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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?

Having stable and steady patience, and avoiding power struggles and conflict will help expedite a child’s maturation. When parents lose their patience; it’s okay - parenting is really tough. But parents need to keep in mind that our children are not trying to make us upset, but are just trying to make themselves happy - and really, what’s so wrong with that? We all want to be happy, but our children need guidance to learn how best to attain stable happiness. It’s their lack of maturity and life experiences which causes them to believe, for example, that they don’t need to study to perform well on a test. It takes many years to learn how to feel good about the effort and time it takes to achieve our goals and fulfill our happiness.

In reality, power struggles and conflict actually work to prevent children from realizing healthy forms of happiness. They cause the all-powerful self to focus in on what it cannot have ("if only I could have a new phone, I would be happy.”) When parents allow their child to realize on their own that the joy from a new phone is temporary, it advances their child’s maturity toward sustainable happiness.

When all of a child’s developmental needs are met, then the competent self can be actualized. This means that their physical, intellectual, and most importantly, emotional needs are met.

“Teens who can count on parents to be responsive to their developmental needs are not attracted by self-destructive or antisocial sources of enjoyment. If you refuse to let your adolescent lean on you whenever he wishes, you induce him to rely on less constructive forms of soothing himself.”*

So through the teenage years parents should try their best to maintain a close relationship and open lines of communication with their teenagers, as a positive relationship between parents and teens is the best way to help them make healthy choices and turn towards healthy relationships. Below are some helpful suggestions to keep in mind when parenting a teenager:

• Know that your teen is trying to figure things out. The losses they experience can be quite significant, so be patient and offer compassion and perspective.

• Try and remember hard times during your own teen years and think what helped you (or would have helped you) the best.

• When emotional explosions occur, know that many teens go through this. It doesn’t make it easier, but sometimes it’s helpful to know that it is a part of their development.

• Connect with your teen as often as you can, through the good and bad.

“Wow - you got an A! Good for you! What do you think helped you the most?”

“I’m sorry you didn’t make the team. Do you want to talk about it?” Then offer a compassionate ear, absolutely free from judgement or lectures. Be available to hear all of your teens feelings - this will make them feel understood, closer to you as a parent, and increase the chances that they will seek your help the next time something doesn’t go their way.

“I’m sorry Jill is angry with you. Would you like to go see that new movie with me?” Offer an activity that they enjoy and that you know will bring a smile to their face.

• Do not be a hurdle in the long journey towards the competent self - life provides enough hurdles on its own.

And remember, there is no such thing as a perfect parent. All parents lose their patience, but after things have calmed down, turn back to your teen with an apology and reaffirm your love for them. This will let them know that your love is unconditional.

Excerpts from:

* Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011.


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