Boys sitting in park

As a parent, it can sometimes feel difficult to maintain positive interactions with your child when they become a teenager. It’s easy to see why: since they were babies we’ve been correcting, teaching and guiding them – from teaching them to walk and talk properly, to remembering to say ‘please’. But eventually children get to an age where they can be allowed to make mistakes and don’t need constant guidance. That’s when it can be hard to remember not to criticise so much and perhaps show more encouragement and praise instead. It’s human nature to notice the things that frustrate and worry us more than the things that make our day easier. In other words we’re more likely to remember to tell our teenager to ‘Clean your room!’ than we are to say ‘thanks’ if it has remained tidy for a week, simply because tripping over dirty clothing is more noticeable than walking uneventfully past a tidy room.

How much praise is too much praise?

Some parents worry that too much praise is damaging to their teenagers, creating a person who is dependent on praise or has a falsely inflated ego. What’s a parent to do?

The fact is, everyone appreciates a kind word or some acknowledgement every now and again to pep us up and keep us motivated. Teenagers appreciate positive interactions like thanks, encouragement and praise from their parents, too. Apart from motivating them, positive interactions can strengthen the bond between you and your child and help teenagers to remember that their family is a source of emotional support. But it’s important to make sure the praise is meaningful and given where it’s due, so that it doesn’t become a gesture without significance.

Here are some tips on including positive interactions or praise into your relationship with your teenager:

Keep it casual

There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging your child when they do the right thing. The best way to do this is naturally, casually and appropriately, as the occasion arises throughout the week. You might say a quiet ‘thanks’ when they set the table or ‘that was nice of you’ if you see them helping a sibling with homework.

Keep it specific

The best way to praise someone is to be specific and descriptive: ‘Thanks for helping me with the laundry’ will be more meaningful to your child than ‘You’re a good girl’. It also has the benefit of ringing true with them and reinforcing the kind of behaviour and efforts you’d appreciate in your home.

Think about effort rather than ability

Studies have shown that when children and young people are praised for their effort they try harder and perform better than when they are praised for their natural talent. Therefore, ‘Well done for sticking with your study routine this week’ is probably going to have a better impact on a young person’s confidence and ability than ‘You’re so smart’.

Be sincere

Just like adults, teenagers tend to know if they’re being insincerely flattered. If your child is struggling with something, resist the temptation to pump up their ego with false praise. Instead, try to praise their efforts (if they are indeed trying hard) or tell them that you believe in their resilience and ability to get through difficult times. Look for opportunities to offer thanks, encouragement or praise where it is genuinely warranted.

Encourage personal best

It can be harmful to compare your child’s behaviour or efforts with that of a sibling or friend – and it’s also counterproductive. Everyone has different abilities, points of view and priorities. The best person for your child to compete against is themself. Therefore, encourage them to beat their own score or their own records. Try to notice if they are showing improvement in an area, and let them know you’ve noticed, especially if that improvement comes from practice or a special effort.

Don’t be afraid to be positive

It’s often the children who are criticised too much that are more likely to seek approval to feel good about themselves, so erring on the side of positivity probably isn’t a bad thing. If your praise is appropriate, sincere, focused on effort rather than innate ability and a relaxed part of your everyday interactions, you’re likely to be raising confident young people who have faith in their own abilities and decisions.

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