The blog

Contributing to the Happiness of Teens

A loaded and complex endeavor! The expansive landscape of research, philosophy, and interventional guidance on happiness is overwhelming. What it truly means to be happy is subjective, though generally, it means to feel well physically and emotionally, function with a sense of meaning and ability to provide for one’s needs (and some wants), and feel and express genuine love. Adolescents are feverishly trying to figure these things out and how to develop the necessary skills to do so. Guiding them on their path to happiness rests on the one foundational thing they need from us, a positive, supportive, and consistent RELATIONSHIP.

Dr. Robert Waldinger, a Harvard researcher, and his colleague and co-author, Marc Schultz, associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, have just written a book summarizing an almost 80 year longitudinal research study on what makes people happy. In their newly released book, The Good Life, they offer insights from the study. Their work all but boils down to the one concept our newsletter has been preaching for years!

Relationships are the key to a happy life. 

Relationships with teens, however, can be challenging. It is their job to push us away, often with negativity, intense emotion, or seeming indifference, as they develop greater independence. At the same time, they still very much need us (you know for money, rides/the car, etc) and their relationship with us (to feel fundamentally accepted, connected, and loved). We can all attest that synthesizing these two, at times opposing goals, can feel like juggling on a unicycle, (fill in your adjective).

If our positive relationships with teens can increase the likelihood of them (and us) experiencing greater general happiness over time, isn’t it worth working on our relationship with them? Here are some ideas for cultivating your relationships with teens:

1)   Make your relationships (in general and with teens) a priority. Be thoughtful and deliberate in your communications and decision making. Ask yourself how what you intend to say or do may come across (for a particular teen at a particular moment), and what impact, positive or negative, it could have on your relationship. For example, think of the common phrase “pick your battles.” If it is going to really be a battle (ie: create significant conflict), is it worth, on balance the damage it could do to your relationship with that teen? Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes it is no. Whatever you choose, be deliberate.

2)   Be real in your relationships. Happiness and investment in positive relationships over time does not mean we never experience challenges or negative emotions. Nor does it mean we never make mistakes. What it does mean is that we are modeling humanity, and when we are wrong or have harmed (even without intent), are modeling humility. We must feel able to express ourselves honestly and with integrity if we are to have strong connections in our relationships. Sometimes how we feel will be at odds with how others feel. Stand firm in value-based boundaries and be honest in how you relay your reasoning with teens. If your emotions get the better of you and hurtful things are said, apologize and repair the relationship.

3)   Appreciate the unique developmental perspective teens have to offer. At times, their reasoning may seem flawed, though if we take time to listen, understand the need being met, and validate, that understanding will reinforce strong relationships. Also, remember the need for social connections is a priority for teens, not out of frivolity, but as a literal life line. Teens use their social relationships with peers to feel safe enough to explore the world beyond family. While we all need relationships to live well and happy lives, teens rely on them for critical skills and confidence building needed for independence and greater self-sufficiency.

4)   Devote time, emotional energy, and effort into your relationships. Treat your relationships like anything else that feels important to you. Would you go out on the golf course without being thoughtful of the needed gear, mindset, or practice? Would you go into a business meeting to land a big deal without having learned about the clients’ perspectives and needs and without a polished pitch? Would you enter the classroom to teach a new concept without having reviewed the material and planned the lesson? Would you go on a big trip without taking the time to learn about where you are going, how to get there and what you will need once you arrive? How much time do you put into thinking about, planning and practicing your relationships????

If relationships are a major key to happiness and thus wellness generally, why don’t we put more time, energy and deliberate effort into prioritizing them? How we model this for young people will literally shape their generation. Relationships that are positive, meaningful, and generative for us take time, emotional energy, and thoughtful deliberation. They are hard because they are so valuable and because humans, particularly teen humans, are complex.

Here is wishing you a 2023 filled with relationships that generate longitudinal happiness : )

~Julie Baron, LCSW-C