I am often stymied by how to get my teens to behave in the ways I would like them to. I talk to them incessantly about healthy behaviors, but it often feels like the messages I’m trying to convey bounce off them. As my teens have gotten older, I’ve noticed they do much more of what I do. I will never tell them I’ve noticed their behavior because that would undoubtedly ruin things, but I see how effective setting an example for my kids is.
My son started working out with me off and on in middle school. At first, I thought he was doing it because it looked like fun, and he had a lot of excess energy. But as time passed, he started asking me why I liked to work out every day. Sometimes he’d join me and stop if the workout seemed too hard. He couldn’t grasp why I wasn’t stopping when things got tough.
I was honest with my son about why I needed to exercise
I was frank with him and told him that I didn’t play any sports in high school and felt my body change after puberty, so I started doing exercise videos. Not only did I love the results (they came a lot quicker back then), but I also explained to him that exercising made me feel good mentally. It helped me with my anxiety and seasonal depression, and moving my body gave me much more energy.
Around this time, he started struggling in school. He was getting into trouble for fighting, didn’t seem to care about his grades, and his temper was out of control on some days. I tried everything I could think of — talking to him about his behavior, grounding him, taking away his phone and friend privileges, and telling him how much his behavior affected others.
I suggested he start exercising again because it made him feel better. He didn’t say anything about that or seem to like my suggestion until a few months later when he asked me if he could join a gym. I thought it was a fantastic idea and signed him up right away.
My son discovered exercise by watching me, but he had to come to it in his own way
Not long after, I noticed a difference in his behavior; it was almost immediate. That was over six years ago, and he’s still at it. We go to the gym together a few days a week, and my daughter just joined and goes with us now as well.
Working out wasn’t something my daughter seemed interested in for a long time, so I never pushed the issue, but I did mention that it might help her confidence and social anxiety. She is reticent and struggles to order food in a restaurant. Again, I never pushed her. I kept doing my thing and talking about how great a workout was or how much energy I had, and now, the three of us go together, and I couldn’t be happier.
Suddenly my teens seem to appreciate clean spaces
Something else I’ve noticed about my teens as they’ve gotten older is their appreciation for tidy spaces. I’ve given up on their messy rooms, which are usually a disaster, and told them they could pretty much keep them as messy as they want (except for food and trash) as long as they keep the door closed, so I don’t have to see it.
Messes make me anxious, so I like to keep all the common areas clean, and my kids know they have to do the same. Lately, they’ve all been commenting on how it makes them feel happier to come downstairs to a clean living room and kitchen, and they have begun keeping their rooms clean too. Again, for the past few years, I’ve let them keep their rooms how they want, and I never tell them they have to clean, so this seemed like something they started doing because they saw me do it.
I need to change my behaviors so that I set a healthy example for my teens
I also want my kids always to know I am a safe place, and I want to be the one they come to when they struggle with something. I remind them of this often, but I also know that I have to be completely open if I want them to feel free to express themselves or ask me anything.
That means I need to be human and express myself. If I’m struggling or sad about something, I used to try to hold it in around my kids. If I made a mistake, it was hard for me to admit it. I was horrible at apologizing when I was wrong, and if I were upset with someone, I would give them silent treatment.
These were all things I wanted to change for myself and set a better example for my children. As they entered their teen years, I noticed they’d go silent on me when upset and rarely apologized.
I had to take a hard look at myself, and it was tough to admit, but they were acting exactly like me because that’s what I had shown them. So, I started having more grace and compassion for myself and others. I wanted my kids to know it was okay to be upset with someone and not hold a grudge forever — that you could have an adult conversation and move on without ignoring someone you care about to prove your point.
I wanted them to see me go through hard stuff and come out of it so they would know if they were struggling, they could eventually come out the other end of it. And I wasn’t doing that by trying to hide all the turmoil from them and acting like everything was always good because we all know that’s not how life is.
It’s easy to talk to your kids but know that they are watching you
It’s easy to tell our teenagers what to do. And we’ve all been guilty of saying to them, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I’m not a model parent, and I still have so many things I need to work on, but one thing I’ve come to understand lately is that my kids are watching me.
If they see me doing something that is working, adding to my quality of life, or making me happy, they are likelier to try that. And letting them watch me succeed trumps any verbal advice I give them.
The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.
More Great Reading: