As psychologists have noted, and parents can tell you first-hand, adolescence is known to be a confusing time marked by experimentation with new ways of being.
Exploring the “who am I?” question is an important part of your child’s development. This is a challenge considering that education today is decidedly cognitive, and does not instructively take on the social and emotional demands of adolescent development. As a result, parents are ultimately responsible for their child’s social and emotional education, the “heart” work of development. And all that at a time when adolescents are trying to create their own identity separate from their parents.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the conscious building of interpersonal (awareness of other’s feelings) and intrapersonal (self-awareness) intelligences necessary for living an effective, engaged life. How can parents support their child’s social and emotional growth? Here are eight tips that support adolescent SEL at home and strengthen the changing parent/child relationship:
- Active Listening – How a parent listens to an adolescent child can positively aid in the work of identity formation. Parents help their children explore the “who am I?” question of adolescence by listening without judgment or fear. Listening with an open heart helps adolescents make sense of their world and their changing selves as they begin the process of taking responsibility for who they are at that moment and who they want to be.
- Self-Reflection – Where does self-reflection, the foundation of self-knowledge, fit into an adolescent’s busy schedule? Parents can promote this critical developmental need at home in creative ways – conversation around the dinner table or even watching a movie together. Self-reflection needs time to develop and practice to come naturally.
- Model Authenticity – Adolescents are keen observers of human behavior, especially of their parent’s behavior. They constantly question truth and reality as they experiment with new ways of being. Parents support their child’s search for emotional courage and honesty by living it themselves – or at least by putting ones best effort forward. A good starting place for parents is to not pretend to have all the answers.
- Promote Creativity – The adolescent work of creating an identity means stepping into the unknown. Like artists, adolescents enter an empty canvas and experiment with colors and materials as a way to accept or reject new ways of being. Creativity gives adolescents freedom to experiment and create themselves in safe and constructive ways. This can be achieved through art, writing, dance, sports, clothing, theatre and music. Parents validate their child’s creative endeavors when expressing their own curiosity with real questions and interest.
- Celebrate Mistakes – Mistakes mean your child is taking risks and ultimately learning from their experiences. Mistakes are an essential part of growing. Physicist David Bohm writes: “From early childhood, one is taught to maintain the image of “self” or “ego” as essentially perfect. Each mistake seems to reveal that one is an inferior sort of being, who will therefore, in some way, not be fully accepted by others.” This is unfortunate because “all learning is trying something and seeing what happens.”
- Parallel Process – Parallel process is learning and growing alongside your child. With each moment of your child’s growth, parents are reminded of their own experiences at that age. Simultaneously, perspective is necessary for parents even when they feel there is none. Adolescence joins parent and child in the human journey of self-discovery.
- The Struggle is Important – Parents often want to pick their child up after they fall down. It is important to recognize that resilience is linked to learned self-reliance. Adolescents need to learn and accept difficulty as part of life and living. They learn what they are made of when they go through something on their own. Parents need to support the important work of struggle as a developmental imperative.
- Integrating The Dark Side – It can be frightening to witness a once sunny, “problem-free” child transform overnight into a gloomy, irritable adolescent. Some parents find the emerging darker side (self-doubt, anger, fear, self-consciousness) difficult to accept and send the message that the harder stuff of growing up is not accepted. Parents need to integrate the highs and lows, the good and the bad, to support balance and self-acceptance.
Ultimately, adolescents who are exposed to authentic SEL experiences and practices at home and in school are better equipped to live lives of self-acceptance, discovery and personal responsibility.
Kimberly Hackett is a Social and Emotional Learning Consultant and Expressive Therapist. She has Master's degrees in Adolescent Psychology and Expressive Therapy and Mental Health Counseling. She lives in Cambridge, MA. She blogs at www.adolescentwork.wordpress.com. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.