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Raising Teens To Succeed In Life: Build Character, Not Grades

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

Worried about supporting your child’s transition to secondary school? It’s good to step back and look at the big picture, beyond exams or choosing the “right” tertiary institution down the road. The fact is that you are no longer raising a child, but a teenager, and a soon-to-be adult. 

At age 13, Holocaust diarist Anne Frank wrote in her journal: “Parents can only advise their children or point them in the right direction. Ultimately people shape their own characters.” 

While this may be true, it is our parental responsibility to create the optimal environment for our teens during their season of exploration, in the hope that they will develop the qualities needed to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. We can still make a difference — read on to find out how.

Reduce Stress In The Home

When it comes to raising children, there are three types of stressors you should know about. 

First, there is positive stress, which refers to events in daily life that lead to normal stress responses, such as meeting new people or learning something new. Such stressors are considered essential for children’s growth and development.

Next is tolerable stress, where stressors result in more severe, sustained, or frequent responses that can negatively impact brain architecture. Examples of family events that may trigger tolerable stress include the death of a loved one, or divorce. 

The worst sorts of stressors for children, however, fall under the “toxic stress” category, where stress responses are activated to the point where the body is unable to fully recover. This is what children who grow up in environments where there is poverty, neglect, abuse, addiction issues, or mental illness will face.

According to Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, a highly sensitive stress-response system “can produce patterns of behaviour that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers.”

“On an emotional level, toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations,” he adds. “On a cognitive level, chronically elevated stress can disrupt the development of what are known as executive functions: higher-order mental abilities that some researchers compare to a team of air-traffic controllers overseeing the workings of the brain. Executive functions, which include working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility, are exceptionally helpful in navigating unfamiliar situations and processing new information, which is exactly what we ask children to do at school every day.”

Is your teen suffering from toxic stress, as a result of triggers at home or in an external environment? Symptoms of toxic stress include regulation issues, such as sleep disruptions, eating disorders, or increased anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity. 

No matter what has happened in the past, all is not lost. “There is a way that we can change toxic stress into tolerable stress,” says US paediatrician James Duffee. The solution? Build a supportive relationship with your teen. Giving physical affection to your teen, helping him or her to name and express negative emotions, and doing what you can to provide a safe space will go a long way in mitigating the impact of events that may be out of your control. (Get more ideas on buffering the effects of toxic stress.)

Create An Environment That Fosters Intrinsic Motivation

Motivational experts often cite the research of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who identified that for someone to feel fulfilled in the work that he or she is engaged in, these elements must be present: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (being connected to others). 

When it comes to autonomy, you can think about it in three ways: emotional, behavioural, and values-based autonomy: 

  • Taking charge of one’s emotions is about being able to express feelings, but at the same time, not letting feelings get in the way of life. Is your teen able to deal with negative emotions and criticism in a healthy way, and engage in self-soothing behaviours when feeling down? Do you model healthy emotional behaviours in the home? (Read about the emotional skills that teens should be taught.)
  • Another key area to guide teens in is decision making. This is the time to let go a little, and let teens make some choices on their own. However, before you do that, teach your teen to use a step-by-step approach for handling life’s problems, such as listing down all possible options, asking questions to evaluate and choose the best option, as well as a post-mortem to determine if the actions taken have solved the problem, and what can be improved. 
  • As for values, perhaps you already have a set of values to live by, based on your own upbringing or your religious beliefs. If not, it’s worthwhile taking time to think about the values that matter to you, which you wish to impart to your teen. 

To help teens achieve competence and mastery in school, or in an area of interest, open their eyes to the difference between poor practice and effective practice. Effective practice is about being focused, working on tasks with a specific objective in mind, and seeking advice when one encounters roadblocks.

And finally, take a keen interest in your teen’s friendships, as this will have a profound effect on the relationships that they develop later in life. Show teens how to keep the friends that matter, and pull away from unhealthy relationships. 

Is your teen feeling ambivalent about a friendship? Use the questions below to kick off a discussion. If your teen replies “no” to any of the questions, it’s a sign that the friendship may not be a positive one.

  1. Do you feel lighter being with this person?
  2. Do you feel encouraged?
  3. Do you feel valued?

If your teen has to work on group projects, teach them to speak up, listen to others’ viewpoints, be open to new ideas, and handle conflict. At home, when siblings disagree, resist the urge to step in with instant solutions, but instead, teach them communication strategies, and how to give one another space when needed. 

(Read more about cultivating your teen’s relationship and collaboration skills.)

Family Project: Learn To Embrace Failure

For parents interested in raising resilient kids, Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset and Angela Duckworth’s Grit are essential reading. 

Teens with a growth mindset are more likely to believe that intelligence, talents, and abilities can be developed, if one is willing to respond to challenges. Those with a fixed mindset approach, on the other hand, believe that abilities are inborn and can’t be changed. 

However, Dweck recommends a flexible approach to using these terms. “Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets,” she says. “You could have a predominant growth mindset in an area but there can still be things that trigger you into a fixed mindset trait.”

To encourage your teen to view challenges with optimism, find out what they are interested to improve, and teach them to set goals. If the desired results are not achieved, don’t minimise the setback, but instead, guide your teen towards alternative strategies and resources that may be more effective.  

At home, be on the lookout for examples of growth mindset, and share them as a family. Talk about the failures and learning experiences that you’re still encountering, and how you plan to address your own gaps. (Get strategies for helping teens to develop a growth mindset.)

Duckworth’s concept of “grit” bears similarity to the growth mindset approach, but aside from perseverance, she also takes into account the importance of passion. “Getting anywhere in life, doing anything worth doing, it just takes so much effort,” she says. “If things were easier, then maybe we wouldn’t need grit. But I think most things that are worth doing take a long time and that sustained commitment. There are no shortcuts to true excellence.”

Through daily life conversations, or observations, find out what your teens are interested in. Brainstorm ideas with them about how they can make these interests more meaningful to themselves, or create an impact that benefits others. Get them started on projects, but prepare them to be ready for pitfalls and frustrations. Duckworth’s advice is to reframe our negative perception of mistakes: “You might say to yourself, ‘I can’t do this,’ but you should say, ‘That’s great.’ That means you really have the potential to learn something there.”

As a family, set a challenge for everyone to attempt a “hard thing,” and share your experiences. (Get more activity ideas for building grit.) For best results, lead by example, and show that you truly believe in these healthy mindsets through your own actions.

 

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