This week’s blog post is by Dr. John Townsend, a nationally known organizational consultant, clinical psychologist, author of 26 books on relationships, growth and parenting, and advisor to Compass Rose Academy. To learn more about Dr. Townsend, click here 

Parents love to see their kids shine. It may be when we stand up in the bleachers and yell, “That’s my kid who stole second base!,” or when we tell them how proud we are that they made great grades this semester. It is just natural. We feel good toward our teens’ accomplishments, we want our teen to feel good in turn, and actually, we want the world to know it as well. Many times a praising word from a mom or dad at just the right time can make a huge difference in an adolescent’s self-image, confidence and courage. On the other side of the coin, when parents fail to affirm achievements or are even overcritical, the result can be discouragement, insecurity and withdrawal. So affirm away!

However, while the rule is “affirm away,” it is not “affirm 24/7 for everything.”  There are actually times when shining the spotlight on your teen may not be the best thing for him or her. In fact, it could cause difficulties. It seems counterintuitive, but there are some good reasons for figuring out when to praise and affirm, and when not to. Here are the skills:

Affirm character rather than externals.  Teens have a set of internal abilities called character, whose purpose is to help them meet the demands of reality. They need to learn to connect, care and be vulnerable. They need to be responsible, truthful and have good boundaries. They need to accept their own limitations, and those of others. You really can’t overpraise character. To say “I appreciate how kind you were to the kid who is a loner,” or “Great job in how hard you worked on the play,” is supplying nutrients to your teen’s soul, whether or not they act like it matters. Trust me, it does. This is much better than praising how pretty, smart or strong they are. Those are gifts. Gifts are great, but your kids didn’t do anything to get them. They were born with them. When we spend a lot of time focusing on these, kids feel empty and sometimes entitled. They develop a dependency on praise for things they really don’t have much to do with. It’s much better to praise the work they did to develop those gifts.

Affirm achievement, not the minimum requirement.  When your teen does very well in school, music, sports or a church function, shine that spotlight. It teaches them that ambition and achievement are good things. Don’t overpraise a kid for getting to school on time, not doing drugs or not cursing at you. Certainly if it’s been an ongoing problem that is getting better, affirm the change. But it can cause attitude difficulties later when we have a party with our kids, for doing the bare minimum in life. When they show up to their first job on time, the boss will not bring them a cake!

Affirm effort that is superlative. There are those times your teen will work very hard on a project or paper and simply not get the grade or award. Your heart goes out to your child because you know how much preparation and sweat went into it. Affirm all that effort and going the “extra mile.” Later on, life will require that extra nudge, and you want your adolescent to know how vital that is.

Kids thrive on affirmation. Make sure it is targeted to the right situations and the right parts of your teen. Best to you.