Adolescence is a time of challenge and opportunity, a time of growth for parent and child. At times you and your child may feel like pulling your hair out during their adolescent years. And, at other times, you may feel like pulling one another’s hair out. But there is a key that can help nurture health for parent and child during the adolescent years. It’s a key that the parent holds but both parent and teen benefit from it. Psychologists call this key “authoritative parenting.” Several studies have shown authoritative parenting beneficial for raising children. Among other things, studies suggest it promotes a positive self-concept and better self-control in children as well as better relationships between parents and their children. Why? Because it sets health, age-appropriate limits AND it offers warm relationships.
What makes a warm relationship between parent and child? In a warm relationship, parents show delight in their children. They are responsive to their children. Not only do they respond to their children on a consistent basis, but their responses match the children’s needs of the moment. Parents listen, observing their children’s behavior as well as hearing the message behind their words, and respond in a way that communicates understanding and affection. Warm parent-child relationships also involve sharing time together enjoying positive interactions.
In addition to warm relationships, authoritative parenting also involves healthy, age-appropriate limits. Children are not allowed to do whatever they want when they want. Instead, parents establish and enforce limits for their children’s safety and health. These limits help assure predictability and security for their children. Ironically, children more easily explore their world and their interests from the safety of well-established and lovingly enforced limits. Exploration helps them learn and grow. So, in effect, lovingly enforced, age-appropriate limits nurture our children’s ability to learn and grow.
Together, warm parenting combined with healthy, age-appropriate limits make up authoritative parenting, the type of parenting that promotes a healthy adolescence for both parent and adolescent. Know what I like about this? You can learn to practice authoritative parenting. You can practice warmth in your relationship and learn to lovingly enforce healthy limits. Here’s a few basics.
- Listen intently to your children’s verbal and nonverbal communications. Even their behaviors are communicating something for you to “hear.”
- Remain responsive to your children’s communications and needs.
- Establish healthy, age-appropriate limits and lovingly enforce those limits.
- Show consistency in your responsiveness to your children and in the enforcement of limits.
- As our children mature, allow the limits to change. Let them become increasingly “in charge” of their own decisions and consequences.
- Enjoy your maturing adolescent and your relationship with them.
If you have a child in middle school or approaching middle school, you’ll want to know this information to help protect their mental health. You already know that middle school is a time of change and transition. Middle school age youth encounter transitions in their physical bodies, their social lives, and their sense of growing independence. With all this transition, it’s no surprise that the middle school years represent potential mental health challenges.
A study involving more than 1,200 students between 11-years-old and 14-years-old found that riding a bike at least three times a week for a minimum of 6 weeks experienced an increase sense of well-being. Each student learned about cycling safety and outdoor bike maneuvering skills. They had fun riding their bike—raising their heart rate and having fun. The benefits of this activity seemed to arise from two things.
- One, the positive experience and physical activities of riding a bike.
- Two, the social experience of riding with other people.
I told you that you’d want to know this information if you had a child in middle school or nearing middle school. You can help increase your child’s sense of well-being by helping them learn to ride a bike and start the habit of riding a bike. Maybe they’d enjoy a spin class or simply going out to enjoy a bike ride several times a week. Whatever way your child might enjoy, bike riding may increase your child’s sense of well-being.
Does anyone in your family ever feel any anxiety, depression, loneliness, or fear of missing out (FOMO)? If you or your family have any of these feelings, let me suggest a 2-week experiment. Researchers at Iowa state University conducted this experiment with 230 participants and found it had a positive impact in just 2 weeks. Specifically, after 2 weeks of making this one change in their behavior, the participants reported lower anxiety, depression, loneliness, and FOMO. They also felt more positive emotions like excitement and pride. So, this one daily action led to both fewer negative emotions and more positive emotions.
What did they do to produce these results? They attempted to cut back their social media use to 30 minutes a day. That’s right, they attempted to use their social media only 30 minutes a day. Notice I used the word “attempted.” The participants agreed to use social media only 30 minutes a day, but sometimes exceeded the 30-minute time limit. Good news—even if they sometimes exceeded that 30-minute usage, they experienced the same results, fewer negative emotions and more positive emotions. It seems that simply putting in the effort to minimize social media usage and becoming more aware of one’s social media usage contributed to the positive results.
If you think cutting back on social media usage sounds too difficult, let me offer some suggestions to help.
- Increase your awareness of your social media usage. Set a timer. Use your phone settings to look up how much time you engage social media sites. Use a wellness app to monitor your time on social media. In whatever way you choose, the goal remains to increase your awareness of time spent on social media.
- Be kind to yourself. Show yourself compassion. It’s not easy to make changes. Social media apps are designed to keep you engaged so it may prove difficult to make this change. Stick with it. Don’t give up. Even attempting to do this brings positive results.
- Make it a 2-week experiment, not an indefinite change. Do it for 2-weeks then assess how well you did and the impact on your emotions and relationships. Have your feelings of anxiety or depression lessoned? Do you find yourself enjoying more face-to-face interactions? Do you feel less lonely? Are you sleeping better?
- If you don’t want to make it a lifestyle change, make it a “one-week-a-month change.” Even doing this for periods of time will have a positive effect. Take a social media vacation once a month or once a quarter…whatever you choose.
I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the impact that this experiment will have on you and your family. Less anxiety, less depression, less loneliness, more excitement…seems worth the try to me.
If you want to boost your teen’s brain power, start when they are children, before the time of the teen push for independence. Really, this way of boosting teen brain power is quite simple. Encourage them to read as children. A study of over 10,243 teens found reading for pleasure during childhood contributed to improved verbal learning, memory, speech development, and school academic achievement in the teen years.
Even more, reading for pleasure as a child was associated with fewer signs of stress and depression, improved attention, and fewer incidents of aggression and rule-breaking in teen.
But wait, there’s more. Children who read for pleasure also engaged in less screen time as a teen and slept longer.
The best results were found in those teens who read up to 12 hours a week as a child. That’s about one hour and 43 minutes a day. So, if you want to boost your teens brain power, awaken the joy of reading in them while they are still children. Here’s how to begin.
- Let your children see you reading for pleasure. Children follow our example. So, let them see you read for pleasure, not just for work. Talk about the fun things you’ve read about or the stories you read. Let them hear you talk about the adventures you enjoy while reading.
- Read to your children. When they are very young, read simple picture books. As they get older you can read children’s chapter books. Make it a fun time together by engaging them while reading rather than simply reading the page in a monotone voice. Take on the voice of each character. Ask questions about what your child thinks might happen next. React to surprising twists in the plot. Engage the story and your child as you read.
- As your children begin to read independently, read the same book they are reading. Talk about the book with them. Enjoy sharing your reactions and surprises to the book.
- Visit the library together. Walk through the stacks of books with your children and discover the joys of what you can learn and read. If your library has reading times, take your child to them.
- Depending on the kind of book your children enjoy, you can visit the places described in the book. For instance, if your child reads a book about the American revolution and you live near Philadelphia, take a road trip and visit the Liberty Bell. Reading about Walt Disney may lead up to a trip to Disneyland or reading about Martin Luther King may lead up to a trip to Atlanta. You get the idea. Let the books come alive by visiting a place associated with that book.
In December, 2021, the US Surgeon General issued an “advisory on the youth mental health crisis” that was “further exposed by COVID-19 Pandemic.” Even before the pandemic, our youth struggled with depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. In fact, this report noted that “high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%” during the decade prior to the pandemic. During that same period of time, high school students “seriously considering attempting suicide” increased by 36% and those who actually created a plan for suicide increased by 44%. And the pandemic only made the issue worse.
Many factors contribute to these statistics. In fact, our children have multiple stressors to deal with—pressures regarding performance, college and future career demands, parental expectations, self-expectations, comparisons…the list goes on. It is no wonder that in the midst of all this, our children and teens often develop a perfectionistic attitude; and that perfectionistic attitude can fuel depression and anxiety. What contributes to a child becoming a perfectionist? Here are a couple of contributors.
- Academic pressures. Grades, athletics, and extracurricular involvement become factors with which children and teens compare themselves with one another. Children and teens compete and strive to “be the best.” They may feel pressure to obtain good grades in “AP” classes to get into the best college possible, to become the top athlete to gain a college scholarship, or to become the premier musician or artist or actor in their school to gain a scholarship. If not put in proper perspective, each of these stresses can contribute to an attitude of perfectionism that contributes to depression and anxiety.
- Social pressures. Social media escalates social comparisons. The number of “likes” and “followers” becomes a quantitative measure of popularity. Edited photos to “improve” appearance, pictures of only happy days, and photos of friends having fun “without me” all promote perfectionism and fuel comparisons that impact our children’s and teen’s self-esteem…which leads to a third contributor to perfectionism.
- Low self-esteem. Children may think that becoming the best athlete, the best student, or the most popular peer will make them feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, this strategy backfires. No one can become the best of everything. Even the “best athlete” has competitors. And all the comparisons made to “become number one” only serves to further shatter self-esteem.
- Parental influences. A parent who wants their child to become the best they can be (and we all want that) can inadvertently contribute to their child’s perfectionism. In fact, a meta-analysis of 21 studies that included data from 7,000 college students found that parental expectations and criticisms increased students’ self-criticism and perfectionism. A second meta-analysis of studies completed between 1989 and 2021 and included data from 23,975 college students. This meta-analysis suggests that “parental expectations, criticism and their combined parental pressure increased” an “average of 40%” over those years. Parents have higher expectations and voice more criticism in reaction to the increased pressure on children in academic and social settings in general. These increased expectations and criticisms contribute to perfectionism. (See Rising Parental Expectations Linked to Perfectionism in College Students.)
If the pressures of society filter through the family to the child, what can a parent do to help their child and teen not become a perfectionist?
- Resolve your own perfectionism and fears. Our children and teens learn first and foremost from how we live our lives. If you struggle with perfectionism, address it. You’ll be happier and your children will be happier. You can begin by considering the tips below for yourself as well as your children.
- Set realistic expectations. There is more than one type of perfectionism. Self-critical perfectionism is what we often think of when we think of perfectionism. In self-critical perfectionism a person sets up high personal standards and criticizes themselves if they believe they fall short of that standard, experience a failure, or encounter an obstacle that temporarily sets them back. In personal standards perfection, on the other hand, a person sets high goals for themselves but does not become self-critical when they fall short. They strive to become the best they can be knowing that their growth is a process, a journey, not an end goal or destination. They maintain realistic expectations of growth. Developing personal standards perfection rather than self-critical perfection demands self-awareness and self-honesty. We must be honest about our abilities, strengths, desires, and goals. And doing this takes a measure of self-compassion.
- Practice self-compassion. Realize that everyone experiences temporary “failures” and setbacks. Those “failures” and setbacks are opportunities to learn and grow. Everyone is in the process of growing and none of us has achieved perfection. As a result, people who practice self-compassion treat themselves with kindness, encouragement, and support. They speak words of comfort to themselves rather than words of criticism, words of encouragement rather than words that reprimand, words of kindness rather than words that berate. Self-compassion will lead to greater success. Our children will learn to practice self-compassion when we practice self-compassion and when we offer them words of kindness, encouragement, and support when they feel discouraged or overwhelmed.
- Practice gratitude. Rather than falling prey to comparisons, practice gratitude for how you have grown, strengths and abilities you possess, and personal integrity that live. Acknowledge the positive aspects of yourself.
- Humbly celebrate the success of others. Really, there is very little that proves more humbling than celebrating another person’s success in an area where you also want to succeed. Find a way to “be happy” for another person’s success, to rejoice with them.
These five practices can help you limit your child’s perfectionism and nurture a healthy life of growth for your child.