When Your Teen Never Seems Happy (Despite All You Do For Them)

by Nancy Reynolds

This Post: When Your Teen Never Seems Happy (Despite All You Do For Them)

Written By: Jessica Manning

When my boys were little they were so easy to please…

An afternoon at the park, a bedtime story at night, or a few plastic water guns in the backyard – the littlest things brought smiles to their faces and squeals of joy. 

I only wish that same bursting joy they felt as toddlers and preschoolers was evident now that they’re teenagers.

When Your Teen Never Seems Happy (Despite All You Do For Them)


After pondering this thought, it occurred to me that a lot of the teenagers I know and work with as a high school counselor often exude a level of discontentedness, agitation, and disdain that’s saddening when compared to their childhood joy (not all, of course). 

Like my boys, even kids from stable families with involved parents who go to great lengths to show their love and support are often cranky and have a rather unhappy demeanor.

To an extent, it’s not their fault. 

Their swinging hormones keep them emotionally imbalanced, so we can’t completely blame them. And, let’s not forget that the older our kids get, the mounting pressure to succeed academically, in sports, and in extracurriculars can derail their happiness. Stress is a killjoy.

But as a parent, it’s disheartening to know that no matter how much effort I put toward making my kids happy (or, at the very least, enthusiastic about life), my “magic happy wand” doesn’t seem to work nearly as well as it did when they were little. 

Apparently, it’s not just my observations. According to an article entitled, U.S. Falls Out of Top 20 Happiest Countries for the First Time Ever,” happiness has decreased in all age groups, but especially among the young (15-24-year-olds), so much so that they are now the least happy age group.” 

What’s changed through the years to make them statistically more unhappy? While some factors might be impacting our kids’ happiness (or lack thereof), including societal expectations, social media, and constant cellphone use, I think it’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes, our kids’ unhappiness is the direct result of their choices. To a certain extent, don’t we all need to be held accountable for our own happiness? 

Are they hanging with a group of friends that drags them down?

Did they take on far too many tough classes in school?

Are they choosing to stay up until midnight or later scrolling on their phones so they wake up every morning exhausted, grumpy, and irritable?

As parents, it’s so easy to fall into a pattern of bending over backward to make our teens happy. But if our kids don’t understand that they have to own some of their choices that negatively affect their happiness, I fear they’ll spend a lifetime searching for it to no avail. 

I’ve never been one who believes that being happy is the quintessential goal of life. After all, happiness is fleeting. 

When our kids get an “A” on a test, they’re elated. When they fail a test, they’re miserable. 

When they spend a night hanging with friends, they’re psyched. When they’re stuck at home doing homework, they’re bummed.

They might land the perfect internship and be bouncing off the walls, only to find it’s not what they expected and now they dread going every day. 

You get the idea. Happiness doesn’t have staying power… it’s temporary and, more importantly, it’s typically driven by external factors. It’s no wonder that day by day, and sometimes, hour by hour, our kids’ happiness can turn on a dime.

Thus, as a parent, I caution myself from saying, “I just want my kids to be happy.” I’d much rather they strive for joy, which is more often associated with internal factors, like a sense of purpose, gratitude, and peace that the outside world cannot impact. Joy is far more sustainable. THIS is what I desire for my boys; I might want them to be happy, but I pray for them to be joy-filled.

Joy is much more of a state of mind… a habit that we can, with intention, teach our kids. Here are 5 things the most content and joyful kids I work with have in common…

5 Things You Can Teach (and Model) to Help Your Teen Recognize and Strive to Be More Joyful:

Be Thankful for Big AND Little Things

When my boys were little, I would intentionally point out something I did for them to prompt appreciation. For example, I’d say, “Are you happy with the new Matchbox car I bought you? What do you say?” My boys are teens and I still point out things I do for them if/when I don’t feel appreciated.

Our kids will follow our lead. If we appreciate what others do for us and are grateful and optimistic about life’s goodness, they’ll (eventually) pick up on that, too! Let’s help them focus on what they have instead of what they don’t have. And when they struggle, let’s remind them that there’s always something to be grateful for. 

Stop Comparing Yourself

Comparison is the thief of joy… and this holds especially true when you’re a teenager scrolling through Instagram or Snapchat hours a day. But the happiest, most joyful teens I know don’t get stuck in the comparison trap; nor do they have parents who encourage it. 

Instead of saying things to their kids like, “Wow, he practices way more than you do,” or “I heard he’s got a summer job lined up already,” which only fosters self-doubt, resentment, and jealousy, they teach their teens to compete with themselves… no one else – to become the best version of themselves.

Build Healthy Relationships

Teenagers define relationships differently than we did as teens. Thanks to the Internet, they might be content hanging out with their friends while in separate houses playing video games together. 

However, much research exists on the importance of connection when it comes to our teens’ mental health, which is why we need to encourage our kids to have plenty of face-to-face social time with others. If your teen always stays in and prefers to communicate online, limit their screen time. Nudge (or perhaps gently push) them to spend time with family, friends, and relatives. Make sure they’re involved in sports or extracurriculars that allow them to connect with kids, coaches, mentors, and other adults.  

Have Realistic Goals & Expectations 

I’ve found that teenagers who put too much pressure on themselves to get good grades, make the team, or get into a “good” college (for example), are the least joyful. Their self-criticism and perfectionism interfere with their ability to feel content, live in the moment, and be joyful about how far they’ve come.

We have to model and teach our kids to stop beating themselves up every time they fall short or don’t meet their own expectations. It’s OKAY not to have it all figured out right now. Rather than pushing so hard, let’s encourage them to enjoy the journey. As long as they’re moving forward, that’s all that matters. 

Strive to Be Part of Something Bigger

The one thing I want my boys to know is that there’s more to life than, well THEM. Teens, by nature, tend to be “all about me,” which is why I want them to view life through a different lens, to step out of their “teen world” bubble, and be part of something much much bigger. Whether it’s volunteering, teaching younger kids, or serving others in some small way, I want them to realize that taking the focus off themselves and giving selflessly can bring tremendous joy and purpose. 

Our kids need to understand that they won’t find joy in a pair of Air Jordans, by being popular, being the leading point-scorer on the team, or having their VSCO reposted X amount of times. 

And they won’t find it in big biceps, or from a girlfriend or boyfriend, or in a 4.0 GPA. Can all of those things provide short-term happiness? Sure. But true joy takes practice and can only be found from within. 

About Jessica Manning

Jessica is a high school counselor with over 20 years of experience working with teenagers. She earned an M.A. in school counseling and a B.A. in English and secondary education. Jessica is married to a high school principal and has three teenage boys; her current life revolves around all things teen. When not working or following her sons’ sporting events, Jessica appreciates any opportunity she gets to veg at home with her family and her dog, Phyllis. 


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