Teenagers are constantly telling each other not to care what other people think and not to worry about fitting-in. They are also constantly telling one another to focus on what’s inside. They have a “You only live once” attitude. They are encourage each other to pursue what feels good in the moment in pursuit of happiness.
As parents we are tell our teens that their future is what’s important. We are on them about their grades, their conduct, their reputation and their attitude. We tell them, “We just want you to be happy,” but then we don’t let them play video games until 2 am on a school night even though that makes them happy. Somehow we know that’s not good for them even though it makes them happy.
So, who has it right? Are the teenagers right who think you should do whatever feels good right now? Are we parents right, who think living should be for our future happiness and goals? Could be both be wrong?
If you live only for right now then everything is momentarily gratifying. It actually takes bigger and bigger items/activities for the same emotional high. While buying your child a candy bar made them happy once, kids who get to gratify every whim now need a new car for that same feeling the candy bar used to give them. Stupid decisions can be made with the momentary gratification attitude as well. A teenager might have sex with someone they don’t love, try drugs or alcohol, or cheat on a test at school.
If you live only for your future you will also be unhappy. What a waste to have all the gifts of youth, and enjoy none of them. When is the last time you could sprint after your friend while laughing hysterically and not get winded or sore? When is the last time you could go out tanning without worrying about skin cancer? When is the last time it sounded like fun to get a block of ice and slide down a long grass hill while trespassing at midnight? You can’t be so focused on setting up your future that you miss everything in front of you.
Now that we’ve exhausted the two most common ways people try to become happy, what’s left? What I am going to propose would be a major shift in your teenager’s thinking. In order to effect that kind of shift, it will have to start with you. Firstly, start seeking out opportunities to serve others. Stop teaching your child that becoming the best athlete or the most popular cheerleader is important. None of that is lasting, and it is quite a fragile foundation. That leads to the second important piece of happiness.
It is your job to help your teenager know why they’re here on earth. If you teach your teenager that their purpose is to attain status and things because that’s how you live your life, then that’s what they’ll pursue. It will start with an immovable belief that their life is worthless if they aren’t accepted to Stanford, UCLA or whatever other top-notch college. That’s a sign that you’ve misguided your child on their purpose. Their purpose has to be a selfless, timeless cause. In our household that purpose is to be a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. We assume that out of that will come a good work ethic, servant-leader mentality, compassionate heart, driven and focused attitude, and happy child. If you don’t choose to go the faith-based route, choose something else that’s bigger than yourself. Don’t be your own cause; it’s selfish and uninteresting. The happiest teens are the ones who know how to give of themselves to others.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT