Sustainable Happiness - Supporting Your Teen’s Competent Self

Adolescence can be a scary stage for parents, but it doesn’t have to be. With the general assumption that adolescence is a time filled with conflict, parents may feel anxious about their child approaching the teenage years. Even though most parents can remember their own adolescence, and recall how challenging and demanding it can be, they can still struggle to know how best to support their teenager.

Now, more than ever, the demands on teenagers are intense with social and academic obligations. It is undeniable that teens are under a lot of pressure. Combined with the fact that teens are not yet adults and their maturity is still developing, it is not uncommon for parents to be on the receiving end of emotional outbursts from their teens in reaction to both big stressors and little ones. But while this phase presents challenges, these same challenges provide opportunities for children to learn how to navigate the ups and downs of life.

As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “Adolescents are not ready to stand alone. [Instead] allow your teen both to turn to you and to try his wings without you.”*

Last month, we discussed the ‘all-powerful self’, which, as Drs. Pieper describes, is a “child’s temporary source of secondary happiness based on the illusion that the child can do and have everything.”* The all-powerful self explains typical and normal behavior seen in childhood, especially during toddlerhood and adolescence.

But if the all-powerful self is temporary, what comes next?

When a child matures out of the all-powerful self, they transition into the ultimate goal of childhood, defined in Smart Love by Drs. Pieper as the ‘competent self.’ The competent self and the all-powerful self both explain what drives our attempts to make ourselves happy, with the first coming from years of life experiences and maturity, and the latter coming from a lack of both. Once as adults, the world has taught us that we can’t always get what we want. Instead of engaging in the disappointments of not always getting what we want, we forgo the all-powerful self and its desires. We learn that putting in good efforts and making constructive choices provides a much more stable and reliable form of happiness.

A simplified example of the all-powerful self’s form of happiness versus the competent self’s would be a young child who believes that they can run faster than their older sibling. When the child loses the race, they are devastated; whereas the older and wiser competent self’s form of happiness is that even though the child loses the race, they feel good about their effort and personal achievements due to their weeks of training.

So how can parents support this transition?