Raising teenagers can be challenging, whichever country you live in. But if you follow the parenting pillars used in one of the happiest countries in the world, you have the building blocks for a less stressful family life.
That’s the claim of Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl, who points out her homeland has been voted the happiest country in the world, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, oecd.org), almost every year since 1973. So, if parents want to raise happy, well-adjusted teenagers, parenting like the Danes seems to be the way to go.
And to show us exactly how to do this, she’s outlined 10 key parenting principles in her new book, The Danish Way Of Raising Teens.
“The focus should be on raising confident, healthy teenagers with character, just like the Danes aim to do,” she explains.
“However difficult it may sound, the focus must be on remaining calm when teens are raging. The Danish Way Of Raising Teens is for those who want to get through the teenage years without endless arguments. It will help parents and carers guide teens with trust and calmness, even when there will be challenges.”
Here, Sandahl, who has two daughters aged 19 and 22, explains the core principles of raising teenagers the Danish way…
1. Trust them
Sandahl says trust is something that should be practised from the early years of parenthood – although she stresses it’s never too late to show trust in your child. “It’s like the glue between teenager and parent that makes you close to each other, in a shared, deep commitment,” she says, pointing out that trust helps build wellbeing, security, and trusting relationships. “Trust is a conscious choice; if your teen respects the agreements made jointly and feels their parents trust them unconditionally, they’ll live up to that,” she promises.
2. Value togetherness
Togetherness means maintaining a close and meaningful relationship with your teen, with awareness about what’s ‘under construction’ for them. Sandahl says teens still need parents close by to reassure them, no matter how insecure they feel. “In a world of much insecurity, teenagers need a safe place found in the togetherness of home,” she stresses. “Otherwise, they’ll fly away and find other places outside the home that won’t always be positive and safe.”
3. Empathise with them
Empathy, which makes it easier for people to connect with others, is developed in infancy through a child’s relationships with parents, and continues into adolescence, explains Sandahl. She says, as well as showing empathy to your teenager, parents need to try to connect with their own feelings, too.
“The more open parents are to their feelings, the better teenagers will be at reading their own and others’ emotions. This has a significant impact on how they learn to understand themselves.”
4. Play – but not like a child
You might think teenagers are too old to play, but in this case it means building independence and character, and the liberation of doing things themselves, rather than having help from their parents. Sandahl says that for teenagers, free play is a metaphor for their independence phase, explaining: “For teenagers, play is no longer free play as we know it, from kids jumping in puddles or climbing trees. It’s now expressed as liberation – ‘I can do it myself, and I don’t need your help’, and critical thinking – ‘I don’t think so. Why does it have to be that way, mum?’
“It also involves spontaneity – ‘I feel ready for alcohol. Or sex.’ And forming an independent self, or character-building – ‘I’m the fun one, the smart one, the pretty one’. All of this is quite natural and an essential process towards wellbeing and maturity. Your teenager will, with your support, take small new steps towards becoming a whole individual.”
5. Teach them to listen properly
Sandahl says parents should teach their teens to listen to others with curiosity and respect, and take a critical view of what they hear. She explains: “It’s reading books that provide historical perspectives and cultural dimensions, as well as being kind to strangers and helping others without expecting anything in return.” The benefits, she says, are that teens become self-aware and will risk standing up for themselves.
6. Make sure they feel heard
Although teenagers rarely do anything deliberately to hurt their parents, they will challenge you when they’re not included in decisions or don’t feel listened to, Sandahl points out. The way to avoid this is to talk openly with them, and find a middle ground, while encouraging them to take responsibility for their actions. Such an approach can help when dealing with typical teen issues, such as drinking alcohol, and Sandahl says: “Expectations and knowledge of cultural norms, such as alcohol and partying, are crucial to how teenagers embrace situations. Both sides need to feel heard.”
7. Embrace their uniqueness
Parents need to recognise that it’s stressful for most teens to get to know themselves, and mums and dads need to support their child’s growth “without putting them in a defining box”, stresses Sandahl. That means, she explains, that parents need to be careful about the things they say. “The way parents view their teenagers enables them to better understand their thoughts, feelings, desires and boundaries, and this greatly impacts their self-esteem,” she explains.
8. Talk openly and honestly
Parents should talk about feelings, bodies and boundaries with their teen, as this can help reduce doubts and insecurities, says Sandahl. “It boosts teenagers’ self-esteem, letting them see what authentic contact can feel like. It normalises what the imagination runs wild about.”
9. No ultimatums
Don’t give teens an ultimatum, warns Sandahl. She says these often create confusion and fear, and this can lead to rebellion. “Avoiding ultimatums is about communicating values and norms through behaviour,” she explains. “Speak respectfully to your teenager, and they will speak respectfully to you. Stay calm when storms are raging – see beneath the surface and understand why teens behave as they do.”
10. Try to look at flashpoints differently
Sandahl suggests trying to reframe situations to see them in a more favourable light. “It may be that your teenager comes home late, but called ahead to let you know,” she says. “As a parent, the focus can be on the trust that’s been given and emphasising the positive, instead of scolding because the time’s been exceeded.
“Reframing can heal and change negativity and distrust into something positive and sustainable, which fosters self-esteem and greater happiness within your teenager.”
The Danish Way of Raising Teens by Iben Dissing Sandahl is published by Piatkus, priced £14.99. Available now.