It’s not (only) about nixing your teen’s bad health habits, but replacing them with good ones.
Comparing yourself to them: “Teen years are the years of questioning authorities,” Jovanovic reminds us. “This is a period when it’s psychologically desirable to be rebellious, as teens are starting to uncover who they want to be.” So, when you compare your habits to theirs, you’re implying your way is ‘the right way.’ “One of my clients phrased it nicely: ‘My mom thinks she is living vicariously through me. I am my own person, which is why I intend to do most things differently,’” Jovanovic adds.
What does work?
Listen, understand, discuss, and walk the walk: Do all of these combined; one without the other is likely to be ineffective. “What I often hear from my teen clients is, ‘Parents are willing to listen only if you are saying what they want to hear,’” Jovanovic says. “And in the end, if you’re not doing what you preach, your teen is going to see right through you. My teen clients tell me, ‘My parents are on the phone all the time but call me addicted.’ Likewise, if you preach the importance of eating healthy or exercising, you have to lead by example.”
Parents, quite often, can completely miss their own contributions to a bad family trait, notes Jennifer Johnston-Jones, Ph.D., a family therapist based in Los Angeles, CA. “For example, one of the most common bad habits for teens is negative self-talk, yet how many parents have looked in the mirror and said something negative about their bodies in front of their child?…That’s why the personal growth of parents is the best way to teach good habits in our children,” she says.
To that end, “model the good habit in yourself and let your teen know you are also working on it,” Dr. Johnston-Jones advises. If your teen is working on improving her sleep habits, help her by keeping a steady bedtime yourself, away from your phone. And most importantly, replace bad habits with healthy family habits. For Dr. Johnston-Jones, regular family meetings are a big part of the puzzle. Share the importance of creating a solution everyone can agree on. Try it for a week. If it needs revisiting, put it on the agenda again and come back to it. End the family meeting by talking about future plans or playing a game together, like charades, even if it’s just for 15 minutes, she suggests.
Reach an agreement and stick to it: “There may be things you are not willing to let slide. Whatever that is—their GPA, exercise, sleeping habits, or personal hygiene—it’s important to let them know” Jovanovic says. “Set up clear, unambiguous expectations. Let them know whether they can use your support or if they have any resources available.” When both sides come to an agreement about what should happen, your teenager will have a stronger grasp of trust and accountability.
Emphasize freedom of choice and leave them to it: “What I do in coaching is ensure that a teen I work with is familiar with all the choices they can make in a given situation, as well as the benefits and negative consequences. I help them weigh the options and once they make a decision to take ownership of it,” Jovanovic says. “What I see parents do with the intention to prevent bad things from happening is either making the choice for kids or trying to eliminate the consequence. It’s very important that they have the consequence and the opportunity to deal with it. This is a necessary learning experience that builds resilience and problem-solving and coping skills.”
Give useful feedback: “By ‘useful,’ I mean concrete, focused on behavior, and timely,” Jovanovic says. Instead of telling your teen to practice better hygiene, tell her to shower every evening and brush her teeth twice a day.
Start small and offer praise: In reality, no matter how old you are, “changing a habit is a difficult task, and getting started on a change is usually the hardest step,” Jovanovic says. Start small and leave room to grow. If he hasn’t exercised in a while, don’t sign him up for an intensive three-week program. Start with a daily 30-minute walk around the neighborhood and join him if he’s up for it.
“Parents tend to compare their own habits to the habits of their children,” Jovanovic notes. “Put the frustration on hold and focus on helping their behavior translate into a stable habit. Applaud their efforts and help them build up to new goals.”
Build your relationship: Lastly, and most importantly, this is the key to shaping your teenagers into the adults you’d like them to be. “This is the factor that makes all the difference,” Jovanovic says. “If the relationship isn’t good, chances are that your teen will ignore you, or do the opposite of what you suggest. What a coach (that’s you) does is invest time in listening and understanding the reasons behind the choices teens make, and showing interest in what they like doing. Consistency in the coach’s actions and attitude is what builds trust.”
Once your teen trusts you and feels like you really know her, she’ll be ready to listen and take what you’re saying into consideration, Jovanovic says. Your teen will also feel less pressure and lack of judgment, which will help him grow and find out what really works for him.