This post will not apply to every parent. Some of you have kids who are very comfortable with who they are. They seem relaxed and self-assured. What a blessing!
There are a large number of you though who have teens that really want approval. This can take on multiple forms. Some teens long for the approval of their peers. Others desperately want to hear “well done” from their parents. Wanting approval is not actually as bad as it sounds. It is part of what motivates teens to do their homework and chores, and to comb their hair. Sometimes though the desire for approval becomes excessive, and leads to anxiety or depression.
I have seen teens in counseling who wanted approval so badly that they developed eating disorders, tried drugs or alcohol, or became sexually active before they were ready. It is really important to recognize a teen who is trying too hard to be liked because sometimes it means they are making unhealthy choices. A lot of these teens actually do get a substantial amount of approval, but they do not feel it. Even when there is a lot of evidence to the contrary, these teens feel disliked or negatively judged. As a parent, what are you supposed to do in this situation?
One of the most important things you can do is to help your teen realize the meaning of that famous first line from Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, “It is not about you.” Help your child gain some perspective. It is very hard for teens to remember that there is a world beyond their school and social group; expose your teen to it. Get them out into the community to serve someone else. Usually once a person dedicates some time and energy to others they stop focusing on themselves.
A second thing to try is not allowing your teen to voice the things they dislike about themselves if those things are unreasonable. Do not let your 3.5 GPA student tell you they are stupid, and do not let your normally sized daughter tell you she is fat. Learn to respond only when your child is honest about themselves. One thing we do in therapy is stop believing everything we feel. What I mean by this is that a teen will tell me, “I feel like nobody likes me.” Once we establish that there are in fact people who like the teen, we no longer allow that to be said. Instead the teen has to tell the truth, which is, “I feel disliked by some people.”
Try these two tips for approval-seeking teens. If your teen’s desire to be liked is overwhelming your teen, and you for that matter, call for help. There is often a way to change their focus. Sometimes you need help to help them too. Most parents, even the very best parents, have tried a number of different ways to encourage their adolescent without success. Sometimes a little tune-up makes a big difference.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT