Cincinnati Children's Blog

“Adulting” With Your Teen: How To Teach Important Life Skills

“Adulting” With Your Teen: How To Teach Important Life Skills

Cooking, cleaning and laundry may just feel like chores to you. But they are essential life skills that are necessary for your teen to learn so they eventually can live independently.

Life skills encompass much more than daily chores. They also include personal hygiene, shopping, money management, employment skills and getting around in the community. Ultimately, life skills are the knowledge, abilities and skills necessary to properly care for ourselves and become independent adults.

The Benefits of Learning Life Skills

Initially, teaching these skills requires time and energy. However, as your teen masters each skill, you’ll both gain a sense of accomplishment and responsibility that will serve your child for years to come.

Teenagers often have so much on their schedules — from schoolwork to athletics and other extracurriculars — that these important life skills sometimes take a backseat to other priorities. But the benefits are well worth the effort. For the parent, it can result in less nagging, more free time and decreased mental load related to managing the home. Teens can earn rewards, gain increased responsibility, and build a foundation of skills for adulthood.

For many parents, the biggest challenge is giving the teen the opportunity to learn, practice and master new skills. It can be easier, faster and require less nagging for you to clean the bathroom, make dinner or put the groceries away. However, this takes away an opportunity for your child to get practice building these skills with support from you.

How Do I Teach Life Skills?

In our work in the Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology, we regularly work with teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), helping them develop the skills needed to successfully transition to the adult world. In doing this work, we developed the following steps for parents to teach life skills to any teen, with or without ASD.

Depending on where your child is both from a behavioral and developmental standpoint, you’ll want to tailor these recommendations to each teen’s readiness. Here’s how:

1. Identify And Prioritize Which Life Skills To Target

First, think about your teen’s age, current abilities and expectations. Which life skills are achievable based on these? Some ideas include how to:

  • Get ready in the morning (e.g., shower, pack lunch, take medications)
  • Do the laundry
  • Plan meals, shop for food and cook simple meals
  • Clean the home (e.g., clean bathroom, mop the kitchen)
  • Budget money, use a bank account, pay bills, manage a credit card
  • Make, change, or cancel an appointment (e.g., doctor, dentist, barber, etc.)

Next, prioritize. Here are some questions to ask as you think about where to start:

  • Which skill will have the largest impact for both you and your teen?
  • What will save time for you and your family?
  • What skills need to be learned before moving out of your home and/or going off to college?
  • What will give your teen more independence and freedom?
  • Which life skills is your teen most motivated to complete? For example, if your teen enjoys cooking, you may want to start with having them make dinner once a week. 

Finally, consider which life skills are important to your teen right now. If they would like to save up for a new phone or laptop, money management could be a good skill to tackle first.

2. Develop A Plan

Once you decide where to begin, determine the best strategies to teach the skill while also building independence. For many teens, this might include various strategies such as:

  • Using a checklist to get ready in the morning
  • Setting alarms or reminders to wake up or finish the laundry
  • Watching a video of a recipe and reading the steps before attempting it independently

One successful and simple strategy for teaching life skills is to break a complex skill into its essential parts (e.g., how to do laundry from start to finish), including as many steps as necessary so that your teen can complete it independently.

Make sure your teen knows how to do each of the steps. This will depend on their skill level and familiarity with the life skill. It can be helpful to observe your teen’s abilities before developing a plan. Some teens may just need reminders or assistance with certain steps. Others may benefit from watching you demonstrate the skill, talking through the steps, and then tackling one of the steps. 

Once your teen masters the steps of a task, add on steps and expectations until they’ve mastered them all. It may take time to develop a plan that works, and you’ll often need to figure out what strategies work best for you together. For example, you may prefer using written checklists, but a notes app on their phone might work better for your teen.

3. Reward Your Teen

Many parents tell us that their teens know how to do these life skills, but when asked, their teen pushes back or argues about it. Completing these new life activities requires effort on the teen’s part, so these skills are more likely to be mastered and become a “habit” for your teen if you provide reinforcement or rewards. 

Each teen finds different activities or items motivating. Brainstorm with your teen a range of rewards (e.g., money, extra dessert, choosing restaurant to get take-out) so that the chosen reward can match the difficulty of the life skill and the amount of time and effort required to complete the task. Teens often prefer rewards related to money (e.g., money each time task is completed, saving up for an expensive item), to time (e.g., extra free time, additional time with friends, later bedtimes), or to experiences (e.g., family game night, movie nights, special events). Rewards should be provided consistently and as immediately as possible to motivate your teen to master the skill. 

It can take up to three months (and sometimes longer depending on opportunities for practicing) to turn a new activity into a habit, so providing rewards for the first several weeks is essential. 

As weeks go by, it is natural to reduce the rewards being earned and encourage your teen to develop additional skills in other areas that are then rewarded. In working with hundreds of teens, we have found that rewards, rather than consequences or punishments, increase the teens’ motivation and eagerness as well as acquiring the skill more quickly.

4. Come To An Agreement

An agreement or contract is a useful tool to ensure accountability around building life skills. This is a more sophisticated version of a “chore chart” that many parents may have used with younger children. 

This agreement should:

  • Describe exactly what life skills your teen will need to accomplish and by when.  Goals need to be specific and clear. 
  • Identify how independent your teen should be. For example, can the teen ask questions, get reminders, or ask for reassurance as needed. 
  • Identify what rewards your teen earns for completing the life skill.

Goals will be different for each teen; however, an example contract may contain goals (with rewards) such as: 

(1) Complete 7 out of 8 steps of my morning hygiene routine on 5 out of 7 days to earn one dollar per day. 

(2) Complete 2 loads of my own laundry by Wednesday evening with 1 reminder to earn a favorite dessert.

(3) Cook pizza for the family dinner on Friday to stay up one hour later on Friday night.

Having such an agreement in place allows you to track successes together and engage in problem solving if your teen isn’t successful. Discuss and modify the agreement as needed each week, and hang it up as a reminder to both of you of what your teen is working on.

5. Slowly Build New Skills

Over time, continue to emphasize the development of additional, age-appropriate life skills, building off of previous skills learned. Keep using the agreement to define specific life skill goals and determine rewards. Praise your teen’s successes! This will help build your child’s confidence and keep them willing and motivated to learn and master new skills.

This five-step process can help your teen recognize the value of life skills. Completing various tasks become habits that will lead to success in adulthood. Mastering life skills creates confidence and increases independence and autonomy. You can feel confident that your teen will be successful when they leave home, ultimately thriving in the real world.

Editor’s Note: Melissa Liddle, PsyD, also contributed to this blog post. She is a Psychology Fellow in the Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology at Cincinnati Children’s.

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