Having a teenager in the house (or a group of them in a classroom) inevitably means conflict and tension. Frankly, they can be annoying.
They’re desperate to carve their own path, do things for themselves in their own way, and most of them haven’t developed the social sensitivity to care for the needs of others. Like a bull in a china shop, teenagers will test the patience of every adult who cares for them.
Over time, the frequent affection and “I love you’s” we shared when they were little can turn into a lot of annoyance, irritation, and conflict.
On their side and from their perspective, it’s pretty normal for teenagers to feel unloved by the adults in their life, especially their parents. Again, in fairness, they can be tough to love!
But in the larger perspective of mental health and their primary adolescent task of defining a well-formed identity, teenagers need consistent messages regarding their worth and value.
Every kid needs to know why they matter specifically.
In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, Jennifer Breheny Wallace directly quotes U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy as saying, “People want to know that they matter to those around them, and that their work makes a difference in the lives of others.”
Why is the U.S. Surgeon General talking about the workplace? Wallace cites a recent study of the phenomenon called anti-mattering, where people feel constantly devalued and insignificant to the people around them.
The study reports, “anti-mattering is a strong predictor of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse.” Although the essay addresses the workplace and overall wellness for adults, it’s easy to see the same truths applicable to teenagers before they reach adulthood.
It’s one challenge for companies and supervising managers to develop systems to acknowledge employee contributions, and it’s another for teachers, coaches, and parents with their kids. What could it look like for us to find consistent ways to communicate to a kid their value and share with them the contributions they make are substantial and appreciated?
Here are 4 steps to show kids their value:
1. Take time to notice and reflect: It’s easy to get distracted by our own to-do lists and tasks to accomplish. Whether you’re a parent or an educator (or both!), you have no shortage of Herculean expectations and responsibilities on your shoulders. But, it’s easy to forget to pause and take a fresh look at the kids in our life through the lens of gratitude and appraisal.
Ask yourself, what do they teach you? What contribution do they make? What would we miss without them? Even if they drive you nuts, in what ways are they teaching you to be perhaps more patient, thoughtful, or understanding?
2. Write down your thoughts: For each kid, take some time to write down what you observe and notice about their contributions to your life, your family, your team, or your classroom. It’s important to say it to their face, and it’s even better if you can also write it down for them to keep and hold onto.
3. Find the moment to share: You don’t need to wait for the perfect moment. You can simply transition with, “Hey, I was thinking about you this morning. Can I share something with you, even if it’s a little awkward?” You’ll have them hooked and ready to listen.
4. Bring it up again: Undoubtedly, they’ll feel affirmed and delighted by what you share about them. Don’t let that just be one moment, though. Share it again with them in a few days or weeks. Even better, find a way to talk about them to others in their presence.
You’ll quite literally be participating in the formation of their aspirational identity, a crucial piece every kid needs and an important part you can play as a parent or educator or coach.
Kids who feel valued won’t develop a big head and become narcissistic. Rather, they’ll feel like they have inherent value, which they do. They’ll also feel seen, known, and affirmed — key antidotes to loneliness and other mental health issues.