When parents are asked what qualities we hope for in our teens, we use words like kindness, courage, resilience, and purpose. Vulnerability probably doesn’t make it onto many lists, but maybe it should. According to clinical social worker and researcher Dr. Brené Brown, embracing vulnerability – including our imperfections, mistakes, and difficult emotions – is how we develop all these traits and more. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Making friends with vulnerability is a lifelong lesson, and it’s never too early to start. Here are our five top tips for helping teens develop this secret strength:
1. Acknowledge that teens are already brave just for being where they are.
Feeling vulnerable is tough at any age, but it\’s extra challenging for teens. Parents sometimes forget that teens are still in the early stages of building their neurological, psychological, and social foundations. All of a sudden, they’re figuring out their identities, navigating more complex relationships, and feeling a wider range of emotions than ever before. All those inner and outer changes mean that adolescence is already a vulnerable time. When parents acknowledge that, the support helps teens feel a bit braver trying new things, making mistakes, and opening up.
2. Teach them that their worth and worthiness are innate.
A sense of belonging is incredibly important to teens, and that includes feelings of safely belonging with their family, friends, peers, and community. Since vulnerability often brings the possibility of judgment from others, stepping out of their comfort zone in any of these relationships can feel scary. Emphasize to your teen that their worth – and their worthiness to belong – can’t be taken away, no matter what they do, think, or say. If they know what unconditional love and acceptance feels at home, they’re more likely to form healthy relationships with people who embrace their whole selves.
3. Make emotional vulnerability a family value.
All teens can struggle with vulnerability, but studies show that boys have an especially hard time. In a recent survey from Plan International, a third of boys said they think society expects them to hide or suppress their feelings when they feel sad or scared. Another third said society expects them “to be strong, tough, ‘be a man,’ and ‘suck it up.’” Perhaps more alarmingly, 41% of boys said that when they feel angry, they are expected to be aggressive or react violently. Parents play a huge role in modeling and welcoming emotional openness. Helping teens learn to “name and claim” their emotions can teach them that all emotions are valuable, even the uncomfortable ones. Let them know that you appreciate it when they express their feelings, and build trust by sharing your feelings with them, too.
4. Praise and reward teens more for effort than for winning.
Naturally, parents feel a special sweetness when their hardworking teen aces an essay contest or crosses the finish line first. It’s great to celebrate their victories, but a lot of teens’ courage to be vulnerable comes from less triumphant moments. Acknowledge them for working hard, taking risks, making wise choices, being a team player, and helping others, too. Be especially aware of times when they put themselves out there and don’t meet with success, since that’s when they’re likely to feel vulnerable. One dad takes his two daughters out to “celebrate courage” whenever they’ve stretched themselves, whether or not there’s a win involved. See our post on Growth-Mindset Parenting for more ideas.
5. Teach them about the perils of perfectionism.
High-achieving teens often demonstrate perfectionist tendencies, but studies show that perfectionism harms much more than it helps. Dr. Brown’s research found perfectionism to be “correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities.” The more teens measure their identity and worth by their achievements, the more they’ll struggle with vulnerability. If you notice your teen holding themselves to an unattainable standard, remind them that they are worth far more than their accomplishments. Help them figure out what goals matter most to them and why they are motivated to work hard. According to Brown, “healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?”
Vulnerability is all about the soft side of being human. Sometimes that feels like fear or shame, but it can also feel like love, compassion, and courage. Learning to lean into their uncomfortable emotions helps teens make an ally of vulnerability. Then they begin to see themselves as imperfect but whole and deserving of belonging – just like everyone else.