Most parents of teens will tell you their adolescent child is doing well if they have managed to avoid the “Three D’s”: drinking, drugs, and delinquency. When you think about it, this is a backwards way of viewing the wellness of teens. I recently ran across an interview with a well-known expert on child development that got me thinking about this. Richard Lerner, a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescence has recently written a book that challenges the negative mindset about teens called “The Good Teen.”
The mindset about teens of “at least they aren’t doing ____” sets us up to believe teens have more potential for harm than they do for good. Teenagers aren’t dumb. They can pick up what adults expect from them. So if you are a parent of a teenager, what are you expecting from them? Hopefully you are expecting much more than just avoidance of the “Three D’s.” Dr. Lerner suggests that instead of defining adolescents as positive because of what they’re NOT doing, they should be defined by what they ARE doing.
Dr. Lerner discusses the “Five C’s” of the good potential growth areas for teens: Competence, confidence, character, connection, and caring. Competence is important because teens are in the process of developing their identity. Part of a healthy identity is the belief that you are likeable and capable – competent socially and in life skills. Confidence is important for teens to develop as well, and builds off of competence. If an adolescent believes he is capable, he learns to trust himself and his ability to make it as an adult.
Character refers to development of integrity and adherence to a moral code. Adolescence is truly a time for learning about moral conduct. A child’s personality, including his or her set of values, is being formed during the teenage years. This means there will be a testing of the rules and values taught to them as children. This is part of the process of the teen answering the question of “who am I?”
Connection involves the process of learning how to collaborate and get along with people. As teens negotiate relationships with siblings, peers, teammates, teachers, and other adults they are learning the social skills necessary to live in a community as an adult. Caring refers to the growth of a teen’s ability to feel care for others and practice compassion. Teens can get very passionate about social issues. This awareness of social justice should be guided and promoted.
How can parents and other adults foster the “Five C’s”? Dr. Lerner suggests that we serve as mentors to teens. This means teaching, but it also means guiding teens towards applying the “Five C’s” in their everyday life. It also means modeling the “Five C’s” in your own life. This requires long-term relationships with teens. Fostering competence, confidence, character, connection and caring means you must demonstrate these skills and provide ways for them to practice. They probably won’t do it quite like you imagined – but that is because they are learning. Trust that your adolescent child will be more motivated knowing you are looking for the good that is in them, rather than looking out for the bad that might be there. They will respond better when they see you setting up situations that develop the “Five C’s” rather than working so hard to prevent the “Three D’s.”
To read the interview with Dr. Lerner, visit http://www.smithsonian.com/lerner.