Surprising New Research on How Parents Can Help Kids Fulfill Their Potential

Nov 14, 2018

Recently I attended a presentation by Dr. Christine Carter called, “Skills Teens Need for Happiness, Productivity, and Performance - and How Parents Can Help”. Christine Carter, Ph.D., is the author of multiple books, The Sweet Spot: How to Achieve More by Doing Less (2017) and Raising Happiness (2011).

I jumped at the offer to hear Dr. Carter speak, given that the topic is closely aligned my “kids and screens” work at ScreenAge Bootcamp and I’ve always agreed with her parental philosophies, rooted in social science. Dr. Carter has a way of conveying her data, through her personal experience that makes it seem as if you’re listening to a well-educated, but a relatable friend. Here are my thoughts about her presentation.

Dr. Carter started the presentation with background information revealing the latest findings from her own work and other well-known academics, such as Dr. Jean Twenge, author of iGen, that shocked many parents when her book came out in early 2017. Our teens are not alright - mental illness, depression, and anxiety have all increased dramatically in teens since 2011. The digital transformation has changed everything about parenting and adolescence. It’s crystal clear, we must adapt our ways to turn this trend around.

Before she dove into her five skills, she said these magical words, “these are skills for all of us: young kids, older kids, and adults”. Yes! - I thought I can learn something to model for my own kids. Yet I didn’t expect on how timely this presentation would be for me - both personally and professionally.

Two recent life events made this presentation powerful for me: 1) My eldest son is going through the college application process and will soon be living away from home for the first time 2) I’ve had to confront sickness and death with close family members. Both life events are normal but evoke strong emotions that I had to confront head-on. Look out for a follow-up post about my journey.

Here’s a summary of Dr. Carter’s five essential skills for teens and what parents can do to help:

Command their Own Attention

Teens need to be able to turn away from instant and shallow pursuits like streaming and social media, gaming, text alerts, in order to think deeply. And as we all know, limiting distractions is much harder than it sounds. Kids need to make time and focus on life essentials: sleep, studying, exercise, family, and friends. Kids must learn to use technology strategically as a tool, rather than solely as a distraction.

How Parents Can Help: Create a structure around technology use. Parents need to lead this effort and then teach their kids how to continue to operate within this structure independently. This means that limits need to be implemented that doesn’t rely upon a parent’s willpower or presence. To help you get started, you can download our template for a family screen contract.

Ability to Generate Creative Insights

Remember back when we were kids and we had large swaths of time to explore the neighborhood on our own? Yea, me too. Kids today are living a very different experience than we did. Our culture today is so obsessed with filling kids’ days with structured and competitive sports, extracurriculars for their college resume and high-brow academics, that there seems there is no time for them to just be. They consistently need time built into their schedule for nothing. Kids create, and problem solve creatively when they have unstructured time to allow their mind to wander. Fostering creativity and insightful thinking will be critical to your kids’ success.

How Can Parents Help: Allow for regular unstructured time for your kids. Don’t equate busyness with importance. You can sit down with your child and review their schedule and identify activities that aren’t important, so they can have some breathing room and focus on the activities that they truly enjoy. Another way to create downtime is, use your family screen contract to ban devices from use in the car or insist on screen free dog walks. Remember those family car trips when all we did was stare out the window for hours? We didn’t complain, it was normal.

Feel their Emotions

This one hit home for me. In order to be authentic and emotionally courageous, kids need to be able to process their emotions. Learning to process tough emotions, such as disappointment, embarrassment, and frustration, will allow kids to overcome obstacles and help them achieve long-term goals. Our natural instinct as parents is to shield our kids from negative feelings. Yet, this causes limitations for them in that they will experience a narrow range of emotions. It also has contributed to a youth that feels entitled to a life of comfort. Unprocessed feelings can be transferred to the central nervous system creating more anxiety for a teen’s already chaotic life.

How Parents Can Help: This is a hard one, especially if you were never taught emotional intelligence as a child. Now we have the option of breaking the cycle by learning these skills ourselves, confronting our resistance and teaching our children to do the same. You may need to go back to the basics to remind yourself how to recognize, name and process our own emotions and seek support if needed.

Foster your child’s development of emotional intelligence (EQ) over traditional metrics of success like intellectual quotient (IQ).

This may be quite a shift for some parents, so here are a few tangible things you can encourage kids to do:

  • Take healthy (high barrier) risks
  • Pursue things that are hard
  • View failure as a learning opportunity
  • Recognize and name feelings
  • Ask for support when needed

Foster Positive Emotions

Remember the TV show, Seinfeld? The show’s premise was cynicism for just the sake of being cool. Just as during the 1980’s, today’s youth can be easily attracted to the coolness of cynicism.
Successful teens understand that cynicism originates from fear, not intelligence. Kids who live in acts of gratitude, love, happiness, and peace broaden their worldview. Their ability to foster positive emotions allows them to access their most high-functioning, creative and intelligent selves. Because of this, they are more engaged at school and with their friends, families, and communities than their fewer positive cohorts.

How Parents Can Help: Provide opportunities for kids to tap into their compassion. Create a family ritual around the practice of gratitude. Buck our culture of consumption by NOT giving kids everything that they ask for. Kids need to understand wanting, or the feeling of scarcity, so they can have a wider perspective and feel grateful.

Create Real Life Social Connections

Kids need to create deep and broad social connections in real life, that are enhanced, not controlled by digital media. Fostering deep connections will allow kids to feel seen, known, and supported in a holistic way. Online relationships are typically surface level at best and don’t often promote emotional well-being. Our distracted culture encourages isolation and distraction, not connection. Kids must develop the social prowess to build connections in real life, a skill getting rarer and more valuable.

Kids who are able to foster deep and broad connections are statistically less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem and problems with eating and sleeping.

How Parents Can Help: Model kindness and compassion in daily life. Make eye contact with the grocery clerk, thank your mail carrier, talk to your neighbors and interact with others while running errands with them. Involve your kids in conversations you have with others. Make socializing with friends and family a priority in your life.

Ambition is NOT a Metric of Success

Just as important as the skills teens DO need to succeed in the future, are the skills they DON’T need. I’m sure there’s a long list of outdated skills that used to be important for kids, but Dr. Carter focused on this one with powerful impact -- ambition.

Ambition is defined as a desire for achievement simply for the sake of the achievement. Old thinking suggests that ambitious kids would be the most successful, but when you play the movie out, there is a surprising ending. Ambition today has caused kids to lose their sight for passion and in turn causes anxiety, stress and allows too much focus on themselves.

Working on these five skills sounds easy, but it takes courage to live them.

The common theme for parents is for you to try on these five skills first and model them on a consistent basis. If you don’t do it, you can’t expect your kids to.

Who knows - you may end of feeling happier and more successful yourself.

And that my friend, is something we should all strive for.

Sherri Burnett is the co-founder of ScreenAge Bootcamp, a parent coaching platform for parents raising digital natives in the ScreenAge. 

The easiest way to get your kids off screens - download today, your family screen contract.


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