Parents are all too aware that teenagers face big challenges: feelings and values undergo major shifts as their understanding of the world around them pulls into sharper focus. Teens are constantly being tested by their teachers and parents, not to mention the pressure they are put under by their peers. While parents can't come to the rescue like they used to, though, they can help their teen develop a sense of self so that, when faced with challenges, they have the tools to make the right decisions.

So, how can you teach your teen to take control of bad situations? The first step is self-acceptance, according to educator and social scientist Susan Smith Kuczmarski, Ed.D. Accepting the self unconditionally is an essential life strategy, she says, especially for teens, who are experiencing burgeoning self-awareness. “The most important lesson a parent can teach: accept and celebrate a teen's emerging individuality,” she says. Kuczmarski, who has conducted extensive research on how leadership skills are learned, has co-written a book called Apples Are Square. The literal concept is that rotten apples can be reshaped into something edible and appealing, which provides a metaphor for the idea that any bad situation can be turned into something positive with the right leadership qualities. Kuczmarski lists six essential leadership qualities in the book, which include:

  • Humility- the ability to step aside to let someone else answer.
  • Compassion- a genuine concern for the well-being of others.
  • Transparency- being open with others.
  • Inclusiveness- accepting people's differences, opinions and perspectives
  • Collaboration- working together to achieve a common goal.
  • Values-Based Decisiveness- decisions based on personal values.

Kuczmarski says teens need these qualities in order to build strong relationships, nurture a sense of community, serve others and encourage personal risk-taking, creativity, and flexibility.

These qualities will thrive in an environment where a teen is allowed to let her own set of values surface, says Kuczmarski. “With values in place, a teen will have greater comfort when taking risks, because she knows what is deeply important to her ... By being aware of her values, she will know what is significant to her and will be able to have greater involvement in, and control over, her life choices.” Kuczmarski encourages parents to sit down with teens and each write down their own list of values and share them, with one note of extreme caution. “Don't try to impose your values onto your teen!” Instead, she says, “Recognize the intrinsic value, strengths, and merit of your teen's values; acknowledge and support the values cited by your teen, and encourage open discussions on the topic of values.”

Apples Are Square offers other activities for launching self-discovery, including this checklist of questions to help take a closer look at personal strengths and weaknesses:

  • Do I communicate openly by expressing my own feelings and emotions?
  • Do I take risks?
  • Do I actively listen?
  • Am I sensitive and empathetic to individual needs?
  • Do I frequently use descriptive praise?
  • Do I stimulate self-initiated growth and personal learning?
  • Do I frequently use humor?
  • Do I stimulate creative and intuitive thinking?

Parents can also encourage their teen to write down their five greatest strengths and their five greatest weaknesses, followed by discussion. In addition to exploring strengths and weaknesses, Kuczmarski says the question “Who Am I?” can also be addressed by looking at personal characteristics and needs, and exploring the factors that have shaped values—what are your values' origins (childhood experiences, personal relationships, major life changes, or conflict events) and how have your values changed over time?

Just as any skill set needs disciplined practice to thrive, so do these essential leadership qualities require research into the self, according to Kuczmarski. And the hard work will all be worth it, she says, because these skills extend way beyond high school—they can help your child become a natural leader in her future career. Apples Are Square projects that the 21st century workplace will usurp the traditional “control and compete” mindset, and instead will focus on finding common ground, relinquishing control, and collaboration. “Serving others, helping others, and inspiring others to bring out their core strengths and talents is what the new definition of leadership is all about,” Kuczmarski says.

So, help your child launch their journey of self-discovery. It may just lead to success in the future.