As my kids wound their way through high school, I scrambled to teach them things I feared I had overlooked. I was focused on tasks they had never done on their own, like buying cold medications or booking a flight. I had a growing “to do” list of skills I thought they needed to master before they left home.
But soon I came to see that, while these skills were useful, and even essential, they are not the most important things teens need to learn from their parents.
I was their first teacher, their life’s teacher (along with their Dad). What they needed most from us were the things that would help them have positive relationships and make responsible decisions as independent adults.
They needed us to teach them the things they couldn’t learn on YouTube or through a quick text exchange as they sat on the laundry room floor of their dorm. The life skills our teens needed were less around how to remove stains and more what is known as “social and emotional learning.”
While this may all get lumped under the heading of “adulting,” there is a big difference between being able to roast a chicken or get your driver’s license renewed (See: Google or texts to mom) and handle the big things, like caring for others and themselves, learning to manage stress, setting goals, rebounding from disappointments, and assessing risk.
Essential life skills our teens need to learn before leaving home
Rebounding from disappointments
As adults we know there are so many ways we can react to a setback. We can doubt our ability and give up or we can work or practice harder and redouble our efforts. The strongest message we can give our teens, is that life is always about the effort.
Sports works as a great analogy in explaining this. The score in any one game can be impacted by weather, referees, the opponent or simply luck. We have no control over these external factors but what we do have the ability to manage is how hard we work and how we react to events.
When we send the message to our teens that we care about their effort, preparation, and focus, we give them the tools to bounce back after disappointment. When we praise them for working hard at a summer job or studying diligently for an exam, rather than for the grade they might have earned, we give them the means to succeed. We send a message that we value effort and resilience.
How can we do this?
We can start by sharing with them our own failures and setbacks and how we responded. Here is a chance to tell them of our own disappointments – academic, professional or personal – and how we turned a situation around.
As parents, we can model a growth mindset by showing them how we achieved things that we once thought were beyond our grasp through hard work. We can be honest about how difficult and even insurmountable some of our challenges might have felt at the time. We can remind them of times they were able to do the same. Our seeming success as adults can loom large in their lives; it is a gift if we tell them our own stories of obstacles and restarts.
We can help them put disappointments into context. Many teens have felt saddened by the events, experiences and just daily life that they missed this year. They have been forced to give up seeing friends, and maybe missed a musical performance, a graduation, a sport or a summer job.
We can send a message that feeling let down is both natural and easily understood, and even if others “have it much harder,” they can still feel bad for what they have lost. But we can also help them to put those feelings into a larger context.
All over the country we have seen teens creating musical and dance shows out of cancelled school performances; we have seen them volunteering and giving back to their community and we have seen them strengthening their real-world friendships with creative online communication. Our teens will watch how we, as their parents and teachers, react in this difficult moment and it is an extraordinary opportunity to model the power of resilience.
Caring for others
Part of moving from childhood into adulthood is understanding your role and responsibility towards a larger community, whether that is your school, neighborhood, a religious community or your family. According to the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education,
Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for acting ethically, for good relationships of many kinds, for loving well, and for professional success.Making caring common project
This time of national struggle may be one of the best moments to teach our children about empathy and caring for others beyond themselves. It may be our chance to do some of our very best, our most impactful parenting.
Why do we say that?
All of us are being asked to make some sacrifice, even if it is something as simple as missing an activity or wearing a mask. It is all focused on something larger than us. Real world events are forcing our teens to be truly global citizens and take action to contribute to the health of their communities, their country and the planet.
It is an important lesson for them to learn and there has never been a more powerful moment to teach it. Even as they may be feeling disappointed about the disruption to their daily lives, it is a chance for us to reinforce the importance of caring for others.
We can show them how much we appreciate our families and how the unique closeness and support families offer in difficult circumstances are so important. Many families have found a new closeness during the stay at home period and, while this is a value we might have stressed when they were younger, during this period we are able to give more than lip service to why this is so important in life.
One of the most common problems we see among college freshmen is not that they can’t handle their academic work, but rather they haven’t learned to manage the array of demands on their time. High schools are highly structured with time scheduled for exercise, classes, studying, socializing, and eating while their schedules in college are much more fluid.
Teens without strong time management skills can still succeed during high school because living at home often comes with healthy meals, regular bedtimes and quiet studying time in the evening. But as they enter college, they need to learn to manage their time and exercise self-control around how they spend that time. Poor time management leads to stress, late night studying, cramming for exams, and feeling like they are not doing anything as well as they can.
How can parents and teachers help teens develop time management skills?
Show them how we manage our time. When we teach our kids to drive, we walk them through the thinking processes a driver uses to plan ahead. In teaching them about time management we can do the same. We can show the planning process we use at work or at home. We can give examples from our calendar.
Suggest they find a method to plan their time, be it a white board, a physical planner or app on their phone, that will help them schedule their time. Talk to them about planning deadlines, being realistic about how long each task takes and allowing enough time for sleep, friends and exercise. If they have learned how to do this during their high school years, it will ease their transition to college.
As our kids move through their teen years, the opportunities to take risks and their desire to take risks both increases. As they enter 11th and 12th grades and begin to drive, their ability to assess and manage risk only becomes more important whether it is behind the wheel of a car or deciding whether to go to a party.
Dr. Lisa Damour, author, educator and clinical psychologist, explains that during the teen years, parents are trying to help their kids move from thinking about risk in terms of If I do this, what are the chances I get caught? to the more mature approach when a teen assesses a situation by thinking, If I do this, what could go wrong and who could get hurt? Our job is to help to make this transition.
How do we help them to make this transition in thinking?
We can talk through hypothetical or real situations with our teens focusing on what they might gain and what they risk by making different choices. We can ask them to explain how they have made some of their decisions, giving them an option to share their thinking process and how it might be evolving as they get older.
Our job here is not to lecture, or “correct” their thinking process, tempting though that may be, but rather to listen, and suggest ways we think about risk and help them reflect on how they would manage different situations.
When they have shown mature decision-making, we can make it clear that, as our trust and confidence in their ability to measure risk grows, so does our comfort level with their independence and that the reverse is true as well. When they have shown good judgement in a tough situation, like avoiding a party that promised to be trouble, we can tell them how proud we are of their maturity.
At each turn, we have the chance to chat through with them what their options were and why they took the path they did. Acting as their sounding board will help them hear themselves and reflect on their own actions.