The teenage years are a time of tremendous learning and growth for pre-teen and teenage students - not only academically, but physically, emotionally, and socially. These years can be some of the most challenging and turbulent ups and downs for kids, and for parents. My husband and I are both teachers in CharacterStrong Schools in our district, so we see this each day in our schools and as parents at home with our 14 year old daughter and 17 year old son. The highest of peaks and the lowest of valleys can occur for teens within the span of weeks, days, or sometimes in just hours or minutes...
The highs and lows of middle and high school years are filled with growth opportunities, successes to celebrate, and challenges that shape our character as individuals. There is the push and pull of independence, the growing importance of friends and social approval, and still a need for comfort and support from home. It is a balancing act! There are several key factors in finding the balance when raising teens with strong character. Building these routines and expectations early makes them an established practice as your children enter into these sometimes exciting, sometimes frustrating, and often unpredictable teenage years. After all, kids these days are going to change the world with their passion, purpose, and perseverance.
1. Stay involved through the middle and high school years.
This one is for both parents and teens. Parents: Know who your kids are hanging out with. Get to know those families. Take advantage of the networking that can happen at school parent nights and sports practices, offer to drive your kids and their friends to activities, or host an event at your house so you can get to know the friends and their families. It takes a village to raise our kids, and you want to know who is in the village that surrounds you! Teens: Get involved with the various clubs, sports, and activities that are available in your school and community. Being connected with people is an important part of your CharacterStrong development. Jump on in!
2. Give opportunities for independence and choice making, but within safe boundaries.
There is a sweet spot of balance between being a “helicopter parent” and having a “you’re on your own” mentality. Our children should not be protected from all that could harm them, but they should also know that you are there if they need you. Teens need to learn to make decisions, handle tough situations, and recover from failures. The goal is to raise them to be able to succeed on their own outside of your arms of protection. They need opportunities to spread their wings, fall down, get back up again, and fly.
3. Technology has a time and a place, but nothing replaces in-person interactions.
In our family, cell phones have never been the private property of our children. They know that it is a privilege to have a phone, and I have the password at all times to be able to check up on them. This usually doesn’t need to happen, but there were periods of time when it was something I did pretty regularly (through middle school) to keep my finger on the pulse of what was going on. Again, find a balance between meddling, being informed, and being naive. Our family rule about social media is that you should feel comfortable to say out loud whatever it is that you are posting online. And lastly, everyone’s cell phones are docked in their charging stations in the kitchen when it is time to go to bed.
4. Responsibility is doing what you have to do before you do what you want to do.
My dad’s favorite saying when I was growing up was, “Plan your work, and work your plan.” It is a theme that resounds in my life as I help coordinate the busy schedules of our family. Teens are growing up in a world of instant gratification. They don’t have to wait for a song - it’s on their playlist. They don’t have to wait for a TV show - it’s on a streaming service. They don’t have to wait for a phone call from a friend - they have texts and social media at their fingertips. There is value in having a plan that is organized and establishes a priority for the “have-to’s”. Teach them that commitment and patience are qualities that will serve them well in their lives.
5. Goal setting: Be your own best self. Perfection is not the goal.
Comparing yourself to others is not the goal. There are always others who have more (talents, resources, etc…) than you. There are always others who have less than you. In track and field, victories are measured by improving upon one’s own personal record. The athletes don’t have to finish first to be successful. Help your kids to find what they love, work hard to build on their own skills, and achieve that personal best in all areas of their lives! Growth Mindset!
6. Gratitude is important.
There aren’t enough “thank you’s” in the world today. It is important to teach our kids to appreciate and value the small things and the big things that others do for them each day. Writing a thank you note, giving personal words of encouragement and gratitude, a smile or high five in the hallways, spreading joy through kindness. These acts of gratitude mean so much, and often take just a little time and thought.
7. Give to others.
Some of the best experiences my teens have had were when they served others. When we facilitate and encourage our kids to demonstrate humility by being willing to serve someone else, that’s when personal growth can reach epic heights. The saying “what you give, comes back to you” was realized when they volunteered their time and talents. Service can be achieved through a leadership project at school, helping with a fundraiser walk, finding a community service project that speaks to your heart, being a part of a mission trip experience with a church, or even helping a friend, teacher, family member, or neighbor. Remember, sacrifice and service is simply about putting others’ needs ahead of our own.
8. Find the good.
On those days that aren’t the best, find the lessons within the challenges. There are going to be those days when things just don’t go well. It may be that there are situations that are out of our control, or perhaps choices are made that were not well thought out. We can help our teens cope with difficulties by supporting them through these lessons. We all grow through the positive and negative experiences that we encounter in our lives. Help them to find the purpose in their pain…move beyond the disappointment to focus their energy on something positive. Control what you can control and build resiliency through the adversity.
9. Don’t hold grudges.
Forgiveness is a gift to yourself. This is a tough one, but so valuable to relationships and inner-peace. Holding a grudge is a burden that weighs on a person and holds them back in so many ways. Forgiveness allows someone to take control of their own feelings. Author Celeste Ng says that “Anger is fear’s bodyguard.” Whether it is for others or ourselves, forgiveness is freedom from anger and bitterness, and replacing those feelings with grace and peace in our own hearts.
10. Listen to your teens.
Spend time with your teens. Love your teens. Be involved and interested in what your kids are involved and interested in. I have found that time in the car is valuable talk time. There doesn’t have to be uncomfortable eye contact and conversation seems to flow more easily when positioned side by side. If your teen likes to “plug in” to their device when in the car, invite them to take the earbuds out and play their music for both of you to hear. Make a date for some one-on-one time with your teen - take them out for coffee, a special dinner, a shopping trip, or just a drive in the car. Find out what is important in their lives and be GENUINELY INTERESTED in what they think.
They grow up way too fast, and before you know it, they will be off to adulthood - heading out into the world with the strong character that you helped to shape in them.
John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.