At some point you may ask your teen one of parenting’s biggest clichés: “If your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you?” For good reason. Teens listen to (and behave like) their friends because they want to be accepted and feel like they truly belong to a group, but parents want their kids to make good choices. It takes a teen with an exceptionally strong personality – a leader – to oppose a peer group and have faith in his or her ideas and values. But it’s not something they’re just born with.
“Leadership is learned behavior,” says Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D., author of The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go. “It is developed through experience. The most effective way of learning leadership is through doing.”
Here are three ways to help your kid become a leader:
Let them do for themselves
Give your kids a chance to actually practice taking the lead: Stop doing everything for them. Let them make their dental appointments or figure out how to balance busy days – when age appropriate, of course.
“Kids should be given responsibility at a young age, well before adolescence. This builds work ethic and self-confidence,” says Matthew Smith, owner and director of Longacre Leadership, a summer leadership camp for teens in Newport, Pa. “Leadership is about self-confidence – knowing you can make decisions and knowing you can take responsibility.”
Seek leadership roles
There are many – in school and the community (team captain, class president, Scout leader, religious ed coordinator). “Extracurricular activities are ideal places for teens to explore and practice what it means to be a group leader,” Kuczmarski says. It can help teens learn their style and strengths.
For instance, if she’s adept at organization, she might develop a list of specific tasks for student government officers to boost efficiency. Teens also learn a group’s needs and discern who is best suited for various assignments based on their abilities.
Give real praise
Offer it – often – but not the empty sort. Frequent but unsubstantiated compliments just make kids not believe you when you point out the true things they should be proud of.
“Learn to praise your teen in a way that encourages her to acknowledge her own strengths,” Kuczmarski says. This all helps teens develop invaluable life skills and learn to believe in themselves.
This post was originally published in 2013 and has been updated for 2016.