A New Perspective on Raising Flourishing Teens

Article at a glance:

  • Parents who promote positive behaviors rather than focusing on bad behaviors have flourishing teens.
  • Most positive behaviors stem from four foundational skills; self-control, self-esteem, values, and empathy.
  • Through careful parenting choices, teens can learn the skills needed to make good decisions.

More Do’s and Fewer Don’ts

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?

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

The brief defines four important behavioral traits that can help teens flourish:

  • Self-control
  • Self-esteem
  • Values
  • Empathy

All four develop throughout childhood and adolescence and can be encouraged by our parenting styles and choices.

Teaching Self-Control

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:

  • Let your kids struggle a bit with frustrating things so they can learn to work through them and regulate their emotions.
  • Provide opportunities for kids to help others so they can learn to put others’ needs before their own
  • When your child has an outburst or loses control, help them identify more appropriate ways they could have responded.

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.

A few ways to better foster self-esteem:

  • Avoid being too critical. Meet any disappointments without attacking or berating.
  • Set the bar high, but not too high. Reaching a goal should require real effort, but still be reasonably attainable.
  • Offer the right type of praise in helpful amounts. Set rewards ahead of time so they can be earned.
  • Allow some autonomy. The experience of profiting from a good choice or learning from a bad choice can promote self-esteem.
  • Focus on their behavior, not them. Teach kids that their actions or choices are at issue, not they themselves.

Guiding Values

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:

  • They feel autonomous to decide for themselves
  • They feel that discipline is appropriate and consistent
  • The better understand the “why” behind a parents expectations

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.

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:

  • Helping someone with their homework
  • Sharing with a classmate or sibling
  • Volunteering at a soup kitchen

Tips for teaching empathy:

  • 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 can make good decisions on their own.

Reviewed on May 3, 2021 by: Joseph Hershkop, M.D.
Joseph Hershkop, M.D.
Board-certified Pediatrician

Dr. Hershkop is a former New Yorker who really enjoys working with children from birth to age three, and is passionate about asthma, ADHD care, and dermatology. Languages: English, Hebrew

Saratoga Springs Office
Full Bio

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