In many ways, a small child is not so different from that of a teen: emotional, independent, necessarily (and appropriately) self-centered, and driven by internal processes they don’t fully understand. So, if you’re raising the former, you may as well start looking ahead to the latter.
But if that fills you with dread — if you worry you’ll have to live through Toddler 2: Return of the Mood Swings — fear not. There’s plenty you can do when your child is small to set them up to be happy, healthy adolescents. Here’s your playbook.
Establish your role in their lives.
It’s crucial to the dynamic you’ll share in your child’s teen years that they know what they can expect from you well before then. If they tell you how they feel, will you listen and validate those feelings? If they confess something they’ve done wrong, can they trust you to react reasonably? The more you can show them in childhood that you’re a safe place to bring hurts and fears, the more they’ll continue to do so long-term. And part of being that safe place is exhibiting restraint: Stanford Children’s Health advises asking your child if they want advice — or even a response — when they share thoughts and feelings, or if they just need you to listen.
Promote good mental health hygiene at home.
It’s estimated that 13 percent of teenagers suffer from depression, which means it’s of vital importance that you help your child establish coping skills early on. Parenting resource site Understood.org recommends taking the following steps to teach your child to manage difficult feelings:
- Be curious about their emotions, and ask them to name and describe them.
- Help them understand the source of those feelings.
- Remind them of the methods that have calmed them in the past, like listening to music or reading quietly.
- Jointly brainstorm a few other activities they might try to feel better.
- And, as mentioned above, really listen, remaining entirely present and showing that you’re aware of how important these feelings are to them. The more readily your child can weather big feelings, the more prepared they’ll be to safeguard their mental health later.
Model a healthy use of technology.
A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health found that the deciding factor in whether a teen has a healthy or unhealthy relationship with technology is — you guessed it — the way their parents relate to technology. And it’s not just about setting screen time limits or installing tracking software. The study found that the more parents talked to their kids about the prudent use of social media and tech, the more appropriate their kids’ attachment to technology turned out to be.
Don’t be weird about their bodies.
Kids can suffer from negative body image at any time in childhood — but during the teen years, these feelings tend to take on a new dimension, often resulting in feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and even depression. These negative feelings are more likely to occur if you’ve established a home in which focusing on weight or shape is commonplace, says the Mayo Clinic, which advises that parents reiterate to their kids “that you exercise and eat a balanced diet for your health, not just to look a certain way.”
In addition, it’s important that you keep the way you talk about your own body in check. If you’re lamenting the circumference of your thighs yet again, it sends a message that’s hard for kids to unlearn — and one they’ll likely apply to themselves. The Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding the subject of your child’s body altogether: “Rather than talking about physical attributes of your child or others, instead praise his or her personal characteristics such as strength, persistence, and kindness.”
Encourage their independence... and let go when it’s time.
When your child is a toddler, pushing them to be self-reliant and comfortable pursuing solo play and exploration is crucial. That’s the skill they’ll need to be OK outside your presence. Similarly, when your child becomes a teenager, it’s their job, developmentally, to separate from you emotionally, carving out their own identities and learning how to stand on their own.
Pulling away from you prepares them for the not-too-distant future in which they will live as adults without your constant guidance. (It’s biological. In fact, one study found that kids literally become less able to hear their parents as they traverse their teen years, largely because the big wide rest of the world is calling.) The more your child feels confident that you’re OK with them doing things on their own, the less constrained they’ll feel — which gives them far less to rebel against.
Let them be people.
The groundbreaking 2001 MIT report “Raising Teens” offers a bevy of parenting advice for those bringing up adolescents, but one nugget of wisdom bears repeating: “Treat each teen as an individual, distinct from siblings, stereotypes, his or her past, or your own past.” When we project the image of the moody, withdrawn teenager onto our kids, we shut down avenues of communication and understanding. If you want to stay connected with your child as they navigate the tricky waters of adolescence, stay zeroed in on their particular thoughts, ideas, needs, and emotions.