What Every Teenager Needs: Encouragement

Everyone knows positive messages are important, especially for young people. Clear, well timed messages of affirmation are vital for a young person’s sense of self-worth and confidence. But some positive messages are not as effective as others. Being able to translate your positive feelings to  your teenager in a manner that will make a lasting difference isn’t always as obvious as you might think.

The previous post examined the issue of praising teenagers and why it is often not the most helpful practice. If you haven’t read it, I recommend taking a couple of minutes to look it over (here).  For those who need a quick summary;

  • Praise puffs up in the short term, but does little to build up over time
  • Praise focuses on rewarding ability or performance
  • Praise teaches young people they are valued for their achievements or talents
  • Praise encourages competition rather than participation
  • Praise can generate anxiety and insecurity

If praise doesn’t work, what is the best way to affirm teenagers?

The answer is simple. Encouragement.


Isn’t encouragement just another word for praise?  Unfortunately many parents think the words are interchangeable and believe they are encouraging their teen by given them praise. This is unfortunate because in many cases praise will have a discouraging impact on a young person.

Praise and encouragement are fundamentally different.

  •  Praise is a reward, encouragement is a gift
  •  Praise focuses on results, encouragement focuses on effort & growth
  • Praise is often general, encouragement is about specifics
  • Praise implies judgment, encouragement is about acknowledgement
  • Praise conveys temporary approval, encouragement conveys ongoing acceptance
  • Praise focuses on feeling good, encouragement focuses on building competence
  • Praise emphasises pleasing others, encouragement enhances self-motivation
  • Praise is about competition, encouragement is about co-operation

How To Encourage

In essence, encouragement is about you acknowledging the effort, growth, character, co-operation or feelings of your teenager. When you encourage,  the affirmation is orientated towards your teenager as opposed to being about your feelings or comparisons to others. More specifically is often about character and who your teenager is rather than about performance and what your teenager achieves.

Encouragement can be in response to a special event but it can also be offered in the course of everyday life. Because encouragement comes from your desire to acknowledge who your teens is it can be done whenever you observe something positive about your teenager, you don’t have to wait for them to earn it.

This is not the same as randomly telling your teen how “clever” or “beautiful” they are. Encouragement needs to be linked to an observed act or demonstrated capacity. General “nice” words will merely puff up rather than build up.

Lets explore some effective forms of encouragement

Your Gratitude

Good old-fashioned manners never go astray.  Saying thank you is the most basic form of encouragement. Making an effort to express your gratitude for specific things your teen does sends the message that they are appreciated and their efforts are valued.  Saying thank you is a particularly effective way of affirming your teen when they do something constructive or helpful without you prompting them.

Your Appreciation

Appreciation is different to gratitude. By appreciation, I mean acknowledging those positive aspects of your teen’s character, such as their kindness, sense of humour, way of looking at life etc.

Just as with gratitude, use appreciation statements in the context of specific events e.g. “I appreciate your ability to make people laugh” is best offered just after your teen has used their humour to create laughter. Similarly, “I really appreciate how you take time to help you little sister” is more meaningful if you can link it to an act you witnessed.

Your Confidence

Nothing does more for a young person’s sense of self-worth than knowing their parents believe in them. Sentences that begin with “I think you can do this..” or  “I  believe you can..” and “I trust you to..” are all empowering messages for your teen  to hear.

I recently came across a mother try and encourage a tentative daughter to do something by saying; “Off you go. Go on, go on; that’s a good girl.” Nothing wrong with what she said, but I doubt her daughter felt encouraged or empowered.  The message mum conveyed was; “you need to do this to be a ‘good girl’.” It was a message about earning approval. What the daughter needed to hear was that mum believed in her ability, not that she needed to achieve in order to be considered a “good girl.” An encouraging way to express the same sentiment might have been “I know you can do this, come on, I’m here with you.”

Your Expression

Encouragement is always verbal, sometimes affirmation is just about showing up. Going to watch the game or the concert, an affirming nod of the head, generous applause, placing a cup of hot chocolate next to their books or a big hug are all actions that convey to your teen that you value who they are and what they are attempting to do.

Their Feelings

Next time you go to tell your teen how proud you are of them, stop yourself and say something like this instead; “You must be really proud of yourself” or “That’s good news how do feel about that?” By helping your teen focus on their own feelings about an event or achievement you help them develop a greater sense of self-confidence and inward motivation.  The more they associate their own positive feelings with accomplishments the less inclined they will feel the need to please others.

Asking how your teen feels is also a helpful form of encouragement when they face a challenge or disappointment. Phrases like “ That sounds like it must be really hard…” let’s your teen know you are aware their situation is challenging and validates the negative feelings they might be feeling. By acknowledging they are in a hard spot you not only convey you understand, but you give them permission to try and work the problem out for themselves.

Their Improvement

In a world where competition is ever present, helping young people focus on their own growth rather than on where they stand in the pecking order is invaluable. Encouragement is focusing on your teen’s accomplishments in relation to their previous efforts.

Coming first is good if it means they have had to improve since last time. However, if they come first without trying and have not pushed themselves what does if prove except they have natural talent?

Choose not to focus on how their accomplishments stack up to others, rather affirm the developments you see in their own journey.

Acknowledging improvement sounds like; “Wow you seem to be really getting the hang of algebra these days…” or “You are playing that piece really smoothly now, remember how hard it was when you first started?” or “It looks like you are getting better at that, does it feel easier for you?”

Their Effort

Sometimes the journey matters more than the destination. Encouragement occurs when you acknowledge and value the effort your teen puts in as much as you value the outcome. Often the painting, the mark, or the victories are nowhere nearly as spectacular as the determination, focus, and dedication that went into producing them.

Encouraging effort looks like “You have worked really hard on that” or “How does it feel to achieve that after working so hard” or “I really admire how much effort you have put into…”

Young people will benefit when their efforts are acknowledged because they learn that trying and dedication are important. Learning to value working hard and perseverance does more for their long-term character than one off victories and accomplishments.

Their Choices

Someone once said, “We are the sum of choices.” Character is all about making wise choices, even if they are not the easiest options. Teens are faced with an overwhelming number of choices everyday, affirming the helpful choices they make encourages them to choose wisely next time. And what parent doesn’t want their teens to make wise choices, particularly in those life-defining moments.

Encouraging your teen in the little choices they make increases the likelihood of them feeling confident to make wise choices in the big things.

Encouraging choices might look like “That was a wise decision to go to study in your room before the movie started” or “You could have tried to do that behind my back but you were upfront and asked, I think that is a really mature choice” or “I think you had a lot of courage to stand up for…”

Final Thoughts

There are lots of ways we can encourage our young people.  However it is not only what we say that matters but when we say it.

Encouraging young people only when you want something will cease to be taken as affirmation very quickly.  Try to be consistent and genuine in your encouragement.

Encouragement can easily become embarrassment if done in the wrong context.  Affirming your teen in front of their peers can result in your teen resenting your comments and consequently achieve the exact opposite of what you were hoping for.  Sometimes choosing to wait and share your encouragement in private is a wiser choice.

That is my list of how to encourage teens. If you have some thoughts or experience in affirmations that work or even those that don’t please share with the rest of us in the comments section below.

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  • martin6673

    very well spoken, Chris!
    I’d like to stress honesty. Never lie to encourage your child. They will sense that and it will have no positive effekt.
    If they do not succeed the way they wanted (“failed”), you could: open your heart, welcome your child, honor all the positive aspects, ACCEPT IF THE CHILD IS DISAPOINTED OR SHOWS OTHER NEGATIVE FEELINGS, take your child into your love with his/her anger even if this is not convenient for you yourself. After the emotional rush is over, the two of you have built up an emotional bonding and a base for everything stated above. And maybe – but only maybe – work on a better way for the next time.
    As I have done a great deal of teaching martial arts: honesty is, to let your student know her/his capabilities without being false positive. Because if you let them believe they are better than they really are (e.g. by acting a little slower than you could, when fighting) they will get hurt when getting into real tournament.
    I hope my English transports my thoughts, as my mothertounge is German…

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