Teenagers and happiness

All teens are miserable from time to time. Contrary to popular belief, however, it’s not the parents’ job to fix that. Wait, what? Surely, as parents, we want our children to be happy, right? Sure. But ? guess what? Despite what advertisers would have us believe, it’s not a good to provide teenagers with an uninterrupted stream of entertainment, presents, or feel-good situations.

A Vending Machine

If you go out of your way to make sure your children have the best life they could possibly live, you’re a normal 21st century parent. You’re also a vending machine that dispenses instant happiness at a press of a button, no coins needed.

Clothes straight out of a fashion magazine, state-of-the-art electronics – this is all cool-to-have, but it’s just material stuff. Now, there are several things wrong with having too much non-essential stuff:

  • It teaches your child to attach importance to possessions, instead of appreciating people and experiences.
  • It creates a hunger for more stuff.
  • The more stuff your teen has, the less it makes them happy (scientific fact).
  • The more stuff your teen has now, the more difficult it’ll be for them to be happy in future (also a scientific fact).


Yeah, but what about experiences? Sure, lavish birthday parties with professionally made cakes, hired entertainers and costly party bags may sound like “making memories” . Same for luxury holidays in exotic locations. And yet, if your children always experience the best of what life has to offer while they’re young, they’ll feel entitled to it, and they won’t feel happy receiving it.

Worse still, with so many experiences already experienced, and so many memories already made ? what’s left? What’s the point of working through the holidays to save up for a hike along the Milford Track, when you’ve already been to Fiji, Norway, and the Grand Canyon?

Cutting back on over-delivering both things and experiences now, will ultimately make your children into happier, more contented, more motivated young adults.

We should teach our kids to live in the moment, and to be grateful for what they have, instead of wondering what’s missing.

Bob the Builder, Can You Fix It?

When we rush to help our teens avoid unhappiness or disappointment, the only coping technique they learn is “mum and dad will sort this” . We should really step back and allow them to come up with their own solutions, while offering our love and emotional support: “You’ve got this, I believe in you” . Naturally, we’ll be there if they seek advice, or to catch them if they fall, but they are the ones doing the damage control.

The Way Forward

Although your teen should be responsible for their own happiness, here are a few things you can do to make it easier:

  1. Teach them emotional intelligence. Some people may be better at EQ than others (just like some people are more natural at maths), but you can still show them the basics: empathy, validation, optimism.
  2. Praise effort, not results – and really mean it! It’s important that your teen does their best, even if their best is not perfect. Striving for perfection makes people unhappy.
  3. Help them build relationships. Humans need other humans for our mental wellbeing. Teenagers in particular need a sense of belonging and connecting to various groups, such as family, a sports team, Year 12s, the college, the cool kids. Teach them to avoid people who make them unhappy: poisonous friends, selfish romantic partners, bullying coaches.
  4. Be happy yourself. Laughter is contagious, so learn to spread it.

Teenagers have to learn how to deal with everyday stress, manage frustrations, handle setbacks. They need to deal with the fact that they can’t have their way all the time, and that they can’t get material possessions as soon as they ask for those.

By failing to provide constant happiness in the now, what we parents are doing is equipping our children with tools to create their own happiness. Radical, right?

(A quick reminder: the message of this article does not apply to teenagers who are or may be suffering from depression. If you suspect your teen is depressed, step in immediately and arrange for them to have professional help from somewhere like Psych Company.)


  • The opposite of happy is “not happy” . It’s not “depressed” . Is your teenager depressed? Ask them to phone Youthline on 0800 376 633 or free text 234.
  • Is your teenager too depressed to ask for help? Contact 0800 LIFELINE (0800 54 33 54) or free text HELP (4357).
  • Teenage depression may look like “normal” teenage behaviour: fatigue, withdrawal, anger, mood swings, sleeping too much, smart phone addiction” the list goes on. Watch out for any changes in behaviour: sleep patterns, eating, socialising. Plummeting performance at school or in sports could be a warning sign. Ask questions, listen to answers, and remember to pay attention to what they don’t tell you.
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