5 life skills to teach your teen before they leave home

As teens edge closer to young adulthood, it’s normal to wonder: Are they ready to be on their own? Initially, a long list of practical skills might come to mind. Can they do laundry? Cook? Stick to a budget?

But soft skills are just as critical for life satisfaction and success. Abilities like adaptability, curiosity and initiative might help people regulate emotions, behavior and cognition. These attributes may help teens reach and achieve goals in the workplace and beyond.1

Whether your teen is considering college, the military, trade school or work, these 5 life lessons can help them build the toolkit they need to live their best life. Here’s how you can help.

Life lesson #1: How to make decisions

“One of the best things parents can do to promote happiness and success is to allow for an increasing level of independence,” says Janet Boseovski, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

This is at odds with a modern parenting style known as “helicopter parenting.” The term was coined in 1990 to describe parenting in an overprotective and controlling way. These parents were said to “hover” over their children, hoping to keep them from disappointment and difficult experiences.2

However, a review of 38 studies on the topic found that helicopter parenting impacts children’s mental health. This parenting style can have lifelong negative effects, potentially increasing anxiety and depression.2

“When we hover, we are giving kids the message that they don’t have the skills to problem-solve,” Boseovski says.

Teaching tip: Rather than hovering over teens, ask questions that will encourage them to make their own decisions, suggests Boseovski. Let’s say your teen wants to attend a late-night concert during the school week. You can ask:

  • How will that feel tomorrow?
  • How will it affect your schoolwork?

Life lesson #2: How to be comfortable with uncertainty

Teens might feel like they need to know the trajectory of their whole lives. For example, if they want to attend college, they might think they need to start narrowing in on a major at 16 or 17 years old.

“Younger people tell me, ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what my major’s going to be or what courses to pick. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. If I change majors in college and then have to take extra courses, my parents will be so mad at me,” says Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D., a child and adolescent psychologist based in Exton, Pennsylvania. She’s also the author of Stop Negotiating With Your Teen: Strategies for Parenting Your Angry, Manipulative, Moody, or Depressed Adolescent. These feelings could potentially lead to anxiety.

Edgette encourages parents to help teens become more comfortable with not always knowing the answer. Because, in life, we often don’t.

Teaching tip: Try to be transparent about your own moments of uncertainty and indecision, Edgette explains. That can help normalize uncertainty. Also offer supportive reassurance. In the college example, if your teen is feeling uncertainty about their major choice, you can tell them that whatever decision they make, you’ll support.

Think of a story from your past that shows uncertainty. Maybe one that involves what you studied, and how it’s impacted your life choices with work. Or how you decided on a different path, if you choose to delay college or go to a technical school. Share that story with them, including how you felt and how things turned out.

Life lesson #3: How to make new friends

When teens leave home, they might move away from established friendships and need to create new ones.

“Having good friends is a predictor of how happy kids will be,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Princeton, New Jersey, and author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem.

The parent-child relationship is important for happiness, but research has found that close adolescent friendships were a significantly better predictor of:3

  • Adult peer and romantic relationships
  • Work performance
  • Depressive symptoms

“A common barrier I see is kids believing they have to impress others to make friends,” Kennedy-Moore says. “To make friends, your teen should look for what they have in common with others — to connect, rather than impress.”

Teaching tip: Acknowledge that it can be hard to know where to start with new people. Discuss how small gestures can help break the ice. According to Kennedy-Moore, these can include:

  • Greeting people with a smile
  • Offering sincere compliments
  • Expressing genuine interest in what people have to say
  • Responding with enthusiasm when asked a question

“Kids mostly make friends by doing fun things together. What does your teen enjoy doing that they could do with other people? This is a useful question for kids who feel shy, because the activity can guide the conversation,” she says.

Life lesson #4: How to develop healthy social media skills

Research has linked increased use of social media with disordered eating and depression.4, 5 On social platforms, young people see daily images of peers. If others seem happier, more popular or more successful, it can cause some teens to feel bad about themselves, explains Boseovski.

Teaching tip: Emphasize to your teen that social media tends to portray a curated view of people’s lives, says Boseovski. Remind them that it only shows the high points. It doesn’t always represent reality.

Also talk about how they feel as they scroll. “Encourage children to take stock of how social media does or doesn’t serve them,” Boseovski says. Let them know that it’s okay to unfollow people whose posts make them feel bad about themselves.

Life lesson #5: How to apologize

We all make mistakes, and it’s important to learn how to be accountable for our actions. Too often, young people assume that making an apology will feel too uncomfortable, explains Edgette. So they may avoid speaking up.

It’s important to help teens see that you can apologize and walk away feeling good. Apologizing is the healthy thing to do to maintain positive relationships.

Teaching tip: Look for opportunities to model and talk about apologizing. If your teen resists saying they’re sorry, avoid lecturing them. Instead, ask questions like, “Why does this feel so hard?” and “What does it feel like to apologize?” Consider sharing a personal story about struggling to apologize — and what happened.

As teens prepare to leave home, simply talking to them about these soft skills is a great first step. Having the tools to help regulate their emotions and behaviors can help set them up for success.

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