The opportunity to reinvent yourself in the New Year isn’t lost on tweens and teens; many young people seek self-improvement this time of year. Consistent with their ‘sky’s-the-limit’ approach to life, teens’ goals may be expressed in grandiose terms. Don’t try to talk your teen down.
Audacious ambitions - like getting straight A’s or saving enough for a car - are achievable little-by-little. “The biggest challenge to behavior change is the teen’s own internal ambivalence,” says psychotherapist Fran Walfish, PsyD. Kids need to know parents believe in them, especially when they’re not feeling self-confident.
Tweens and teens won’t change unless they are personally motivated, says Walfish. So, consider yourself a consultant. Read on to learn how to help your teen tackle four common self-improvement goals.
With this consulting-skills tune up, you’ll rock the role:
1. Losing weight. Television reality shows highlight fast and furious weight loss. “Teens should aim for a gradual 10 per cent loss of bodyweight,” says Keith Ayoob, Ed.D., RD, Director of the Nutrition Clinic at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center of Albert Einstein College of Medicine. That amount lowers the health risks of obesity. If your teen wants to lose 25 pounds or more, encourage them to take the long view. One pound per week adds up to more than 50 pounds in a year.
Support your teen by ensuring everyone is on board. If siblings or grandparents sabotage teens’ efforts to change, intentionally or unintentionally, you should intervene. “Teens who need to be comforted may swallow their feelings, both literally and metaphorically,” says Ayoob. Parents should examine their own attitudes too. “It is hard for kids to understand that weight loss isn’t a cosmetic issue, it’s a health issue,” says Ayoob. “Teens are loaded with insecurity under the best of circumstances. Highlighting cosmetic benefits of weight loss - or saying, ‘You’ll be so pretty when you’re thin’ - only triggers low self-esteem and self-doubt.”
Stock up on healthy breakfast foods, like whole grain cereal, fruit, skim milk and protein-packed Greek yogurt. Support whatever kinds of physical activity appeal to your teen; team sports and high-impact exercise aren’t necessary. Ultimately, “kids are in control of their own bodies,” says Walfish. Be careful not to claim control.
2. Saving money. Teens who want to save money should start with the end in mind, then plan backwards, says Mandy Williams (a.k.a. “Black”), money skills educator and co-author of What I Learned about Life When My Husband Got Fired. Once your teen chooses a big, round figure, help them break it down into weekly savings goals. Saving $20 per week from their allowance and $40 per week from babysitting adds up to $260 per month. “Having realistic interim goals sets teens up for success rather than failure,” says Williams.
Purchasing coffee and a couple of new apps for their phone can easily bust your teen’s budget. Record-keeping makes teens aware of mindless purchases and reveals opportunities for improvement. Williams created “Green Sheets” (available online at www.redandblackbooks.com) to help high school students in the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) track spending. “Students were surprised by what they learned about themselves,” says Williams, “and many continued to track expenditures after the class ended.” Similar strategies work to curb snacking, wasted time and other thoughtless behavior.
3. Earn good grades. If your teen expresses a commitment to “getting better grades”, ask, “What does ‘getting better grades’ mean to you?” says Jennifer Little, Ph.D., an educational psychologist. Kids often lack the ability to identify areas for improvement, says Little, so parents can help by facilitating the problem-solving process. That means asking lots of questions like, “Do you understand the lectures in class?” “Are you caught up on all your assignments?” And, “What resources do you need to get organized?”
Kids who struggle with math may not realize that their problems are due to poor language comprehension, says Little. Students may procrastinate on a project because they can’t remember the steps: Collect information, organize an outline, write a draft. “Scaffolding that teachers provide for elementary school students disappears in high school and teens have to remember these steps on their own or else flounder,” says Little. Help your teen to break assignments into steps and create a work schedule. This will reveal obstacles and needed resources.
4. Overcome social anxiety. “If both you and your teen have a shy temperament, you’ll understand your child’s challenges,” says Walfish. If you’re an extrovert, it may be harder to empathize. Overcoming social anxiety is excruciating for shy kids, Walfish says, so parents need to be patient and compassionate. Offer to practice role-playing, anxiety-provoking situations with your teen, like asking someone out on a date or speaking in front of the class. Be a loving, non-judgmental audience.
Joining or creating social groups that focus on shared interests is a good way to expand one’s social circle, says Walfish. Allow your teen to host a small group outing or get-together. Home turf can increase kids’ confidence. Volunteer opportunities are also excellent social-skills builders.
These behavior changes aren’t easy, and teens should make plans for getting back on track after upsets. When you talk about struggles, match your teen’s tone of voice and mood. Mirroring kids’ feelings shows understanding and compassion. “Help your child see that setbacks, letdowns and disappointments are only temporary,” says Walfish. “That is one of life’s golden lessons.”
Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D., is a personality psychologist and mom of two. Read her psychology lessons for real life at www.heidiluedtke.com/blog.
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