Considering the challenges that come with adulthood, life skills for teens are essential. They help teenagers take better care of themselves and make them more resilient, capable of handling mental and emotional stress.
“It’s important for teenagers to learn real-life skills so when they go to college or get a job, they feel prepared to handle the reality of being an adult,” said Sydney Bartel, a clinical therapist at Embark Behavioral Health in Greenwood Village, Colorado. “In adulthood, you need to interact with a wide variety of people in many different situations and environments, so to have the ability to navigate these challenges is huge.”
Table of contents
- The Connection Between Life Skills and Mental Health
- 12 Core Life Skills for Teen Mental Health
- 1. Emotional regulation strategies
- 2. Personal care
- 3. Screen management and technology skills
- 4. Communication skills and interpersonal effectiveness
- 5. Nutritional awareness and practices
- 6. Emotional intelligence
- 7. Organizational and time management skills
- 8. Setting achievable goals
- 9. Money management and budgeting
- 10. Problem solving and decision making
- 11. Work skills
- 12. Handling failure and success
- How To Teach Life Skills to Your Teen
- How To Keep Evolving the Life Skills Set as Your Teen Grows
- How Mental Health Treatment Can Help Teach Life Skills
The Connection Between Life Skills and Mental Health
According to a recent review of 10 studies involving youths ages 10-19 published in The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, life skills education can positively impact mental health. Bartel shared some reasons why.
“Research has shown that people who develop life skills become less depressed, less anxious, and more resilient to different life situations,” she said. “They feel more empowered and capable of adapting to life situations.”
12 Core Life Skills for Teen Mental Health
Life skills for teens go beyond balancing a checkbook. They also involve knowing how to regulate emotions, limit technology use, and communicate in healthy ways. Here are 14 essential life skills for your teenager.
1. Emotional regulation strategies
Practicing relational security and vulnerability, as well as deep breathing and mindfulness, are key emotional regulation strategies.
Relational security starts with you, the parent. By meeting your teen’s emotional, physical, and relational needs, you establish a secure relationship with your child. Your teen can use that secure, healthy relationship as a model for forming relationships with other people in their life. They’ll know how to respond appropriately to others and establish a space that feels safe for everyone, including themselves.
“Security allows us to feel comfortable about being vulnerable,” Bartel said. “So, the knowledge and understanding that there’s trust in this relationship lets us feel secure and safe enough to be vulnerable.”
Relational vulnerability is your teen’s ability to reveal who they are to others. It includes sharing their insecurities and fears, as well as aspects of themselves they take pride in. It also involves being secure enough to encourage those around them to share what they fear — even if it triggers their own insecurity.
Taking the time for slow, deep breaths can help your teen regulate their nervous system, increasing their comfort and alertness while reducing confusion, anxiety, and depression. They’re less likely to move into flight, fight, or freeze mode where emotions take over, allowing them to make decisions with greater clarity.
“Mindfulness is just the skill of being more aware and accepting of your present experience without being judgmental about it,” Bartel said.
Being mindful can help your teen balance their thoughts and emotions, allowing them to be in control of their mind and choices even in high-stress situations where emotions and instincts can take over.
2. Personal care
Personal care is one of the top essential life skills for teenagers, in part because looking and feeling good tend to become priorities as children enter their teen years. Attention to movement, grooming, and hygiene are key.
If your teen doesn’t already engage in regular physical exercise, encourage them to do so, as it offers health benefits and can help them discover their passions and interests. For example, they may try soccer at their middle school and love the sport — and resulting camaraderie with teammates — so much so that they continue playing it all the way through college.
Grooming and hygiene
In addition to showering, bathing, brushing hair, and practicing good oral hygiene, your teen needs to adopt more advanced hygiene habits, such as shaving, treating acne, and using feminine hygiene products.
3. Screen management and technology skills
Advances in communication have made computers and smartphones a part of everyday life for teens. This can be a challenge for parents who did not grow up in such a technology-rich environment or who are struggling with overreliance on technology themselves. It’s therefore important to understand some of the tech-related issues facing your teenager, including getting enough rest and avoiding scrolling addiction.
Best practices for sleep
With technology such a huge part of everyone’s lives, self-care practices now extend to properly using smartphones, laptops, and computers. Limiting screen time and stopping smartphone use before bedtime can help your teen get adequate rest at night.
Scrolling addiction awareness
Scrolling addiction occurs when tech users become addicted to scrolling through content in search of novelty, causing them to put off important tasks. Make sure your teen is aware of this issue so they can learn to limit their use of technology and be more engaged in the here and now.
4. Communication skills and interpersonal effectiveness
By modeling good communication skills as a parent, you can help your teen develop better communication — and interpersonal — skills themselves. Keep the following real-life skills in mind: setting boundaries, active communication, expressing feelings in a healthy way, assertive communication, and handling conflict.
Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with your teen helps establish a safe environment they can thrive in. Boundaries need to be based on emotional and physical safety, apply to everyone in the relationship or home, and do what’s developmentally best for the parent and the child.
Examples are no physical abuse, illicit drug use, lying, or stealing.
Active communication involves actively listening to others by taking in their words, body language, and facial expressions to get their full meaning. It also means your teen clearly communicates their thoughts and needs to others. While your teenager should work toward developing active communication as one of their essential life skills, to achieve mutual understanding, all parties involved in a conversation — including you, the parent — need to practice it.
Expressing feelings in a healthy way
Identifying their emotions is an essential life skill for you and your teen that aids in healthy communication. Bartel encourages teens and families to express their feelings through “I messages” by letting others know “I feel this way” rather than saying “You did this” or “You made me feel this way.” This approach increases self-awareness and accountability for emotions.
How to handle conflict
To properly handle conflict, your teen needs to actively communicate. They must be willing to:
- Talk about the issues at the core of the conflict.
- Express their feelings without escalating the situation.
- Demonstrate empathy for other people’s perspectives.
5. Nutritional awareness and practices
As your teen grows older, they’ll become responsible for another one of the most essential life skills: healthy nutritional awareness and practices. This means they’ll need to identify the fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats they need to eat, as well as manage any dietary restrictions they have. They’ll also need to learn real-life skills, such as cooking.
Knowing their way around a kitchen is just as important as knowing which foods to eat. While your teen doesn’t have to become a professional chef, they should know basic skills, such as how to chop vegetables, safely cook different meats, and prepare healthy breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Knowing how to keep a kitchen clean is important as well.
6. Emotional intelligence
“At its core, emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of your own and others’ emotions, have some control over your emotions, and receive other people’s emotions in a compassionate and empathetic way,” Bartel said.
Emotional intelligence is important because it helps your teen foster healthy relationships.
7. Organizational and time management skills
“Time management may be an even bigger deal now because we have the distraction of technology,” Bartel said.
She emphasized that parents must begin teaching time management and organizational life skills as early as possible. This includes encouraging your teen to limit distractions, such as using smartphones, so they don’t procrastinate. It also means having them create daily routines to stay organized. Organizational skills can be especially helpful given a cluttered life can equal a cluttered mind, which can make completing tasks more difficult.
8. Setting achievable goals
Setting goals is one of the most important life skills for teens, as pursuing goals fosters growth as teenagers mature into adults.
In her therapy groups, Bartel teaches teens to create SMART goals, which are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. This approach gives your teenager a clearer sense of what to do and makes it more likely they’ll reach their goals.
9. Money management and budgeting
Your teen needs to know how to spend responsibly, which includes prioritizing necessary items like food and electricity before niceties like games. Show your teenager you have a clear plan for budgeting your money so they can model their money management behaviors in a similar way.
10. Problem solving and decision making
Your teen needs to address problems that come up in their personal and professional life, from preparing for hazardous weather to dealing with work-scheduling problems. Knowing when to ask for help and when to act decisively are also real-life skills your teen must become comfortable using.
11. Work skills
It’s worth noting that essential life skills play a role in the workplace. For instance, a 2019 High Point University survey of 500 C-level executives reported that 65% of executives would rather colleges teach students skills such as motivation, emotional intelligence, and problem-solving abilities in contrast to 35% who’d rather these schools teach technical skills.
Bartel recommended you explain why traditional work skills like face-to-face communication are still relevant and provide opportunities for your teen to exercise and develop such skills.
12. Handling failure and success
Bartel advised that you normalize failure by sharing stories about your mistakes and how you grew from them. This shows your teen that mistakes don’t define them, and they shouldn’t let fear of failure stop them from challenging themselves.
You should also acknowledge your teen’s strengths and celebrate their successes while teaching them to celebrate others’ success. This helps your teenager develop self-awareness, empathy, and other positive relational skills.
How To Teach Life Skills to Your Teen
There are multiple ways for teaching life skills to your teen, starting with creating a nurturing environment for learning.
Create a nurturing environment for skill learning
Providing teenagers with a nurturing environment where they feel comfortable practicing life skills and asking parents for help is key to effectively teaching life skills. Consider the following practices:
- Model life skills like effective communication in front of your teen.
- Normalize talking about feelings while practicing emotional regulation.
- Actively listen to your teen and take an interest in activities that are important to them.
- Normalize failure while encouraging your teenager to challenge themselves.
Incorporate life skills into daily routines
Daily routines provide opportunities to help teenagers develop life skills while also providing a sense of security. Try incorporating the following into your regular routines:
- Encourage emotional regulation by establishing regular check-ins where your teen can share the emotions they’re experiencing.
- Create set places to put clothes and personal belongings in your home — and make it your teenager’s responsibility to keep their belongings organized. This helps build organizational skills.
- Make dinner a time to share how everyone’s day went, and encourage family members to ask follow-up questions. This helps build active communication skills.
Use real-life experiences as teaching opportunities
Teaching opportunities come up all the time in real life. You can take advantage of them while providing your teenager with some of the autonomy and independence they should strive for. Consider using the following teachable moments:
- Let your teen exercise their money-management abilities by giving them money to shop for household necessities, and ask them to stay within a budget.
- Encourage your teenager to take on a part-time job to develop and exercise work skills.
Encourage self-learning and exploration early and often
While parents provide useful guidance, sometimes teens learn their most lasting lessons on their own. Help encourage self-learning and exploration by:
- Modeling curiosity by taking adult education classes.
- Visiting museums and libraries where your teen can explore and learn on their own.
- Making books and learning materials available at home for your teen to reference when they have questions.
- Encourage your teen to take on responsibilities not connected to your family, such as a part-time job or volunteering for a nonprofit.
Use school and extracurricular activities
School and extracurricular activities help teens mature because they encounter situations that require them to exercise life skills. For instance:
- Sports participation helps encourage regular physical activity and self-care.
- Interacting with peers in school and extracurricular activities builds social skills.
- Balancing schoolwork with extracurriculars develops time management skills.
How To Keep Evolving the Life Skills Set as Your Teen Grows
Once they learn basic life skills, teenagers are in a much better position to use what they know to develop more sophisticated life skills for dealing with additional challenges. You can help with this process by encouraging your teen to take on new experiences and approach new opportunities with a growth mindset.
Start with what your teen is already interested in. For example, if your teen is consistently performing at high levels in math, encourage them to consider an advanced math course the following semester or tutoring opportunities.
How Mental Health Treatment Can Help Teach Life Skills
Not all young people require mental health treatment to learn essential life skills. However, if your teenager is struggling to learn what you’ve modeled or taught, issues such as depression or anxiety could be a reason why. They may need mental health treatment to address whatever challenges they’re facing, and that treatment can also help them learn important life skills such as emotional regulation.
In addition, Bartel noted that individual and family therapy can teach life skills to parents. This can be helpful to parents who were not raised in environments that taught them to be open, honest, and trusting, affecting their ability to pass on essential skills. If you feel therapy could benefit you, consider therapists with experience in issues like self-esteem and life coaching, which are related to life skills for teenagers.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing for teens to know is they have a trusted and caring adult in their lives,” Bartel said.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!