Few now disagree that our young people are facing a mental health crisis. The usual advice about how to raise happy teenagers focuses on setting limits, being a good role model, and if you’re lucky enough to have had time to think about it - "getting it right" in those first few years of their life. The latter includes being consistent, offering unconditional love, and balancing doing "for" your child with letting them accomplish things themselves.
These suggestions all have a role to play in adolescence. But in her new book, The Teen Interpreter, psychologist Dr Terri Apter argues that we need to focus on self-esteem rather than happiness.
I spoke to her about her desire to help parents better understand the challenges of raising teenagers, and to gain a new perspective on the irritability, criticism, anxiety and risk-taking behaviours so common during adolescence. What advice would she give parents to help them raise happy teenagers?
"To start, I wouldn’t aim for happiness," she began. "Your child’s happiness is not directly in your gift. It’s better to help them develop good interpersonal skills, plus a triad of interrelated qualities - agency, competence and self-esteem. These will allow them to flourish."
A teenager who possesses agency feels able to articulate what she really thinks, and say "no" as well as "yes". Competence is achieved through a willingness to persist in developing new skills and meeting new challenges, however daunting. To help your teenager develop competence, follow Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s advice: whenever they say they’ve "failed", encourage them to say instead they’re "not there yet". Agency and competence create a healthy self-esteem, allowing an adolescent to feel positive about herself and her ability to create a life that suits her.
Here’s a set of tips.
When your teenager lashes out, instead of expressing anger or anxiety, listen with what Apter calls a "warm curiosity". This is easier to do when you are able to interpret her signals that she needs you. For example, when they accuse you of not understanding them, don’t challenge. Instead, stay there, stay calm, and stay quiet. This gives them a chance to reflect. Did they really mean they no longer understand themselves? If so, how have they changed? Do those changes feel acceptable?
Such deeper self-understanding allows for what UCL professor Peter Fonagy terms "mentalisation", the effort an individual makes to understand another’s thoughts and feelings, which in turn explains their behaviour. If you can help your teenagers understand themselves, they’ll begin to understand others better. As a result, they’re more likely to be welcomed by their peers.
Finally, set aside your own expectations for your teenager’s future. Instead, help them discover their own path, and encourage them to work towards it.
Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist and author of Siblings: How to Handle Sibling Rivalry to Create Lifelong Loving Bonds
The Daily Telegraph