How to raise happy teenagers

From cultivating creative outlets to promoting autonomy and structured thought, nurturing your teen’s mental health could have long-term physical benefits, too

Adolescence is a tricky time between parental influence waning and peer influence increasing, and parents shouldn't take it personally when their children spend more time with friends. Photo: gornostai_nastya / Pixabay
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A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association this month found that happier teenagers are more likely to become healthier adults, with a lowered risk of conditions such as insulin resistance, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Key findings in the research revealed that better mental health in young adults leads to not only a healthier and more robust mindset, but also a healthier body. “Fostering psychological assets in adolescence may … play an underappreciated role in shaping health inequities,” according to the report.

Ask any parent with children in the 13 to 19 age bracket and they might tell you that the phrase “happy teenager” is an oxymoron. It’s no secret that teens can be surly, uncommunicative and prone to outbursts and introversion at a time when they’re not only at the mercy of their hormones, but also torn between the influence of their parents and peers.

However, there are plenty of ways parents can make their teenage children feel nurtured and secure, laying the groundwork for them to become healthy young adults.

Inside the teenage brain

Teenage years can be fraught. Hormones, physical, mental and emotional changes, identity and independence, not to mention social media and advertising, all play a part in shaping an individual’s experience of adolescence.

“Teenage years are a window of sensitivity and a window of opportunity for brain development. It is going through massive changes, making it a very vulnerable time,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia.

“The frontal lobe, which is the ‘executive centre’ in charge of good decision-making, impulse control, planning and self-regulation is not fully formed until about 24 years of age, so parents have to be a bit more instructive in helping children think through problems in a step-by-step way.”

As it is still developing, the teen mind processes information differently from that of a fully formed adult.

“Due to the ongoing developments in the brain, it is difficult for a teen to process environmental changes or challenges,” says Neha Qazi, family psychoeducator and school liaison at Thrive Wellbeing Centre. “This also makes them more susceptible to mental health disorders. By the age of 25, the prefrontal cortex is fully developed, hence adults are more likely to understand and cope with changes reasonably.”

Signs of unhappiness and how parents can help

While pop culture has often painted a picture of the typically unhappy teen who lazes in bed all day and grunts replies to Mum and Dad, parents should keep an eye out for behaviours that can indicate lingering and abnormal dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

“Having a bad day — or three — is normal, but if that goes on for weeks it’s time to contact a professional,” says Afridi. “Any changes in academics will also be important to note.”

Changes in diet and sleep, an overuse of technology, unpredictable mood swings, avoiding social groups and gatherings and a lack of personal hygiene are all signs to look out for, as well as body language indicators such as physically withdrawing from touch and a lack of eye contact.

No matter what they are saying or doing, your teen still loves you and wants you to be involved in their life
Dr Catherine Musa, clinical psychologist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai

“Parents must consider their teens’ unique likes, dislikes and preferences,” says Qazi. “However, there are common tools that can be adapted, such as allowing for more autonomy and nurturing independence in the routine of their life choices.

“Structured thoughts, in which parents show teens how to think of the long-term consequences of their actions, can help the brain form connections to support independent decision-making in the future. Teens feel happy when trusted with independence and a structured thinking style will also help them feel secure.”

Qazi suggests facilitating creative interests, modelling self-care and praising effort rather than results and outcome, which will help to normalise failure and manage goal-orientated stress.

“Even though teens will often try to transgress rules, test boundaries and complain about them, clear and fair rules help them feel safe, when a lot of things in their lives are changing,” says Dr Catherine Musa, a clinical psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai. “If you involve your child in making the rules, they’ll be more likely to stick to them. Negotiating rules with your teen is also a way of showing that you respect your child’s growing maturity.”

Dealing with ‘I don’t want to talk about it’

Navigating life as the parent of a teenager will inevitably throw up a few well-worn phrases. High on that list (just below “Leave me alone” and “You don’t understand”) will be the conversation-ending “I don’t want to talk about it”.

“It can be challenging for parents when their teenager says they don't want to talk when something is clearly wrong,” says Dr Waleed Ahmed, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Abu Dhabi. “Parents need to strike a balance between respecting privacy and providing support. It’s important to give teenagers space and not pressure them to open up; this helps to create a sense of trust and makes it more likely that they will talk to you when they are ready.

“Sometimes teens don't want to talk about certain things because they are trying to process it themselves, or maybe it's something that is embarrassing or difficult for them to talk about. Being understanding and not getting angry or frustrated can help create an open and safe environment for them to share what’s on their mind.”

Although verbal communication channels may be temporarily closed, that doesn’t mean parents can’t still bond with their teenagers in different ways.

“No matter what they are saying or doing, your teen still loves you and wants you to be involved in their life,” says Musa. “Supportive and close family relationships give them a sense of belonging, which is very reassuring. Family routines such as evening meals, with screens off, preferably, weekend activities and outings all build and strengthen relationships with teenagers.

“Family traditions and rules are also very important. Even though your teen may rebel against them regularly, they also give them a sense of security, structure and belonging, and thus promote happiness.”

Ahmed adds: “Create a routine that is predictable. React consistently to their behaviour, and be available to them to give them a sense of security and stability at home. Giving your adolescent the freedom to make their own choices in regards to the family and shoulder responsibility can help them feel a sense of ownership and belonging.”

The happiness formula

Trying to define happiness is an impossible task as it means different things to different people. It can be especially difficult for teens who are more susceptible to advertising and external influences telling them what “should” make them happy.

“Unfortunately, happiness is increasingly regarded as a social construct,” says Qazi. “Social media gives unlimited exposure to how others define happiness, building mental representations of happiness based on someone else’s experience. In reality, this may differ significantly from our own.

“Happiness should be defined within the parameters of our personal experiences. Being mindful of what happiness looks like for us can help recreate experiences and reinforce feelings of happiness regularly.”

Afridi points to the acronym Perma as a way for teens and parents to check in with the tools that can lead to finding and maintaining happiness.

“The research in positive psychology has identified the happiness formula Perma, meaning if you live a life that is anchored in these principles, you are more likely to be happier and report higher levels of well-being,” explains Afridi. “It stands for: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments.”

Positive emotions include hope, interest, joy, love, compassion, pride, amusement and gratitude, which can be cultivated by engaging in activities that evoke them.

Engagement can be found in the absorption of an activity or skill that interests the teen.

Relationships can be built through cultivating and enjoying meaningful interactions with friends, family, peers and romantic partners.

Meaning can be achieved by doing something in the service of others.

And accomplishments can be earned by mastering something that then feeds into the cycle of self-esteem and self-confidence.

Updated: January 17, 2023, 4:00 AM