Developing Competence in Teens

Develop Competence in Teens

Youth need to develop competence in many aspects of daily living to successfully navigate the world. These include communication skills, self-advocacy skills, peer negotiation skills, and academic skills to name a few. These skills will serve them both in adolescence and throughout adulthood. Young people also benefit from decision-making and stress-management skills if they are going to make the kind of choices that will support their health and well-being.

Parents can help develop these skills in adolescents both by being teachers and role models. We also must be mindful not to undermine their growing competencies. When we hover over them or solve their problems for them, we prevent them from learning things on their own. Saying, “Let me do that for you,” implies “I don’t think you are capable of doing it yourself.”

Life is a complicated journey. We are the guides for our adolescents as they embark on their own path. We protect them by preparing them with tools to navigate.

The 7 Cs of Resilience

Competence is part of a comprehensive strategy to successfully develop youth and build resilience within them. The 7 Cs Model includes the 5 core Cs described as essential for positive youth development— Confidence,Competence, Connection, Character, Contribution —and adds two additional elements —  Coping and Control — known to prepare young people to withstand and recover from challenges. All of these “Cs” are covered extensively in Building Resilience in Children and Teens. Thinking about adolescent development in this way allows caring adults to work together to raise the next generation of future leaders. The 7 Cs stand together and build upon each other. As guides on our teens’ journey towards adulthood, we play a role in building these highly protective qualities. It all starts at home.

They Can Do It!

A sense of competence is earned through actual experience. Young people become competent when they develop a set of skills that allow them to trust their judgments, make responsible choices, and face difficult situations. They acquire competence by mastering tasks they previously couldn’t have handled. Along with a strong sense of competence comes tenacity, the ability to stick with tough tasks and solve problems.

Part of the way we support our teens to develop a sense of mastery is to get out of their way. To trust our teens can handle their lives. To allow them to take chances. This is what enables them to prove to themselves they are competent. But we must watch from afar. Our job is to set guidelines that ensure they stretch within safe and moral boundaries. Those guidelines should be easier to follow if we’ve discussed and modeled wise behaviors and strong values.

When we offer the trust that our teens can handle their lives, they will take the chances that enable them to prove to themselves they are competent.

Encourage Existing Strengths

Believe in your teens’ abilities to develop new skills. They do so best when they know they already possess important skills as starting points. Our encouragement, rooted in knowing all that is right and good about our children, remains a deeply protective force. Giving genuine encouragement about existing strengths they have holds tremendous power. Try saying,  “I know you can __________ because you have already shown me how you _____________.” For example, “I know you can find a way to forgive your friend Leah for messing up this time because you’ve always shown so much understanding to your little brother when he makes mistakes.”

Let Teens Find Solutions to Problems

Our adolescents possess the ability to problem solve. But we must guide them to do so in a way that matches their stage of development. We want them to understand point by point so that they get it…get it…got it! When we guide our children and adolescents towards drawing their own conclusions they feel wiser because they have figured things out themselves. We build, rather than undermine, their sense of competence.

It’s easy to slip into the habit of solving problems for our teens. We jump in because we know from our own experiences the likely consequences of their choices. Many adults launch into lecture-mode as soon as they sense any trouble on the horizon. The problem is that when we lecture, our children often don’t hear our message. This is because we’re talking to them in a way they don’t understand.  Lectures are too abstract. Our tweens’ and younger teens’ brains have likely not yet developed to the point where they easily understand our complex reasoning. And for teens of all ages, they can’t hear complexity when they are anxious or stressed.

Necessary Skill Sets

As much as we might want to bubble wrap our teens to protect them, the better protection happens when we prepare them to develop the skill sets that will keep them safe and enable them to be successful.

These skill sets include:

  • Social skills that will be used throughout life.  Start with strategies that deal with peer pressure while maintaining friendships. This could include teaching them how to say no and mean it. It could also mean coming up with a code word that allows them to reach out to you to help them get out of an uncomfortable situation.
  • Organizational strategies that will create both success and efficiency. These will help foster academic success today and work-life balance tomorrow. This could be as simple as keeping a calendar, setting alerts on phones and computers, keeping school books and backpacks in one place, making lists, or picking out clothes ahead of time.
  • Self-advocacy skills that will enable them to let people know what they need. These skills can be earned through participation in a variety of activities or from adults mentoring them to use their voices to stand up for themselves.
  • Self-care skills that will ensure long term health and well-being. These include getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods and staying active.
  • Stress management skills that will prepare them to handle life’s discomfort and challenges in ways that build strength and resilience. They will need a wide range of ways to identify and address what stresses them and to manage and release their emotions in positive ways.
  • Media Literacy skills that will prepare them to deal with the ever-changing world of social media and enable them to control their own opinions and self-image. (Of course our tweens and teens can teach us a thing or two about social media.) But it’s our job to emphasize safety issues they may encounter and strategies to distinguish real fact from false information.

By recognizing existing strengths within our teens, we give them the confidence to take on new adventures. This allows them to have new experiences and develop new competencies. When we believe in them, offer unwavering love, and equip them with real-world skills they will be prepared to successfully make their mark on the world.


Develop Competence in Teens

Parents support adolescents to gain resilience that comes from developing new and different competencies.

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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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