Ep 104: A Good Relationship is Key to Having a Good Teen

Episode Summary

Dr. Richard Lerner, author of The Good Teen and academic at Tufts University, shares his research on “good” teens and “bad” teens. The key to raising a good one? Strong, nurturing, and trusting relationships. Richard shows us how!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Creating a strong relationship with your teen doesn’t always come easy. It can be hard to interest them in shooting hoops or watching old movies with you…they’re likely more excited about skating or hanging out with their friends at the mall. Even just starting up conversations can be difficult, as teens can sometimes be wary that you’re just trying to nag them or tell them what to do.

If we don’t form strong bonds with our teenagers, however, we might be keeping them from reaching their full potential. More and more research on adolescent mental health and self esteem indicates that having meaningful relationships with trusted adults can be vital to their well being. So how can we create powerful connections with our teens to ensure they move into adulthood with confidence and self efficacy?

Our guest today is here to talk all about how parents can forge positive relationships with teenagers that give them power to thrive. His name is Richard Lerner, and he’s a professor who’s done some groundbreaking research on the adolescent mind. His book, The Good Teen:  Rescuing Adolescents From the Myths of the Storm and Stress Years, is all about how we can smash the myth that adolescents have to be miserable, and instead create nurturing, empowering environments where care and encouragement allow teens to reach their full potential…

In the episode, Richard goes into depth on how forming these bonds helps kids prosper, and how you can find ways to connect with your teen and their interests. 

Why Relationships With Our Teens Matter

Richard knows that teenagers are capable of great things, if they are nurtured and given the right resources. His research has followed thousands of adolescents from all different backgrounds, and examined how powerful it can be when we believe in kids and provide them with the tools to build themselves.

In fact, the reason Richard entered the field of adolescent psychology was because he felt that teens were too often being told that adolescence was destined to be a negative experience, when he knew that in reality, it can be a period of empowerment. In his research, he examined how positive relationships with adults allowed teens to blossom.

Based on his research, Rischard sorted the qualities of successful teens into five categories: confidence, competence, character, connection and caring. Richard believes these principles are attainable for all teens, given the right circumstances. In the episode, he talks about how teens can learn to embody each one.

What kids really need to develop these traits, Richard says, is positive relationships with mentors, coaches, friends, and of course, parents.  If you want your teen to believe that they’re capable of academic, social, and vocational success, you can start by making an effort to connect with them. Richard explains how you can use these strong relationships to promote moral centeredness for your teens, so that they can grow up to be generous, productive members of society.

If you know how powerful these bonds can be, the next question is, how can you initiate conversations and build your relationship with your teen?

Get Into What Your Teens Are Into

You want to connect with your teen, but all they seem to be interested in is their computer or their new eyeshadow palette-whatever it is they’re obsessed with lately. Maybe you want to talk to them, but you don’t really find anything they like to be interesting or appealing as a means of bonding with them.

However, finding ways to become interested in the things your teens are interested in is one of the best ways you can help them thrive, according to Richard. These interests are likely tied to their greatest skills and most authentic passions, and by showing them you care, you can help them turn their interest into a serious opportunity for growth. In the episode, Richard shares the many ways you can help kids manifest valuable skills through their natural interests.

He shares his own experience with his son as an example. Growing up,  Richard’s son always loved skateboarding, but Richard never really found a lot of merit in the activity. However, in an attempt to connect with his son, Richard offered to help him build some boxes and ramps to skate on. They decided to place them in the basement, so that he could skateboard down there in the winter. 

The two of them worked together to construct the materials, allowing them to bond and giving Richard’s son some serious construction skills from a young age.  Although Richard wasn’t much of a skater himself, he found ways to use his son’s interest to help them both grow. This growth is a two way street, says Richard. As much as teens learn from you, you can also learn from them. 

Once you’ve used a teenager’s interests to form a strong bond with them, you’ve opened up a channel of communication. That means you’ll be able to reach them when it comes time to chat about more serious matters.

When It’s Time To Get Serious

In the episode, I ask Richard what advice he has for parents hoping to approach serious topics with their kids. He recommends being proactive, and to talk about serious issues before problems emerge. Bringing up these ideas early on can help prepare teens for life’s curveballs before they come flying towards them.

This doesn’t stray too far from Richard’s research about forming strong bonds; in fact, when prompted to give his greatest advice for positive parenting, Richard states trusting, caring, nurturing relationships are key.  Whether it’s sitting kids down to talk to them about the more serious aspects of  life or just taking time to ask them about their day, putting in the effort can have wonderful results.

Every kid, he says, needs an adult that cares irrationally for them, someone who they can rely on. If kids are reminded that they are loved and that they matter, they’ll feel comfortable coming to you when it’s time to discuss serious things.

When they do come to talk to you, Richard emphasises the power of rejecting punishments and punitive measures, in favor of trust and honesty.  He suggests sending a message to your teens that you’re concerned and want to help them out, rather than putting them down for their choices.  If you make it clear that they can confide in you, they’re more likely to come to you for some advice and clue you in to what’s going on with them.

If your kid does decide to share with you, it can be a great opportunity to talk with them about values and principles, imparting upon them the wisdom you’ve gained in your life. In the episode,  Richard describes the lifelong balancing act between sharing your opinions and giving your child room to form their own–something he’s been working on since his first say as a father.

In the Episode…

When it comes to working with teengers to help them become their best selves, Richard has endless great advice. His research has brought forth amazing discoveries about how adolescents can thrive and become happy, healthy adults. On top of our discussions about forming strong relationships with your teen, Richard and I chat about….

  • How “difficult” children are often just misunderstood
  • What to do when kids don’t quite subscribe to your ideas
  • How to get teens interested in social justice and charity work
  • What we can do to make screen time valuable instead of harmful

It was so enlightening to speak with Richard about how we can make adolescence a time of positive growth for our teens. Make sure to subscribe for more great parenting advice!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Show interest in what your teen is interested in:

“Look I’m not on SnapChat and I’m not playing a video game–I’m paying the grocery bill and booking your dentist appointment. I have more responsibilities and need to use tech for practical reasons.”

-Dr. Richard M. Lerner

2. Check in while supporting your teen in their endeavors:

(Members Only)

3. When your teen says they can’t do their favorite activity at home:

(Members Only)

4. Let your teen know you’re not ‘out to get them,’ and connect more deeply:

(Members Only)

5. How to introduce your own mistakes:

(Members Only)

6. Involve your teen in your family’s charitable giving:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So, can you talk a little bit about your research and how you got into it?

Richard: So I began my research career while I was an undergraduate at Hunter College in the Bronx, which is now Lehman College. I’m one of those folks that went from kindergarten to PhD in the public schools of New York City. Can you see what I have in the background there? We’re in my study.

Richard: So there’s the famous Steinberg poster of the New Yorker. It shows… That was my world view. And next to it, that’s a signed Derek Jeter jersey.

Andy: That looks like a Yankees Jersey to me. Yep.

Richard: Yeah. So I’m still a New Yorker and I thought I would never leave New York, but needing a job got me off over the George Washington Bridge and moving to the Midwest. But in undergraduate, I thought I was going to be a physiological experimental psychologist. That’s how I entered graduate school. But I then became exposed to ideas about child development and specifically adolescent development and something struck me as completely wrong about the whole field, and that was that the model was adolescents are in a period of storm and stress, and the best we can do is make them less bad. It was this deficit model that said adolescents, because of their biology, are dangerous to other people and in danger themselves because of their unrelenting manifestation of hormonal challenges.

Andy: And it’s just going to be bad. There’s nothing we can do about it.

Richard: Right. So the idea was good in adolescents was to make them less bad. That didn’t jive with my observations, completely unsystematic, of the young people I knew or saw in my college classrooms or my graduate school classrooms. I became increasingly intrigued with adolescent development. At the time I began working in the area there was very little work in the area. It was mostly looking at the implications of puberty for positive or problematic development. Through a long series of experiences, both in class and with professors, I became very interested in how young people, through working with the significant others in their world, could be a major source of their own development and, if we align the strengths of young people, which I believed existed, with the resources for positive development in their world, those relationships could lead to thriving and that it wasn’t biologically necessary that people were less bad to be good, but that we can actually promote things in people that would be valued by themselves and other people, things that ended up being those seeds of positive development I talk about in the book. But that took years for me to discover.

Andy: You didn’t come right out of the gate with that?

Richard: I didn’t know that when I began, but that’s what led me to get interested in adolescence as a period of development. When I started, there were relatively few people. There wasn’t even a journal devoted to adolescence. Eventually some came out, but there was no organization, no scholarly organization. So eventually I worked with other people to form the Society for Research on Adolescence. I became the editor of their flagship journal, Journal of Research and Adolescence.From my very first editorial in that journal, and through the six years I edited it, I spoke about how adolescents could be positive producers of their own thriving.

Andy: One of the things that early on in your book, in line with what you were just talking about, which I thought was a really great idea, was, you write that actually sometimes being a difficult child is actually an advantage. You talk about a tribe in Kenya called the Maasai, in Kenya and Tanzania, and they had easy versus difficult kids-


Behavioral styles, temperaments.

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Richard: In the US people would describe temperament through things like biological regularity and if you were regular in biological characteristics, like sleeping and eating and toileting, that made it easy for your parent to take care of [crosstalk 00:05:01]. the unpredictable about when you went to the bathroom, how much you weighed, when you slept, and if your mood was not positive, when you woke up, you were yelling and screaming and you couldn’t be placated or diverted that would make it difficult. Whereas easy kids would wake up in a positive mood, could be distracted from cranking out.

Andy: Yeah, yeah. They go along with the program. They don’t resist everything. Yeah.

Richard: Right. In the United States, the research indicated that kids were either easy or difficult. But remember my idea that human development is a relational phenomenon. It’s person, context, relations. These ideas were studied, easy and difficult were studied in middle-class primarily white samples where the mothers would go out to work. And not just work at anything. The samples that were studied were the mothers were college graduates. Some of them were lawyers, physicians, PhDs. So they needed to get to sleep because they were going into a classroom, an operating room, a laboratory the next day. So a difficult kid would really break up their patterns. However, when you go to other settings where the context is different, a difficult child might be irrelevant if a mother just figures that her lot in life is to adapt ourselves around the kid, whatever the kid is. Or at times when there are resource restrictions, it may be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and we actually saw that in the studies that I reported in the book.

Andy: That’s so interesting. I think, yeah, it’s just an example of how we think it’s so obvious sometimes how our kids should be or whatever, or why can’t they just get with the program or follow along. But actually sometimes, whatever they’re-

Richard: Think of what would have happened if Bill Gates went with the program and stayed at Harvard and graduated or Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

Andy: So, okay. You then went and conducted a study about this, and you went to all these programs, sports programs, 4-H clubs, church-affiliated programs, and it was longitudinal. So you followed people repeatedly.

Richard: We studied 7,000 kids from 42 states from the fifth grade to the 12th grade. Although the study had limitations, which I’ll discuss in a second, what we found is just what I had, that first inkling back when I first opened up a book and saw how people were discussing adolescents, that if you align the strengths of young people with the resources that exist in their key settings, homes, schools, community of programs, those young people will thrive.

Richard: We found that five attributes were useful for defining thriving. Competence, not just academic competence, although that’s important, but also social competence and vocational competence. About 60% of all kids who have been enrolled in high school full time in the United States work part time. So given that, kids need to be competent in the workplace. And then they have to have confidence in themselves. They have to have the belief that they are a kid who has the ability to succeed at valued activities, but they also need to know that they can’t do it themselves.

Richard: They have to have positive connections with family, with coaches, teachers, mentors, friends, coworkers, and they need to work with these people in ways that reflect moral centeredness and character and appropriate behaviors. They need to understand that there’s right and wrong and be committed to doing the right thing. Finally, we found that a fifth C was important. Character or compassion. That is a young person who cared about doing for others what they had. That the world didn’t end with themselves, but they wanted to reach out and help other people, sort of a social justice idea. We also found that when we saw high levels of competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring in kids, a sixth C emerged. Contribution. Young people actively made positive contributions to their family, to themselves, keeping themselves healthy and fit, to their schools, to their communities. As we looked at older kids, these contributions became transformed into positive civic engagement.

Richard: They wanted to make a positive impact on the institutions of social injustice and institutions of civil society. Now that was good work. It lasted 10 years with my collaborator, Jackie Lerner. It was sponsored by National 4-H Council. 4-H is still the nation’s largest youth serving organization. So of the 7,000 kids, 2,500 were 4-H. But the then president of 4-H, Don Floyd, had the vision that we want to make this study a vision of all America’s kids, so we went beyond. However issues of, even though we were very well funded by National 4-H Council, Jackie worked very hard to get us a representative sample, the sample wasn’t representative. We had too few kids of color, too few kids from urban areas and too few kids of low SES. Therefore, in the study we just got funded to do, which is to replicate the 4-H study, which we’ll be beginning this fall, and we’re asking people from 4-H from across the United States if they’d like to collaborate with us, we will over sample for those attributes of kids that were deficient in the first sample.

Richard: Because here’s the thing. Positive youth development is a general term, but unless we study diverse kids, we will never know how positive development is understood and instantiated in diverse samples. So that’s our goal in the new 4-H study, which we’re calling the replication study. By the way, we’re also re-contacting the original sample to see how they are faring in their late twenties.

Andy: Wow.

Richard: We’re calling that the reconnection study.

Andy: Oh, that is going to be so interesting.

Richard: These are people now in their late twenties who are building their lives in the middle of a pandemic. What is happening with them?

Andy: It’s going to sure be interesting to find out, huh?

Richard: Well, invite me back in a couple of years and I’ll tell you how that works out!

Andy: This is another thing I really thought it was interesting in the book here, you talk about liking what your teenager likes, which sounds really simple when you just say it like that, but it’s actually a little more complicated because if you go overboard, then your child will start to feel like it’s an intrusion or like you’re taking over. So how do you support and feel like you want to get involved and be supporting your teen and what they’re interested in and liking, but without them feeling like you’re overstepping?

Richard: So this would be a great time for me to call on my grandchildren who happen to be here. They have a facility with electronic media that I still don’t have. My seven-year-old granddaughter can pick up a phone, a laptop, a stationary computer, a Chromebook, and begin working with it and begin figuring out how to access the web and different websites and how to put things together. My three-year-old, she’s actually not three until October, my three-year-old granddaughter, she moves like, your radio won’t be able to see it, but she’s paging through the pages of her mom’s cell phone to find out the sites she wants to go to, and she’s not yet three. So my point is, parents should find a reason to be enthusiastic about what their kids are doing, assuming it’s a wholesome, appropriate thing and learn from their kids.

Richard: Say, “Wow, that sounds really interesting. Could you tell me what’s good about that? Can you teach me what you know?” Let the kid be an active agent in showing the parent that what they’re doing is valuable and could engage the parent. That sort of mutuality of respect and engagement can be a great resource of bonding between the parent and a kid.

Andy: And so the key is always making sure they’re in the driver’s seat a little bit, or that you’re deferring to them.

Richard: Well, no, no. Actually, not that they’re in the driver’s seat. I wouldn’t say that. But that you find value in your kids’ perspective, that you reinforce that they have agency and the ability to define their world in a way that you respect. That’s the key. You’re not going to say to the kid,

Andy: “Do whatever you want.”

Richard: “Okay, you’re seven years old and here, drive my car.” Of course, my seven-year-old granddaughter wants to drive my car all the time.

Andy: I bet she does.

Richard: But I’m not going to put her in the driver’s seat. But I talk to her about why she needs to learn some rules about driving and how, when gets older, in this state it’s going to be a while, it’s 16 and a half to get a license here in Massachusetts, that I, if I’m still around, will be glad to teach her and make her a driver and even share my car with her by then. Probably by then, I won’t be able to drive. She’ll have to drive me around.

Andy: She’ll be your chauffeur. That’ll be great.

Andy: So one aspect of that is praise them, which can be hard, I think, for parents.

Richard: Praise and support. Praise and support, Andy.

Andy: So I like this section that you have on productive praise on page 61 of your book. You write, “Find some aspect of the work that reflects one of your child’s strengths and then emphasize it, and you can also note how her work has influenced you.”

Richard: Yeah. That’s exactly my point. You affirm that they have authentic, valuable skills that you’re proud of and that you would like to see them embellish and grow.

Andy: Yeah. Well, I think this is really savvy and I think it’s not, maybe, the instinct. Because the instinct is to say, “You’re really good. Good job. Wow. It looks good.” Praise, I think can be difficult and there’s all people saying different things about how you should be doing it and how you shouldn’t be doing it. But I thought this was really a nice way of thinking about it, of focusing on the strength that it emphasizes, whatever it was that they were worked hard on it, or that really shows their creativity or that it shows their, whatever, athleticism.

Richard: Here’s something. When my younger son was late elementary, beginning of middle school, he was really into skateboarding and he broke his share of bones, et cetera.

Andy: I bet. Yeah, yeah. That’ll happen.

Richard: I certainly wasn’t going to get on the skateboard, right? But I said, “Gee, it might be good if you skateboarded around here so that I could see how you’re doing and appreciate the skills that you have because it looks like you’re very talented and I’ll never do it.” His name is Jarrett. “I’ll never do it, Jarrett, but I’d like to see what you can do.” He goes, “Well, I can’t do it here, dad, because there’s no…” And he gave me the words. There were no boxes, et cetera. I go, “Well, maybe we could get some lumber and we could work together on building stuff that you could use.” And I said, “We have a basement that’s 101 feet long. Maybe even in the winter when you can’t do it outside, well, you can bring it downstairs and you can do it inside and invite your friends over.” He thought this was the greatest idea. What did he do? He learned how to build things. We still have the boxes he built in our garage.

Andy: I bet.

Richard: Because now he’s married with his own kid. he doesn’t have room for them. So we’ll have them there for when my granddaughter who’s three gets the skateboard because he’s intent on teaching her how to do it. So that’s what I mean. Find something or create something of value that you can affirm in your child. Show them you value that. And rather than saying, “Skateboarding is reckless and you’re getting in people’s ways,” find ways of affirming that what your kid is doing is manifesting a valuable skill.

Andy: It’s so easy to just look at it as a waste of time. “Why do you do that? Why do you waste so much time on that? What about your homework?” and the things that you see as important. You make it sound really easy in this example, but it’s really hard, I think, when your kid comes to you with something that they’re doing, that’s not part of the program, that’s-

Richard: The hardest thing now, especially even before the pandemic, children in America’s greatest waking activity was screen time. Not going out and playing pickup softball with their friends or skateboarding or whatever. Now in the pandemic, it’s a necessity to survive to be able to Zoom like we’re doing right now, or to use screen time to learn and to also interact with people.

Andy: It’s your only connection to the world.

Richard: The irony of the pandemic is the greatest thing that kids need to keep them thriving and moving in a positive direction are positive social relationships. That key asset in their lives is the very thing which will endanger them now. So parents need to be especially creative now to find value in screen time. One of that could be co-learning. I constantly talk to at least my older grandkids and my children who are all in their early thirties about what can they teach me about how I can access things online.

About Richard M. Lerner

Richard M. Lerner, PhD, is the author of The Good Teen and more than 700 scholarly publications, including more than 80 authored or edited books. His work has been featured in numerous academic and research journals as well as popular media such as Smithsonian Magazine. 

Dr. Lerner is professor of Human Development at Tufts University, occupying the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science. He directs the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development (IARYD), also at Tufts, and was the founding editor of the Journal of Research on Adolescence and of Applied Developmental Science. He recently received the Association for Psychological Science (APS) James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award, for a lifetime of outstanding contributions to the area of applied psychological research. Lerner serves on the Board of Directors of the Military Child Education Coalition (and co-chairs their Scientific Advisory Board). In July 2017, Pope Francis appointed Lerner to a five-year term as a Corresponding Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Though a New Yorker at heart, Dr. Richard currently lives in Massachusetts with his wife and collaborator, Dr. Jacqueline V. Lerner, Professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. Richard and Jacqueline are blessed to have their three adult children, and four (soon to be five) grandchildren, living nearby.

Want More Dr. Lerner?

Find Richard on his IARYD website, Google Scholar, and at Tufts University.