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May 19, 2022

We’ll start this essential topic with a little pop quiz. How would21 aspect ratio images (1) you complete this statement?

When my kid starts living on their own, I worry that they won’t be able to ____________.

Chances are, your answers were pretty similar to what we hear from the thousands of parents we talk to every year.

Perhaps you listed numerous concerns like making their own medical appointments, remembering to do their self-care routines, or cooking meals for themselves.

Whatever the worries and frustrations you may be feeling, you’re seeing a lack of experience in managing the day-to-day demands of living in this particular moment of the 21st century. Let’s call the abilities they need to meet these demands life skills for teenagers.

What are the top life skills that teens should learn?

Teaching life skills to teenagers has become more popular recently. Author Karen Harris even published a book last year entitled Life Skills for Teens: How to Cook, Clean, Manage Money, Fix Your Car, Perform First Aid, and Just About Everything in Between that shared some of the more practical tips.

While some sources list up to 100 separate things that your teen should be able to do, we think it’s more useful to sort them into four broad categories: 

  1. Being able to do boring stuff
  2. Delaying gratification
  3. Being able to take on difficult stuff
  4. Figuring out what you need and how to get it

In the next part, I’ll dig into each of these in more depth. You’ll notice some overlap among sections that shows how intertwined these skillsets are.

You’ll also see in this article that at times I’m speaking directly to you, the caregiver - and other times, I’m directing my comments toward the students themselves.

Why? Because "adult you" will likely recognize the teen version of yourself in some of these scenarios, which can help to connect the dots with the broader implications of developing these 4 big skills. 

When young adults are in college and beyond, they may call these skills “adulting.” Regardless of their nomenclature, you have the foresight to know what type of hardships await teens if they do not somehow learn these skills by the time they live on their own.

Because life is so full for today’s teens, they need to work on their ability to manage their daily needs alongside their academic responsibilities.

Why should I teach my teen life skills?

One part of the argument for teaching life skills to teenagers is that the stakes are still relatively low, their inevitable missteps are fixable, and the loving, supportive environment you provide is the perfect incubator for learning.

This is a contrast to the DIY approach of being expected to have it all suddenly figured out on Sept. 1 of their freshman year in college.

The other--and maybe even more compelling--case to be made is that life skills for teens are transferrable both upward to adulthood and across areas of their lives.

By learning life skills, teenagers are also learning the very skills they need to succeed in school, too.

There are tangible benefits to figuring out how to keep your room reasonably clean that translate to the world of academics.

Want to know more about this? I’ll show you how life skills and academic skills point to a higher, core set of self-management abilities we refer to as Executive Functioning.

Life Skill Category #1: Being able to do the boring stuff 

Folding laundry. Taking out trash. Your 15th page of an Earth Science chapter on rocks. Life is full of completely necessary moments that are not Instagram-worthy.

What skills do you need to get that boring stuff done? First, you need to be able to initiate or just plain get started. You need to be able to say to yourself, “This is dull stuff, but the sooner I tackle it the sooner I’m done with it.”

Second, you need to manage the whining part of your brain that insists, “I don’t wanna!”

Third, you need to imagine a time in the near future when you’re done with it and the benefits feel good to you: Mom is not nagging me, I feel prepared to say something smart in class tomorrow, I can do something fun now.

Finally, you need to focus on the task at hand until it’s done - much as you’d prefer to be shooting hoops in the driveway, it ain’t done til it’s done.

And guess what? Those four skills (better known as Initiation, Emotion Regulation, Cognitive Flexibility, and Attention) are all part of Executive Functioning. And when you can tap into those skills, you can handle the boring stuff, whether it’s in the form of a class assignment or an expense report at work.

Tips to get boring stuff done:

  1. Have a small but tangible reward waiting for your teen.
  2. Pair it with something your teen enjoys (maybe you fold clothes while listening to music).
  3. Buddy your teenager up with someone else who has to do something boring (because misery loves company).

Life Skill Category #2: Delaying gratification

If you’ve established a reward for completing a boring thing or simply waiting out a predefined amount of time before indulging in a pleasurable activity, you’re delaying gratification.

Think about the ways in which successful students and adults do this: students pass in homework, study, and participate in class in the hopes of attaining the reward of a good grade months later.

Adults set a goal for fitness and train for weeks until they can run that 5K and proudly display their finisher’s medal.

Anyone who’s working on a deadline may choose to keep their phone in a different room until their work is done before they scroll through TikTok for meowing kittens.

The Executive Function skills needed to delay gratification successfully are Impulse Control (nope, it’s not time to eat that marshmallow, yet), Emotion Regulation (because it’s frustrating to not get what you want right NOW), and Working Memory (as you try to switch back and forth in your head between reminding yourself why you’re doing this thing and what you have to gain from it - and doing the tasks themselves.)

It’s hard to imagine attaining most any goal a person sets, academic or otherwise, without getting a handle on delaying gratification.

Tips for delaying gratification:

  1. Participate in an accountability group or buddy.
  2. Turn the activity into a competition with yourself or a friend.
  3. Post encouraging reminders to yourself ( “3 weeks of turning in homework on time. You can make it 4!!”).

Life Skill Category #3: Being able to do the difficult stuff

It’s so much easier to put off, delay, or outright ignore tough tasks like writing research papers or summoning up the courage to ask for that college recommendation from your calculus teacher, right? Life is full of these sorts of challenges requiring you to push through and make yourself do difficult things, and accepting them for what they are will make them easier.

There are a few Executive Function skills you need to do something difficult.

First, you need to be able to get your emotions in check. That voice you have inside your head that insists, “This is impossible!” “This will take FOREVER!” and “This will be unspeakable misery!” needs to step back and be soothed by a stronger, calmer voice that tells yourself that you have the capacity to do this difficult task and it is probably nowhere near as challenging as you are envisioning once you begin.

This ability to regulate emotions will help you sidestep the drama of anticipating how tough it might be - and allow you to expend your energy on the actual stuff you need to get on with.

Second, you need to be able to break that big scary task down into smaller, right-sized bites and plan a sequence for those smaller steps that keeps you moving toward your goal.

Third, you need to make sure you’ve allowed sufficient time for each of your chunked-out steps so that you are done well before panic sets in.

Finally, you need to self-assess your progress along the way and determine if you’re on the right track or if you need to course-correct before you can dust yourself off and claim a victorious “done!” with your tough task (as coaches, we refer to this self-awareness as metacognition).

The really great thing about building all those Executive Function skills I just listed (Emotion Regulation, Planning, Time Management, Metacognition) is that they’re like this mighty brain muscle that you’ve been steadily working on - so whenever you have a tough task ahead of you, whether it’s writing that lab report on operant conditioning or packing up to move across the country, you’ll be confident that you know how to do the tough stuff and survive to tell the tale.

Tips for doing difficult tasks:

  1. Use an app like Calm.com to help practice mindfulness and regulate your emotions before you dive in.
  2. Create a timeline of small steps you can take to move you forward.
  3. Look back on your small steps and celebrate what you’ve accomplished in order to maintain your motivation.

Life Skill Category #4: Getting what you need

Contrary to what Mick Jagger tells us, getting what you need doesn’t just happen. In fact, the ability to know yourself and to self-advocate effectively can be a particularly tough one to get a handle on.

Why? Because sometimes you’re drowning in a sea of “shoulds” in your head: I should have understood those instructions in class the first time. I should be able to finish that test when everyone else does. I should know how to use that piece of software at work.

The thing is, we all have brains that work in slightly different ways - and that’s OK. And what your brain’s owner’s manual would say, if we came with one of those, is “What works for others may not work for you. Sometimes, you might need instructions written down or repeated - or you may need to watch someone do a task or see a model of the finished product before you can get going and feel clear about your task. Learn what you need and ask for it because no one can read your mind and you’re responsible for you.” 

This same idea applies to relationships and your health. You need a quiet, dark room to sleep in and your roommate needs the TV on all night? You need to know how to start the conversation and problem-solve together to get your essential rest.

You need to prepare for an exam but your buddies want to convince you to do a road trip for the best barbeque in the state? You need to know how to stand your ground or find a compromise so that you don’t short-change what’s important to you. Getting low on your asthma medicine? You need to know how to call for a refill and pick it up before the need gets urgent - and scary.

The Executive Function skills that help us get what we need (or self-advocacy, as coaches call it) are Emotion Regulation (to deal with the worries that can crop up: “Will they think I’m pushy - or stupid - or a wimp?”), Cognitive Flexibility (to consider different solutions to a given problem), and Metacognition (the ability to understand your own thought processes and be self-aware). These three skills help students throughout their lives in the classroom, with their peers, in their extracurriculars, and eventually with their supervisors and partners.

Tips for self-advocacy:

  1. Learn what works for you and have a standard go-to request ready: “Can I see an example of a finished product?” “Can you please write down the instructions?” “When can we meet to review this assignment?”
  2. Anticipate your needs ahead of time. If you are sensitive to noise, bring ear protection to a loud event. If you have food allergies, bring along some safe snacks to a friend’s house.
  3. Keep important information like prescriptions, doctors, counselors, and other supports where you can easily access them.

The Takeaway

The truth is, many of the tactical, day-to-day skills really have core components that fall into a few main categories. By focusing on learning the big 4 life skills for teens that underlie them, your teenager will be equipped to navigate almost any academic and life challenge that comes their way.

By building these Executive Function skills, students are more able to accomplish their goals - and they gain life skills that will serve them well for decades into the future.

We’ve helped thousands of teens since 2006 to develop these essential attitudes and abilities with our coaching program, and we invite you to learn more about it today!


4 Steps to effective coaching Learn how our coaches work with teens to help them learn life skills as well as academic skills.

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About the Author

Jackie Hebert

Jackie Hebert is the Director of Marketing for Beyond BookSmart. Whether it's managing our websites, overseeing our social media content, authoring and editing blog articles, or hosting webinars, Jackie oversees all Marketing activities at Beyond BookSmart. Before joining Beyond BookSmart in 2010, Jackie was a Speech-Language Pathologist at Needham High School. She earned her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Boston University, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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