All parents want their children to be successful in life — and by successful, we mean not just having a good job and a good income, but also being happy. And all parents wonder how they can make that happen.
According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, it’s less about grades and extracurricular activities, and more about a core set of skills that help people navigate life’s inevitable challenges. These skills all fall under what we call executive function skills, which we use for self-regulation. Most people who are successful and happy in life have strong executive function skills.
What are five important core skills?
- Planning: being able to make and carry out concrete goals and plans
- Focus: the ability to concentrate on what’s important at a given time
- Self-control: controlling how we respond to not just our emotions but stressful situations
- Awareness: not just noticing the people and situations around us, but also understanding how we fit in
- Flexibility: the ability to adapt to changing situations.
While these are skills that children (and adults) can and do learn throughout their lifetimes, there are two time periods that are particularly important: early childhood (ages 3 to 5) and adolescence/early adulthood (ages 13 to 26). During these windows of opportunity, learning and using these skills can help set children up for success. In this post, we’ll talk about that second window of adolescence.
The best way to learn any skill is by actually doing it. Here are some suggestions for parents wondering how to help and when to step back.
When children are little, it’s natural for parents and caregivers to do the planning for them. But as children grow into teens, they need to learn to do it for themselves.
- Avoid micromanaging your teen’s life. Instead, set some ground rules — simple ones like: homework needs to get done, they need seven to eight hours of sleep, and regular exercise is important. You may have some other ground rules, like attending family meals or religious services. Then let your teen figure out how to get it done. Step in only if ground rules are clearly being broken consistently.
- When teens have long-term projects, such as a research project or college applications, sit and talk with them about how they want to get it done. Let them come up with ideas before you do!
- Involve your teens in planning family activities or vacations, home renovations, or other projects. Let them make some of the decisions (even if you don’t always agree).
The explosion of device use has caused all sorts of problems with focus in people of all ages. There is an instant gratification to screens that makes it hard to put them aside and focus on less stimulating tasks — so now, more than ever, it’s important to
- talk about how social media and the Internet can interfere with daily life (and homework), and help them come up with strategies to manage the distraction.
- have screen-free meals and family time.
- encourage hands-on activities that don’t involve screens, like cooking, baking, building things, sewing, crocheting, drawing, painting, or gardening.
This is one where being mindful of your own reactions to situations is important. How do you react to anger and frustration? Is road rage a problem for you? Remember that our children always pay more attention to what we do than what we say. To help your teen learn self-control, you can:
- Talk about feelings, and about strategies for managing strong feelings — like taking a deep breath, stepping away from the situation, screaming into a pillow, etc.
- Debrief after upsets, once everyone has calmed down. What might your teen have done differently? What could they do next time?
- Talk about how their behavior affects others, and why it’s important to be mindful of that (a practice that also teaches awareness).
Teens can be very aware — but mostly of their own world. Help them learn to see beyond that.
- Talk about current events and stories in the news. In particular, talk about how these affect people, and how different people might see them differently.
- Go places with your teen — even just a walk in the woods or a visit to a nearby town can give them opportunities to look around them and see things they might otherwise miss.
- Join community service activities as a family; show teens how they can make a difference.
- Have rituals of checking in as a family, like at dinner. Give everyone a chance to talk about their day.
Life throws curve balls all the time, and teens need to be able to adjust.
- Don’t be too rigid about your teen’s schedule. Help them prioritize, and see which things can be missed or postponed when something happens, good or bad.
- Encourage some spontaneity. This, too, is about learning to prioritize and not getting too stuck in routines.
- Be a role model. Be spontaneous yourself — and don’t get too upset when plans change. Make new plans.
Any time you let your teen do something, there is a reasonable chance that they will fail. Resist the urge to jump in right away. While it’s important to have your child’s back (now and for the rest of their life), sometimes teens need to fail in order to learn. Give them a chance to figure it out themselves before you offer help. They may just surprise you.
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD