Beyond Academics: Nurture Teen Strengths

Recognize and Nurture Your Child’s Strengths

The relationship between parents and children inevitably changes during adolescence. Teens may begin to pull away as they strive for independence. As teens share less with us, it can be easy for parents to hold onto grades or academic performance as a way to gauge their child’s success. But when we do this, we narrow both our relationships and their view of how we measure success. It’s important that we connect with our teens on a deeper level. They need to know we genuinely care about their interests and want to support them in their endeavors. Above all, they need to know that we see them as they deserve to be seen, as whole people, not based on how they perform in one setting.

Focus on the School Setting

The Center for Parent and Teen Communication offers many pieces on the importance of recognizing and building our teens’ strengths. Here, we will focus on the school setting, but hope to underscore that even in school, there is so much more to see than grades or scores. We need to convey to our teens that school is about learning and developing skills that will serve them in the real world.

Grades are a marker of performance in the classroom, but don’t necessarily measure a child’s true interests or strengths. They don’t even measure all of the learning that happens in school.  School is a place where we learn to work with peers. This experience prepares young people for the work world as they will be needing to get along with and collaborate with colleagues throughout their lives. School is a place where students can explore their talents and interests outside of academics. It is those interests that will add spice to their lives later. It is a place where students learn that we get the most out of life only when we “stretch” to our limits.

“Stretching” serves as a good example of how success may not be measured with grades.  Sometimes playing safe gets you the higher grades. Get it? We must look deeper than the measures that show up in a grade report for the real strengths our children are developing.

Remember we are raising our children to thrive when they are 35, 40, and 50 year-olds.  Every time we see our tweens and teens demonstrate those characteristics we know will lead to their becoming their best adult selves, we must let them know that we are noticing.

Set High Expectations

Holding teens to high expectations encourages effort and demonstrates that we believe in their ability to succeed. Expecting the most from teens includes encouraging them to give full effort to their activities and academics. It means recognizing and celebrating their positive traits. It also means allowing them to fail but believing in their fundamental capacity to learn from mistakes and to recover.

Sometimes, we may take these expectations too far, placing undue pressure on young people by defining their worth based on their achievements alone. For teens, it is easy to recognize success in the form of academics. Grades provide clear benchmarks for progress. However, relying on grades as the sole marker of success can leave teens feeling as though their worth is defined only by a number.  And, we mustn’t allow children whose talents lie in areas not easily measured by grades to feel less than, or incapable.

Support your teen to maintain balance and look beyond academics to nurture the strengths that are important for making it in the real world.

Reinforce the Value of Education

We are not suggesting that academics aren’t important. Just that an overemphasis on grades can blind us to the true value of education or put pressure on our children to “perform”. Supporting your child through school and encouraging academic interest is productive on many levels. You can instill the value of learning by showing genuine interest in your child’s studies. Ask about what they’re studying. If your child shows curiosity about a particular subject, provide them with resources to dive deeper.

The traits that school can nurture in young people extend far beyond the classroom. As you discover your child’s unique strengths, notice how their skills might allow them to contribute to the world. Consider some examples:

  • Does your child enjoy storytelling? Recognize their ability and guide them to channel this talent through writing.
  • Does your child love sports? Introduce them to statistics through sports analyses and rankings.
  • Does your child tend to tinker with things? Offer them opportunities to build and deconstruct things. This could lead them to become mechanics, engineers, or architects.

Success Beyond the Classroom

Celebrate your child’s positive contributions outside the classroom. Your child may play on an athletic team. They might hold a part time job. Perhaps they’ll take care of their sibling(s) after school every day. They might be the friend peers in trouble turn to for support. The point is that we should look for opportunities to notice where they are shining. We cannot expect our teens to be perfect (or even successful) at everything they do. We hope our children will accept our own shortcomings and admire our strengths. Let’s return the favor and expect the same from them!

Nurturing our teenagers’ growing skills prepares them for independent, successful adulthoods. Acknowledge that along with academics, personal responsibilities and development are crucial too. Many teens believe that employers care most about good grades. In truth, we know that to be successful in the workplace takes much more. Strong communication and social skills, demonstrating leadership, and showing poise and confidence all play roles. Support teens to maintain balance and look beyond academics to nurture the strengths that are important for making it in the real world.

Focus on Effort, Not Product

Notice your teen’s effort. Are they giving their all? Your teen may still be trying in school, even if that may not directly translate to quantifiable results. Do your best to assist your teen in translating this effort into results. This may mean seeking a tutor, additional support, or alternative study strategies. It may even require stepping back from other commitments. Success in academics is not reached with a one-size-fits-all path.  Neither is success in life. Learning to be successful in school by taking advantage of available resources offers practice for life. You know your child and the resources available at your school and in your community best.

Make sure your teen understands that your priority is to keep them happy, safe, and healthy. Value your teen for the person they are, not for letters on a report card or the numbers on an exam. Remember that your unconditional love may be the most protective force in your child’s life.


Nurturing Teen Strengths

Taking time to nurture strengths allows teens to further discover what their unique contributions to society will be. Click through to review ways you can help young people become their best selves.


Have High Expectations

We must not let our teens feel like they are letting us down as they grow. Rolling our eyes or having low expectations can make them worry about growing up.


Model Overcoming Limitations

We are all uneven -- everyone excels at some things but not others. Show teens ways they can put in hard work and effort to help make up for shortcomings in some areas.


Try New Things

Encourage teens to try out a variety of activities to help them figure out what they’re good at, what they may have to work hard at, and where they may want to focus energies.


Cultivate Character Strengths

Nurture strengths of character including gratitude, compassion, optimism and confidence so young people will lead meaningful adult lives.

When Expectations Become Too Much

Teens want to make their parents proud. Ensure your teen understands that you support them in their endeavors, regardless of the results.

As a parent, you may have the ability to recognize the balance (or lack of balance) in your teen’s life when he/she cannot. Middle and high school can be challenging. Teens must follow deadlines, create their own schedules, enroll in activities, and manage the social environment largely on their own. As teens strive to find their place or please parents, these demands can sometimes become too great.

Observe how your teen interacts at school and with friends. If the attitude towards academics begins to wane, consider the other factors he/she may be attempting to balance.

Instead of quantifying successes based on classroom performance, focus instead on the areas of life in which your teen has found success. Celebrate those. Build upon them to instill the value of education, but not as the sole determinant of success.

This will not only be good for your teen . . . it will be good for your relationship.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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