praise works better when it focuses on behavior, so does criticism. When our kids mess up, talk about the action or words they might change next time instead of implying they are the problem.

Guiding kids to develop values

  • Actions speak louder than words, so model your positive values and avoid lectures. However, kids can be helped to understand what their parents are modeling with short explanations. A statement like, “We’re going to wait a couple of months to buy a new TV because we want to get your college savings account up to scratch first,” is more helpful than a lecture on the importance of higher education.
  • Make sure your actions consistently match your values. It’s hard to model honesty if your child catches you lying about his or her age for the cheaper movie ticket.
  • Teens are more likely to adopt our values when they feel it is their own choice and that we haven’t forced our values on them. Teens often rebel when we enforce our values without explanation or by using punishments they see as too harsh.

Many studies have reported boys experiencing lower levels of empathy. Like aggressive behavior, this could be a product of our culture we can counteract with modeling and discussion.


Helping kids develop empathy

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.

  • Model and encourage pro-social behaviors like volunteering, sharing, and other actions that help strangers or people who seem different than your family.
  • When kids fight, we can help them think through what the other person might be feeling. Appreciating other perspectives is an essential step in learning empathy.
  • Use books and TV shows as a chance to examine the emotions and motivations of characters. Ask questions like, “How do you think he felt when they laughed at him?” and, “Why do you think she didn’t tell him the money was from her?”
  • Model your empathy by asking for their perspective and listening while they share their feelings.

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 don’t need constant warnings.

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