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Happy Adolescents

A ten-point, (mostly) collaborative approach

Most of us would not associate happiness with pre-adulthood years. It is an undoubtedly challenging and potentially dreadful time, which is a good reason for contemplating an alternative perspective of adolescence. Let us first agree that happiness is not perpetual pleasure or bliss, which can hardly be achieved by anybody, let alone by adolescents. Instead, happiness is engaging fully with life the way it is, which makes it more accessible--with the right know-how that is.

Before I wrote down my tips, I sat down with my own adolescent and exchanged ideas about happiness, me loaded with scientific facts about the adolescent brain, she loaded with uncensored experience. We agreed to collaborate and abstain from lecturing.

Here are the conclusions: The first and most important point my daughter raised echoes her favorite words, “You don’t understand!”:

1. Understand your adolescent

What is it that needs to be understood though? Here I had more to offer to the communication than my daughter as she is as baffled by her inner processes as she is uncommunicative about them -- even though sometimes she astonishes with eloquence and clarity of mind. So, what happens to the adolescent brain that is in so much need of understanding?

Apparently the brain turns rapidly into a major construction zone in which a) neural connections become 3,000 times more effective due to a process called myelination and b) unnecessary neurons and interconnections die to allow for specialization due to a process called pruning. Besides an increase of some hormones, dopamine actually decreases during this time, making the adolescent more prone to boredom and thus to seeking novelty. Contrary to popular belief, so Daniel J. Siegel who wrote the highly commendable book Brainstorm1, adolescence cannot be summarized as a time of immaturity to be endured, but as an essential development into independence, characterized by passion, social engagement with peers, novelty seeking, and creativity.

Instead of dreading this time, so Siegel, we ought to cultivate it. Yes, you heard me right! When we understand the significance of this time, we also see that adolescents are natural innovators. While this process can feel challenging, it is up and foremost exciting, hopefully giving cause to:

2. Rejoice with your adolescent

“Aren’t you happy for me?” my daughter asks me on occasion and, “I think you are really jealous of me.” Hmm. Maybe she has a point. Everything, her entire life adventure, lies before her. I love my life, but I cannot go back in time. Or can I? Siegel recommends: reawaken your own passions and reconnect with the person you have once been. At least smile at your adolescent’s adventure and rejoice. Also:

3. Support your adolescent’s search

As exciting as the unknown is, it can leave your adolescent insecure. One word, one glance, the smallest omission by a peer can cause a day of obsession. I like to remind my adolescent of her amazing qualities at such points, or better, yes, much better: I take her to another person who can see the good in her. Sometimes all I can do is listen, conveying with as few words as possible: I have been there.

While there isn’t really a fixed identity for anybody, support your adolescent’s own interests as well as her attempts to voice her changing feelings and thoughts. Talking back is often good, when done respectfully and rationally. It’s a skill that we can teach by modeling it.

4. Let go of your kid

“You’ve got to let me grow up,” my adolescent says frequently. O, this can bring tears to any parent’s eyes. Where are the incessant hugs and kisses? It seems inconceivable that she is actually preparing for her final departure from the nest. But she will fly. And I, sniff, want her to.

5. Set boundaries and give consequences

“You’ve got a let me do whatever I want. Trust me….” No, I won’t. That point I make without much collaboration. There is no alcohol, no drugs, no incessant screen time, and no unsupervised partying. There is school, doing homework, tidiness, and a respectful tone. Adolescents need parental guidance, however little they appreciate it. Interestingly, when another adolescent gets into trouble, mine suddenly appreciates the boundaries. Also, spell out the boundaries and possible consequences ahead of time to teach choice. When you take away privileges, don’t overreact. Stay calm and just do it. All this should be balanced out by:

6. Allow for increasing self-control and personal space

“How dare you come into my room like this! Knock and wait!” She is 100 percent right here. Adolescents can neither relax nor can they learn to be respectful of their parent without being granted more control over their space. The older adolescents get, the more they need to make their own decisions.

7. Stop repeating

“I wish you would not repeat things to me all the time.” What does science say about this issue? Siegel explains that adolescents usually know and engage in something called “hyper-rational thinking,” meaning, they overemphasize upsides and underemphasize downsides. What they can gain seems much more likely than what they can lose. Siegel surprises by suggesting: stop repeating what adolescents already know and start connecting them with their gut instead. “How do you think it will feel doing X or Z?” Patience requested.

8. Provide for your adolescent

Healthy foods should be accessible at all times, meaning raw fruits and vegetables, protein, and healthy oils, such as Omega 3. Sugar is going to make your adolescent unhappy. Did you know your adolescent needs ten hours of sleep?

9. Take care of yourself

These are challenging times. Your happiness and the happiness of your marriage are at stake as you witness your adolescent’s struggle for independence. If you do not take care of yourself, nobody will.2

10. Sit down with your adolescent and ask for advice

Working out this approach with my adolescent daughter has been a great experience. She is astonishingly insightful and gives me pause to think as she blurts out her solutions. Maybe we should all try this more often? As adolescents are born innovators, we ought to make use of their creativity and benefit from their courage more often.

1) Daniel J. Siegel (2014). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York: Tarcher/Penguin.
2) You might like the audio workshop on this link: www.AndreaPolard.com

Andrea Polard
Source: Andrea Polard

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© 2015 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

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