Want to encourage your teen? Avoid this one key word

Every week in my job as a school counselor, I meet with several students to check grades. When someone moves from an F to passing, I act all impressed: “Wow, what did you do to make that happen?” I frequently get a shrug, accompanied by, “I didn’t really do anything.”

“Well, you must have done something. You didn’t just stare at the wall…?”

“Um…I just turned in my work.”

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“You JUST turned in your work? Oh my gosh, that’s HUGE!” I wave my arms around a bit, and dramatically offer them a Jolly Rancher as I congratulate them on doing THE most important thing they could have done to raise their grade. (I always get a grin and a thank you.)

Then I ask them to repeat what they did and leave out the word just, so the statement becomes, “I turned in my work.”

That little word, “just,” has a lot of power.

Power to turn something important into something less important. Power to turn encouragement into discouragement. We need to be more careful about how we use it, with ourselves and with our children.

This daily practice adds happiness

Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, researches the thinking patterns associated with optimism and happiness. In his book “Flourish,” he describes an activity he calls the Three Blessings, in which he suggests that people “write down three things that went well [each day] and why they went well.”

After doing this consistently for a week or two, people experience a greater sense of well-being and happiness, which is a necessary component of thriving.

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Parenting can be a discouraging experience sometimes, and it can be easy to only notice what’s going WRONG.

Using the Three Blessings as a model, I ask parents to reflect back daily on three things that went well and what they did to influence that positive event. For example, “My daughter is going to have straight teeth because I took her to the orthodontist,” or, “I got the shopping done so that my family can have a healthy dinner.”

Notice the right stuff

It would be easy to say, “Well, those were just normal things that had to be done.”

There’s that word again—just.

Hanging around in our sentences, taking away the power of the good things that we do! Imagine what the day would have been like if you HADN’T done those regular, ordinary things! They are ordinary, AND they are important! Noticing what you did RIGHT provides you with the encouragement to see yourself as a capable parent, and that self-concept will transfer into more capable-parent behaviors.

We can do the same thing for our kids: notice what they do RIGHT, several times a day. “Thanks for taking out the trash,” you might say.

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“Um…it’s my assigned chore, Mom.” (message: “So what? You make me do this!”)

“I know, and I really appreciate how helpful you are.” (message: “I notice you. I see you doing what is expected.”)

It’s like offering your kid a Jolly Rancher, only sweeter, because over time, that encouragement will grow into a self-concept of I do what needs to be done, which will transfer into more responsible-person behaviors.

Okay, well, what about the times our kids aren’t doing right, and at the end of the day, it’s hard to find three things that went well?

Yeah, some days are like that, and your self-encouragement might sound like: 1. Everyone ate. 2. Nobody died. 3. We said, “I love you,” before we went to bed.

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When you’re challenged to find something good to notice about your child, reach for even the tiniest glimmers of hopeful behavior:

  • “Thanks for staying at the dinner table and eating with us, even though you’re mad.”
  • “I know we disagree on this, and I appreciate your courage in standing up for something you believe in.”
  • “Thanks for telling me. I appreciate your honesty.”

Encouragement is everything

Dr. Seligman acknowledges that it’s important to look at negative events because they’re reality and they provide opportunities for learning. At the same time, we will be more confident in our parenting if we use our positive contributions to our family as a foundation on which to build when we are problem-solving with ourselves about how to do better.

And problem-solving conversations with our kids will result in greater collaboration and cooperation, if we have laid the foundation for a strong, positive relationship with daily encouragement.

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Rudolf Dreikurs, a 20th century psychologist, said, “Encouragement is to humans like water is to plants. It nourishes our souls.” When we encourage ourselves and our children, we give the gift of courage—to keep trying, to keep making mistakes, and to keep loving ourselves – and each other.

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