Life Lessons for Kids and Teens: 5 Skills Every Child Needs to Learn


When my son received his GED this year, I put together a small scrapbook for  him with photos, quotes, and cards from his friends. I also considered the life  skills he’s already mastered and thought about the ones he’s still working on.  The big “a-ha moment” for me? Realizing that everything else in life builds upon  the ability for kids to be able to do the following five things.

“If  children do not learn to think for themselves, and the adults in their lives do  it for them, as teens they are much more likely to follow peers into choices  that can have devastating results.” —Anna Stewart


  1. Learn how to think for  yourself.
  2. Take responsibility  for your  actions and choices.
  3. Learn how to solve  problems and  deal with obstacles.
  4. Learn how to negotiate  conflict.
  5. Find a way to make a  contribution.

When you come right down to it, the five main skills above provide the  foundation to be an engaged, compassionate and well-rounded  adult. The first  one is something that takes some kids a long time, while others seem to be  almost born with the ability. Still, it’s a skill everyone needs to master in  order to know who they are and where they stand in life.

Related: Why the ability to solve problems is the key  to better child behavior.

Life Skill #1: Learning How to Think  for  Yourself

When my son, who has ADHD, was younger, he clashed with  pretty much  every adult he interacted with at home, at school, in the  community. He had a  short fuse and would lash out at anyone he thought was  judging him. He was  well-known but not well-liked. As many of you know all too  well, it meant that  school principals spent lots of time with him. As he got  older, it also meant  school detentions and suspensions, with the subsequent home grounding and   consequences. He pushed against  school assignments  and complained about their arbitrariness. He refused to show the compliance  that school requires, so he didn’t get good grades. Teachers would tell him they  could see he was capable, but he needed to get his  attitude adjusted. My son chafed at all authority and seemed  destined for a life of  trouble.

His ability to think for himself did not come all at  once as a teenager. It actually started when he was in  kindergarten, when he refused to sit in circle (one of the main lessons of  kindergarten). Instead of following the rules, my  willful son (like many kids with ADHD) preferred to walk around.  His teacher did not like his choice, did not want him to have that choice,  and labeled him as one of the “bad” kids for what she said  was “not listening” and “distracting the other children.” He may have  distracted them, but he was  listening–and if she had simply  asked him, he could have repeated everything she said back to her.  He  did this at home, too, when we read books at bedtime. He was all over the  room, declining my invitation to snuggle and read, but he remembered every part  of the story. It took me a while to figure his learning style out,  having never parented a child with ADHD before.

Now, at nearly 20 years of age, that willful  spirit has been polished and  shines with the first of the essential skills: my  son, through much trial and  error, has learned to think for himself. Do I always agree with him or like  what he thinks? Absolutely  not, but I know he knows who he is  (including his positive and not-so-positive  qualities). He has learned not  only to accept who he is but truly value his own  mind, spirit and heart.

Learning to think for yourself requires:

  • Gentle reflection back from parents  and teachers about what they see as your child’s skills and abilities.
  • Safe opportunities to explore  interests without interference.
  • Noticing and praising the emerging  self-awareness, acceptance and self-confidence in your child/teen.

If children do not learn to think for  themselves, and the adults in their  lives do it for them, as teens they are much more  likely to follow peers into  choices that can have devastating results.  If you give your 6 year old a choice  of what shirt to wear, you have to  graciously allow him to wear it. If you give  a choice and then judge or change  the choice, “Oh, you can’t wear those pants  with that shirt,” you undermine  their decision and teach them they can’t  think for themselves.

Related: How to pull back and stop taking on your  child’s responsibilities.

Life Skill #2. Taking Responsibility for Your Actions and  Choices

It’s easy to see that if you give your  8 year old freedom to wear  what they want and they choose a sundress on a snow  day, they also have to  learn to accept the consequences of that choice. All you have to do is ask them,  after they  warmed up with some hot cocoa, what they thought of their clothing  choice.  Remember not to tell them what to think, but to ask what they  think. They might  decide that the consequences of being cold were acceptable to  them. My other son wore only shorts for two solid  years. We live in the  mountains in Colorado, and it wasn’t always easy to let him walk to the bus  stop in his shorts and Converse tennis shoes. I had to learn not to bug him  to take a coat or wear  boots (he never did). I also told him he could not  complain nor could he get  special treatment (like a ride to school). If he was  making the choice, he had  to accept the consequences.

Leaning how to take responsibility for your  actions and choices  requires:

  • Being given opportunities to  experience low-risk choices and consequences when young.
  • Parents asking what their child thinks  about what happened (instead of jumping in with the “right way” to have done  it). This is called learning from our mistakes.
  • Looking for opportunities (when  watching a movie together for instance) to discuss how people do and do not take  responsibility for their actions and choices. Be sure to share how you learned  this skill in your life.

If children do not have the opportunity to  be responsible for  themselves for their choices, how will they learn to be  responsible when their  choices affect others? If they hit a car in the parking  lot right after they  have their driver’s license, will they stop and leave a  note on the car or just  drive off because they don’t know what to do? If they  leave their coat at the  football game, will they tell you, make it your problem, and expect you to  pay for a new one?

Life Skill #3. Learning How to Problem Solve

When you know how to think for yourself and  to take responsibility for your  actions, then you are well on your way to  learning how to problem  solve. My  daughter has a significant learning disability that often shows  up as rigid  thinking. She gets a picture in her head of how something is going  to happen  and gets stuck when things change. When  she is stuck and  crying, yelling, and slamming doors, she can’t see a solution  to her problem.

My approach to guiding her to being more  flexible (and consider other  options) is to talk to her before the problem actually  arises. Whenever  possible, we discuss her choices. I also set up little scenarios so she can  practice. After she’d learned to place her own order at a food court counter,  for example, I increased the demand and asked her to get me something, too.  This meant she  would have multiple items to get from the counter to our  table. After she paid, she realized her dilemma; she  just stood there for  a moment and I could see her thinking. Normally she would  get her drink filled  first and then come to the table. That wasn’t going to  work this time. She made  a decision, put the two empty cups inside each other  and cradled the hot dogs  as she proudly walked to our table. I practically had  to bite my tongue to  allow her to finish (she still needed to get the drinks  and get the toppings on  her hot dog). When we were happily munching, I praised  each step she took to  effectively solve her problem. It was not the only  solution, but it was hers.  Whenever I anticipate a problem, I remind her of the skills she practiced–and  now, she often can find her own solution.

Related: How to let natural and logical consequences  work for you.

Learning to how effectively problem solve  includes:

  • Learning how to pause, get centered  and relax so that you can look at options
  • Considering more than one solution  before taking action
  • Nurturing creative thinking by playing  games where there is no correct answer

If children are not given low-risk  opportunities to solve their own  problems, then they will miss an important  skill that every adult needs,  especially when the risks get much higher. Practice problem solving for  scenarios big  and small. Every middle school student needs to have options  ready to go for  when their best friend invites them over to drink beer when  their parents are gone. And kids who struggle with getting homework done can  learn how  to find a solution that works for them, such as dancing for one song  every 20 minutes, or  emailing their book report to their teacher so they  don’t have to remember to  turn it in the next day.

Life Skill #4. Learning How to  Negotiate Conflict

My son, like many of your children, would get angry to avoid  conflict. It worked pretty well, as then we would focus on the  angry behavior  instead of the issue he was avoiding. He wasn’t learning how to  work through  conflict; he was learning how to deflect it onto others. I reacted  with anger  when he started yelling, which didn’t help. So at a certain point, I knew I had  to be the first to stop, take some  deep breaths, consider the situation and be  honest about my own feelings. Many  adults have not learned this skill (for  proof, watch any reality show) and do not  know how to accurately name our  feelings, much less allow them to just be part  of our experience.

Learning  to negotiate conflict requires:

  • Developing the capacity to stay calm  and become aware of our emotions when in conflict
  • Learning to recognize, accept and  appropriately process our emotions
  • Practice our problem solving skills to  apply in these emotionally charged situations.

If  children do not learn how to handle conflict in a safe, clear and honest  way,  they are at risk for creating dangerous and/or unhealthy situations. It  may not  seem as important when your 10-year-old son gets into a fight with his  friend  on the soccer field, but what about when he is 17 and wants his  girlfriend to do  more than kiss and she doesn’t want to? If they can both  negotiate that  conflict, they are likely to make the right decisions for  themselves (they may  not be decisions we like, but remember, we want  them to think for themselves).

Related: Does your ODD child fight with you over  everything?

Life Skill #5. Learning How to Make a Contribution

Think of the happiest people you know. I’ll  bet that a key to that happiness  is that they have a way to make a  contribution. A young child can give part of  their allowance to protect the  oceans. A tween might volunteer at the local  Humane Society or food bank. A  teenager might work for the summer with at-risk  youth. And that child or teen might  become a veterinarian or  therapist because they experienced the joy of making a  meaningful  contribution.

Learning to make a contribution includes:

  • Cultivating compassion and  empathy.
  • Developing a willingness to take  action and step in to help, support, guide and protect others.
  • Understanding your own strengths,  styles and skills so you can follow your passion out into the world.

If children do not learn to make a  contribution, they are at great risk for  a life of loneliness and isolation. Every person, no matter what their  struggles are, deserves and  needs to share their gifts, talents, skills, spirit  and heart with the world. No  matter how hard it is to parent a child with  behavior issues, give them a  chance to contribute. It can change the  world.


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