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6 Ways You May Be Misguiding Your Teen

What teens need for lifelong success.

Key points

  • Praise can affect your teenager's motivation, but in either direction.
  • Intense focus on achievement and happiness can affect happiness and performance, but not in the way you think.
  • Parents support autonomy when they allow teens to make their own decisions, acting as safety net and guide.
  • Parents can recognize when they are reacting from fear and shift perspectives to be responsive to their teen.
Source: iStockPhoto/LuckyBusiness

We push our teenagers to be the best. We want them to launch successfully. When the stakes feel high, It's not easy to have perspective or to sort out what matters and predicts future success.

What should parents do to help their teenagers thrive and develop into competent healthy adults?

Take the quiz to find out the answers. Your results may surprise you. But the explanations will empower you to guide your teenager with wisdom and confidence.

  1. Which capacities best prepare teens to launch, and are most related to happiness and long-term success?

A. self-esteem

B. ambition

C. hard work

D. caring about others

E self-regulation/self-control

F. D and E

While ambition and hard work are necessary to pursue goals, unless embedded in the context of more essential values and capacities, these traits can be used for destructive obsession or at the expense of relationships.

Caring about other people is intrinsic to making and sustaining positive connections and collaborating effectively, all of which give life meaning and are part of success.

In addition, self-regulation is the basis for higher-level skills such as weathering obstacles, considering what’s most important in the long run, being kind, and acting in line with our values.

This capacity, an executive function, involves the ability to step back and pause, keep the big picture in mind, adjust expectations, redirect attention, delay gratification, and do the harder thing.

Not surprisingly, self-regulation is correlated with competence, achievement, physical and mental health, and good relationships.

The ability to manage emotions and behavior is internalized when parents regulate themselves and the climate at home and are responsive to their children’s emotional needs. This includes repairing inevitable disruptions in the relationship when they occur.

Answer: F (Self-regulation and caring about others)

The impact of praise on motivation

2. When faced with increasingly challenging tasks, youth whose parents praise their talent or intelligence with statements like, “You’re so smart”

A. do better and persevere because they feel encouraged

B. do worse and give up sooner

C. are unaffected

Praising teens for their intelligence (or achievements like grades and test scores) can inadvertently reinforce a fake sense of self and make them hooked on looking good, or being talented. In addition to creating mental health issues, the need for external validation discourages curiosity, learning, and motivation. Then, rather than risk failing, they avoid or give up instead of challenging themselves.

Unearned self-esteem resulting from unconditional praise creates youth without a clear sense of their strengths and weaknesses and unprepared for a world that doesn’t agree that everything they do is amazing. Further, inflated self-esteem is fragile and easily shattered in college, replaced by shame, avoidance, and the need to cover up or cheat.

However, praise that is specific to what teens do, rather than their achievements or talents encourages learning, motivation, and resilience. Examples include: “I like the way you asked for help, stuck with it, took a risk in making that shot.”

To increase strengths and positive values, parents can notice them when they occur, while refraining from criticizing undesired behavior. Praising kids for demonstrating character strengths such as courage, caring, and gratitude not only develops these strengths—which are associated with future success—but also develops others such as perseverance, emotion regulation, and perspective. Further, teens who develop values and competencies are less likely to engage in dangerous behaviors.

Answer: B

How parents can avoid common traps with teens

3. Parents interfere with teens developing the skills to become competent, independent, and responsible when they:

A. focus on teens’ mistakes

B. lecture and warn

C. tell them what to do

D. do things for them

E. all of the above

Making the stakes too high by warning teens and focusing on their mistakes increases fear and stress, shutting down executive functions. This approach propels avoidance, lying, and cheating—driving teens to ward off "failure" at all costs. Further, stress and constraint are associated with the need to escape through dangerous risk-taking and self-destructive behavior.

Parents can help teens develop resilience by bolstering their ability to recover from mistakes, rather than protecting teens from making them.

During adolescence, brain development is promoted when parents act as a safety net, guide, and support while allowing teens to make and carry out their own decisions (except with decisions that could lead to serious harm). Doing things for teens, or telling them the answers, conveys a lack of confidence in them and limits opportunities for developing skills.

When parents manage their own anxiety they position themselves to anchor their teens and lend the support, perspective, and calm they need.

Answer: E

iStockPhoto/ProStock Studio
Source: iStockPhoto/ProStock Studio

The impact of prioritizing achievement

4. Intense focus on achievement and happiness makes kids:

A. happier and higher achieving

B. higher-achieving but not necessarily happier

C. less caring, less happy, and not higher achieving

When parents are overly invested in performance, kids are less likely to develop their own more sustainable motivation. According to Reports, Making Caring Common (2019), they are less caring and less empathetic towards others.

The constant need for external evidence of worth in the form of approval, status, or appearance leads kids to become self-esteem junkies—whereby validation-seeking becomes a driving force for emotional survival. In such environments, values such as fairness and kindness are supplanted by the need to be on top, making kids more likely to cheat and act uncaring towards others—compromising learning, relationships, and happiness (Reports, Making Caring Common, 2019).

Answer: C

Performance of teens in affluent communities compared with their peers

5. Kids in affluent communities who feel pressure to achieve:

A. don’t outperform others

B. outperform their peers

Kids in affluent communities don’t outperform their peers (Levine, 2006). Affluent high school girls are two to three times more likely to be clinically depressed than other girls (Levine, 2006).

Parents in affluent communities who are hypervigilant about teens’ success are overinvolved in some areas but under-involved and blind to what’s going on emotionally and in other areas of a teen’s life. These teens often report feeling alone, with the sense that their parents aren’t interested in them apart from making them look good as parents.

Answer: A

How much should parents direct their children?

6. Good parenting is most similar to:

A. Molding a sculpture out of clay

B. Nurturing seeds and plants

C. Training a pet

D. All of the above

Development proceeds organically when parents provide a responsive and warm climate. This includes recognizing, supporting, and creating space for the child who is unfolding.

It’s easy to default to the molding clay mindset and, like a director, operate from an image of who we want our kids to be. But this dynamic can lead to mental health issues associated with increased pressure to measure up, but never feeling good enough, and the demoralizing divide between who teenagers feel they are and who they’re supposed to be. Further, this approach stifles a child’s core, leaving them without an internal compass to guide them.

Answer: B

Parents can promote healthy development by fostering a climate that supports self-regulation, allows space for mistakes, and prioritizes values such as caring.

Though we are embedded in a culture that promotes the perception of high-stakes competition, this is a feeling, not a reality, as our youth are a work in progress.

By avoiding pitfalls such as over- or under-involvement and excessive focus on performance, while fostering a grounded and responsive environment, we can help teens develop the essential skills they need to become competent adults.


Bülow, P. (2022b). The Vulnerability and Strength of the Adolescent Brain. Journal of Science, Humanities and Arts - JOSHA, 9(5).

Making Caring Common. (2019). Turning the Tide II How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in the College Admissions Process. Retrieved December 29, 2023, from

Silvers, J. A. (2021). Adolescence as a pivotal period for emotion regulation development For consideration at Current Opinion in Psychology. Current Opinion in Psychology, 44.

Levine, M. (2006). The price of privilege. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

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