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The 4 Best Gifts You Can Give to Your Teen

What do teenagers want? You may be surprised by the answer.

"What can we give him that we can afford, that he'll love, and that will make a real difference in his life?"
Source: ©creatista/fotosearch

Teens nowadays for sure like to have fashionable clothes, high tech electronics, expensive sports gear, and other physical gifts that enable them to participate fully in their world. Are these the best gifts for the teen or teens whom you love?

At a deeper level, what do teens really want?

Probably the best, ultimate, and most long-lasting gifts you can give your adolescent are the ones that give your teenager a firm emotional foundation on which to become a much-loved and loving, confident and competent, grownup.

Laura Reagan, a sociologist who has authored How to Raise Respectful Parents, zooms in on the essence of what teenagers want overall. In general, Reagan says, teenagers wants to feel good about themselves as individuals, and at the same time to maintain positive connections with their families. In this regard, teens are like adults. As the psychologist Andreas Angyal wrote years ago in his time-tested book Neurosis and Treatment, emotional health involves enjoying a strong sense of belonging and at the same time feeling like a confident and competent individual. As one rock group, the Incredible String Band, once sang, "What is it that I am? And what is it that I am a part of?"

Toward that dual goal, Reagan suggests four key specific gifts you can aim to give your teenager. Based on findings by the Boys & Girls Club of America and corroborated by other youth-serving organizations and professionals, these gifts foster teenagers' good feelings about themselves and also their sense of social connectedness. Foster these four gifts and the odds zoom upward that your teenager will grow to become an emotionally healthy adult:

  • A sense of belonging

The first place we “fit” and are accepted is with our families. In our teen years, we can gain a further sense of belonging from our peer group, school or church group.

  • A sense of power and influence

All children want their concerns to be heard with a responsive ear. They want also to feel able to influence the decisions and actions of others. This begins in the family and then extends to other groups.

  • A sense of usefulness

This is the feeling that youth have of contributing to others, providing a valued service or occupying an important role.

  • A sense of competence

All youth need to explore their gifts and talents and feel that there is something they can do well.

Laura Reagan's How to Raise Respectful Parents offers parents and teenagers the skills to accomplish these goals by communicating respectfully, openly, and comfortably. Each chapter introduces a new communication skill by using real world examples of conversations between parents and teens. When parents speak the language of criticism, teens tune them out. When teens speak the language of sarcasm, or worse, isolate themselves from their parents, parents lose the opportunity to help their teenager grow. With positive communication skills, teenagers open up to receiving the gifts listed above, gifts that most parents want to offer and yet that many have difficulty giving.


Teenagers mostly learn communication skills from example. If their parents talk to each other with consistent tones of affection and respect, that language comes most naturally to the teenager-parent relationship.

If kids grow up in a family that speaks French, they learn to speak French. If kids grow up with parents who speak to each other in the language of hostility, that's the language that they learn. And if parents speak to each other with mutual interest and affection, that mutually nurturing language "comes naturally" to the teenagers.

What if you realize that the way you and your spouse—and/or you and your teenager—communicate conveys too much negative energy, too much disparagement, criticism or blame? Consider taking seriously a switch to more positive patterns. My book, workbook and interactive website called Power of Two detail the skills of collaborative dialogue and conflict resolution. While the examples there focus on applying these skills in husband-wife interactions, the skills apply equally to parent-teen communications.

The Bottom Line

Paying attention to the language and tone that parents and teenagers use when they interact can open communication channels. What do you want those channels then to convey? When parents and their teens convey to each other positives like affection, friendliness, mutual interest, appreciation, and helpfulness, then parents can succeed in giving the four best gifts to their teen: belonging, personal power, usefulness, and competence.

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