Do You Praise Your Teen Effectively?

Praising the wrong things can do more harm than good.

Posted Aug 27, 2020

 amigos3D/Pixabay
Source: amigos3D/Pixabay

I try not to tell my kids that I am proud of them.

Taken out of context, that statement probably sounds very strange. Aren’t we supposed to tell our kids that we are proud of them?

Of course we are. What I am working on is what I tell my kids I am proud of.

A few years ago, a teenaged psychotherapy client revealed to me how much it upset her when her parents exclaimed at how proud they were of her when she performed well at her tennis matches. Though she enjoyed it at the time, it made her very aware of the absence of these words when she didn’t perform as well. She wondered out loud with me whether that meant her parents were only proud when she performed well. While I don’t think this was the case, her concern made sense to me. It has also really stuck with me.

As a psychologist, I was all too aware of how consistent her feelings were with clinical research. Personality psychologists have noted that contingent positive regard from adults negatively impacts personality development. For example, when children believe they will only be praised for accomplishments, they become more cautious and avoid challenges. They perceive failure as too risky and set goals accordingly.

Furthermore, research has demonstrated a link between achievement-based praise and depression. Many professional athletes have cited outcome-based praise as a major trigger for their own struggles with depression and anxiety.

My familiarity with this research is likely at the root of my own parenting tendencies. My son has been swimming competitively for six years. I love to watch him race. When he is in the pool, there is no doubt he is giving it his all. He works equally hard in practice. I am incredibly proud of him for the work ethic he has developed. I am proud of him for working hard regardless of how his races turn out.

During a race, I get very anxious and very excited because I know how important it is to him. Sometimes his races go well, and he drops time or reaches a goal. Sometimes they don’t go as hoped and he is disappointed. Whatever the outcome of the race, I am proud of him.

That is why I try not to say “I am proud of you” when he races well. 

When he races well, I am super excited for him. It is so much fun to watch his hard work pay off. His hard work is completely within his control and that is what I am proud of. Effort is one of the many process strategies that researchers have found beneficial to praise, as it encourages self-respect more than the praise of ability and achievements.

Praising process strategies is critical to self-respect because they are associated with an increased sense of control. In contrast, praising talent and accomplishments is associated with feelings of helplessness. When individuals begin to view themselves as helpless in controlling outcomes, they experience lower self-esteem and increased rates of depression.

Another process strategy that is within an individual’s control, and, thus important to praise, is a willingness to push through anxiety. This is a strategy that came up with my daughter recently. She was invited to participate in a horseback riding demonstration at the barn where she rides. She has only been riding regularly for a short time. She felt excited and honored to be asked.

As the practices went on, that excitement was overshadowed by a growing fear. She was worried that, as the least experienced rider in the group, she would let everyone down. That’s a lot of pressure! Especially since the pony she was riding was not being particularly cooperative. Not surprisingly, she considered not going through with it. I completely understood where she was coming from.

My daughter pushed through her fear. The first demonstration went really smoothly. It was wonderful to see the smile on her face. The second demonstration was a little harder, but an overall success. 

When she finished, I was bursting with pride. Not because she performed well, but because she conquered her own fear. I was super happy for her. I told her so. 

I want my kids to know that they should be proud of themselves for their effort, not their results. I want them to know this as kids, so they can believe it about themselves as adults. 

Many of our teens are consumed by the idea that their identity is measured by their accomplishments. The reality is that accomplishments are not completely within our control. However, character strengths are. Those are what we should focus on praising. We want our children to know that you can be an extraordinary person without having extraordinary accomplishments.

References

Burhans, K. K., & Dweck, C. S. (1995). Helplessness in early childhood: The role of contingent worth. Child Development, 66, 1719-1738. 

Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 474-482.

Dykman, B. M. (1998). Integrating cognitive and motivational factors in depression: Initial tests of a goal-orientation approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 139-158. 

Elliot ES and Dweck C. 1988. Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology 54: 5-12.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Building resilience. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience