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How to Help Your Teen Get Happy


How Do We Find Happiness?

That’s the 64-million-dollar question.

One funny thing about the answer is that we almost all know what it is. Getting happy is not rocket science. Happiness can feel elusive and fleeting, and for many of us it is. But happiness can also be strong, consistent, and steady. That’s the kind of happiness we’re talking about in this article. We don’t expect anyone to live in a constant state of bliss – that doesn’t seem realistic, anyway. At the same time, we know it’s possible to reach a default state of happiness and contentment in life.

That’s the strong, consistent, and steady happiness we’re talking about.

And believe it or not, despite the fact that the teenage years are somewhat turbulent and filled with ups and downs, we know teenagers can find a realistic happy mode – and you can help them.

Our position – as we stated outright – is that we almost all know how to find happiness. We know the basics because we’ve heard them over and over. Therefore, this first list is not our “how to get happy list.” This is our “here’s what you know already list.” You can use this list to help your teen get happy using the second list we’ll share in just a moment.

Here’s what we think you know about happiness:

  1. You’re the only one who can make yourself happy.
  2. Happiness is different for everyone.
  3. Happiness comes from finding a consistent, durable, practical set of habits that promote happiness.
  4. Habits count, but attitude is everything.
  5. Happiness starts with common-sense wisdom.

You know all that already – we think.

The question here is how to pass these lessons on to your teen in a way that sticks – and we know exactly where to start.

Happiness: Lessons from Recovery

The reason people in recovery know something about how to build happiness is that – and this is, of course, a generalization – they’ve been through tough times when their lives became unmanageable. Which often, but not in every case, corresponds with being very unhappy. Whether they got to those unmanageable/unhappy places because a of mental health disorder, an alcohol or substance use disorder, or other psychological and emotional challenges, they all have one thing in common.

They had to rebuild their lives and create happiness on their terms.

In order to do that, they learned it’s productive to think of recovery as a verb: to recover. That means it’s a process. If you read two sentences back, you’ll see the word rebuild. You’ll also see the word create. Both those words imply a lesson learned:

You can’t think your way to recovery. You have to act your way to recovery.

Happiness is the same. Forming the thought I want to be happy or I am happy rarely produces lasting happiness. Don’t misunderstand: we believe in the power of affirmations. At the same time, we know that action leads to change more often than thought. Although both are important, where both happiness and recovery are concerned, thought backed by action leads to change, whereas thought without action does not consistently lead to change.

With that said, we’ll now offer five tips for you to help your teen get happy. Try these, and we bet you can help your teen make the change from sad to happy.

Five Steps to a Happy Teen

1. The Basics.

Food. Healthy food on a consistent schedule is the foundation of physical and mental health. Eating is a behavior. Good eating takes practice. A real breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at close to the same time every day, has a positive impact on mood. Remember, eating is an action. Creating the conditions for your teen to take this specific action every day is within your reach – and will pay off.

Sleep. Like healthy eating, a healthy amount of sleep affects physical and mental health. Lack of sleep increases negative mood and emotion. Plenty of sleep increases positive mood and emotion. While sleep itself is passive, things directly related to it are active: practicing proper sleep hygiene, going to bed at a reasonable and consistent time every night, getting out of bed at a reasonable and consistent time every morning are actions that your teen can take.

Exercise. We use the word exercise here as a synonym for being active. We know every teen is not going to respond well to the idea of working out. Whether that means playing sports or doing something like running, some teens just aren’t into it. What they need to learn, though, is that physical activity improves mood. As a parent, you can plan ways to keep your teen active, if they aren’t. Start by doing things together – what you do is wholly dependent on you and your teen – then gradually transfer the responsibility for staying active to them. It may take time, but it will work – and it will improve their default mood.

2. Gratitude.

A powerful mantra in the recovery community is gratitude is the attitude. Here’s where we learn that even attitude can be thought of as an active behavior. The way to make gratitude active is by practicing gratitude exercises. The simplest is to identify three things for which you’re grateful, and visualize, in your mind – and teach your teen to do this as well – all the times when the thing for which you’re grateful brought you happiness. A concrete way of doing this is by creating a written gratitude list and refreshing it every day. Not the core things, but the details. For instance, your teen might be grateful for friends, family, and their dog. Every day – first thing in the morning – they can visualize and/or write down three ways their friends made them feel grateful, three ways their family made them feel grateful, and three ways their dog made them feel grateful. Spending ten minutes a day on a gratitude list can be a game-changer. Give it a shot, and you and your teen will be surprised by the results.

3. Fun Activities They Love.

The trick to having a good day is having more happy moments than sad moments. The trick to having a good week is having more good days than bad days. And the trick to getting happy overall is accumulating happy days and good weeks until they outweigh the sad days and tough weeks. To that end, you, as a parent, can discover or rediscover the things your teen loves to do, and create conditions that allow them to do those things on a consistent basis, day by day and week by week. Over time, they’ll accumulate happy moments, and learn that in order to get and be happy, they need to create the conditions, independently, that allow them to participate in the fun activities they love as much as they can.

4. Include Friends.

All humans are social creatures, but, on balance, teenagers are very, very social. For most teens, friends are literally everything. And friends that share in fun activities they love make those activities better and can send the happy meter into the stratosphere. Therefore, when you’re busy making tip #3 happen, find ways to include your teenager’s friends in the fun activities. You create the conditions – design the template, as it were – and they learn by example. They’ll learn to be happy independently, but they’ll also learn that a fun activity they love is enhanced when shared with a fun friend they love. If this was math, we’d say that with friends, the fun can increase exponentially.

5. Circle Back to Gratitude.

Always circle back to gratitude. Teach your teen to ground into gratitude at the end of each day by repeating the steps they took at the beginning of the day. We repeat this because it works. One thing that can facilitate the act of gratitude is by starting a gratitude journal. Some people like to visualize gratitude in the morning and journal on gratitude in the evening. Other people do the opposite. Either way, if you can teach your teen to bookend their days with ten minutes of gratitude practice, you increase the likelihood that they’ll begin to accumulate more good days than tough days – and they’ll be on their way to independent, sustainable happiness.

When you read this list, think of ways you can modify the components to align with your teen’s personality and preferences. We know these things work, but what we also know is that they look different for everyone. Where your teen is concerned, you’re the expert. And if you don’t feel like the expert anymore, then work with your teen: they’ll teach you what they need, and you can reach expert status again.

Transfer the Skills

Let’s return to the first item on the first list we offered:

You’re the only one who can make yourself happy.

To get your kid happy, what you need to do, ultimately, is teach them how to make themselves happy. This means that for every item on our list, you need to find a way to transfer responsibility for that category of behavior – since happiness comes from doing – from you to your teen. You create the circumstances that allow them to behave or act their way to happiness, and slowly, over time and through practice, they’ll learn to do the same. They’ll create the circumstances that allow for behavior that leads to happiness, which will allow them to practice the habits that lead to happiness. It may take time for them to practice their happy habits every day, but eventually, they’ll get there. The happy days will outnumber the tough days. The days will become weeks and the weeks will become months. With practice, happiness will be close at hand, most days. And on tough days, they’ll know exactly what they need to do to turn things around.

Final Note: When the Approach Isn’t Enough

If your teenager has a mental health disorder such as depression, they may need professional support creating the conditions that lead to happiness. You’re an expert at parenting your teen, but you might not be a professional therapist. If your teen meets the criteria for clinical depression, then we encourage you to arrange a full assessment with a qualified therapist or counselor.

If they recommend professional treatment and support, please navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.

In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.

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