How to Life-Proof Your Teen

6 skills every young adult should master before graduating from high school
Istock 684677718
Image courtesy of Steve Debenport/

Mother birds trust instincts and nature when they push their babies out of the nest. Human parents typically do not. The 18-year lead-up to a child’s departure is filled with careful lessons — from shoe-tying to driving a car. Before your teen graduates from high school, consider whether the following skills could be left to instinct, or warrant a lesson or two. 


Staying Healthy

Even adults crave a little hand-holding when they get the flu or a sore throat. Here’s what you can do to help your teen cope with his first illness away from home. 

Teach prevention. Strive for three balanced meals (meal-skipping and late-night snacking can interfere with sleep); stay hydrated; sleep, brush and floss teeth; wash hands; don’t share drinks or personal items with friends; and exercise. 

Teach your child health care and first aid basics. Provide him with a medical kit, thermometer, Band-Aids and cough drops. Make sure he has had a CPR and first aid class, and that he can recognize common ailments like the flu, strep throat and mono. Help him figure out where to go or whom to call when he is really sick. 

Help your child learn how to avoid anxiety. Stave off concerns by explaining to your teen how different college life will be. “They can be taken aback by how unstructured it is,” says Franca Alphin, director of Nutrition Services at Duke University Student Health. “They have to think about what to eat, when to eat, how to study, when to study. It’s the first time they’ve had to manage their own time and some find it overwhelming.” Alphin, who has worked at Duke University Student Health for 30 years, says it’s vital for students to find an activity that eases stress, whether that is exercise, meditation, playing an instrument or simply taking a warm bath. 

Encourage healthy sleeping habits. “The sleep piece is enormous,” Alphin says. “If your teen is struggling with sleep at home, they will struggle with it in college.” If it is an issue, she suggests talking about it with your teen, pediatrician and a counselor before your teen leaves home. 

Remind your teen to ask for help when she needs it. There are lots of resources for a student on a college campus — but “they are adults,” Alphin says. “We are not going to force them to come and see us.” 


Maintaining a Clean and Ordered Living Space

Jocelyn Reckford, a graduate of East Chapel Hill High School and junior at Princeton University, describes her personal style as “organized clutter,” but adds that having her parents constantly remind her to keep her room tidy in high school has helped her in college. She keeps her dorm room clean and organized because she says it helps her “make sure [she] has things under control.” A tidy dorm room also makes for a happier roommate and a healthier environment. A sloppy, chaotic room can lead to lost keys and assignments, forgotten bits of food and spilled drinks that attract insects like ants and roaches, and piles of dirty towels and clothes that increase the spread of germs. 

How do you teach these skills to a distracted child? Start young and set an example, says Lynda Rothman, owner of Sane Jane, a professional organizing service in Raleigh. 

“Children should definitely have responsibilities, but make it easy,” she says. “You want to set your child up for success.” 

Rothman offers the example of getting her son a laundry basket with a lid for his closet. He never used it. She took it out of the closet and put it in the corner of his room. He threw things in the general vicinity. “I finally just removed the lid and his clothes actually made it into the basket. Now it’s a habit,” she says. 

Requiring that your child make her bed every morning is an easy place to start. It’s a quick and satisfying fix that immediately changes the feel of a room. The same goes for vacuuming and dusting. 

From there, move to basic laundry skills. Teach your child to separate whites from colors, run the washer and dryer, strip beds, and wash sheets and towels. 

Next up: bathroom cleaning. Show her what cleaning supplies to use, how to scrub grout, and how to clean and plunge a toilet. 

Last, do not take your child’s household knowledge for granted. Have her practice replacing a lightbulb and changing the batteries in a flashlight. 



Caroline Bretherton, an international cookbook author and instructor at Duke University, recommends that parents involve children in cooking at the list-making stage. 

“Make a meal plan with your child and take him to the grocery store with you,” she says, pointing out that having a list saves money and results in fewer trips to the store and less unhealthy impulse buying. Bretherton believes teens should learn how to read unit prices listed on grocery shelves so they can compare deals, as well as learn how to buy staple supplies in bulk.

Encourage the creation of a “minimum pantry,” Bretherton says, which might include rice, pasta, three kinds of oil (vegetable oil, olive oil and sesame oil for stir-fry meals), flour, sugar, baking powder and a few good spices (she loves smoked paprika). 

“A packet of taco seasoning can take the place of four different spices,” she says. 

When it comes to teaching teens to cook, “teach them to make what they like to eat,” Bretherton recommends. They are more likely to cook if they know how to make favorite meals. Bretherton plans to create a cookbook of favorites for her two sons to take to college.

In the cooking classes Bretherton teaches at Duke University, she finds that many students have never cut up a vegetable, let alone a piece of raw chicken. So she starts with basic knife skills. From there, she teaches them how to make easy sauces (bechamel for macaroni and cheese, and marinara for pasta), followed by simple baking skills. 

“The real trouble,” she says, “is when parents don’t cook and kids have no exposure.”

While teaching students to make hummus, she noticed a boy struggling to open a can of chickpeas. She waited five or ten minutes and then showed him how to use the can opener. He turned bright red when she asked, “Aren’t you a mechanical engineering major?”

Let’s face it — most of our kids will not be making mille-feuilles every night. There will be a lot of ordering out, frozen entrees and reheating. Therefore, make sure your child knows what materials can go in an oven (not paper or plastic), on a stove (not a glass bowl), or in a microwave (not aluminum foil, metal, plastic or paper) — and how long food safely lasts in the refrigerator. 


Getting a Job

Kristin Heimstra, a college counselor, career coach and owner of The Art of Potential, a consulting group, says high school is a great time for teens to start thinking about long-term goals and how to reach them. There are several concepts teens should work on. 

Appearance. Make sure your teen knows how to dress for a number of occasions — from a job interview to dinner at a restaurant or professor’s home. Your son should know how to tie a necktie and your daughter should know how long her skirt needs to be, if the occasion calls for formal or semi-formal attire.

Etiquette. Your teen should be comfortable greeting an adult with a firm handshake and eye contact. He should know how to send a polite email to a professor or school administrator, and how to thank people for gifts or favors. 

Conversation. Encourage your teen to be comfortable in conversation. “Parents should avoid speaking for their child in meetings at school or elsewhere,” Heimstra advises. In addition to having basic conversational skills, teens need to be able to talk about their strengths and experience, and to advocate for themselves. Heimstra suggests having teens practice with a grandparent. 

Receiving feedback. Hiemstra says resiliency is a vital skill to learn in high school, while a teen still has parent support at home. Teach this skill by encouraging your teen to deal positively with constructive criticism. “Kids mature when they understand what is expected and see how their own performance is matching up,” she says. 

Explore areas of interest. Think about what gives your teen joy and then try to give him opportunities to explore that interest. If he likes music, for example, allow him to investigate that field. “There are a million jobs in music, and letting him explore the options develops good job research skills and builds confidence.” 

Encourage teens to be nice to themselves. Heimstra encourages teens to talk to themselves the way they would talk to a friend. “With friends, teens are so encouraging,” she says. “They don’t see a friend’s disappointment as failure, they see it as the possibility of something else. They should treat themselves the same way.” 


Understanding Money

“Understanding the value of money is important to people of all ages,” says Clark Troy, a financial advisor with Red Reef Advisors in Durham. “The sooner your child starts understanding what money is and what it’s good for, the better.” 

Troy says entrusting your child with money and empowering her to make decisions is the first step in developing a mindful attitude toward financial management. 

“If you’re buying everything for your kids, then money and possessions seem to be falling from the sky,” he says. “If they have their own budget, then they have to decide whether to see a few movies or to buy more expensive sneakers. They have to forego certain things, and that’s how they learn — with real-world trade-offs.”

Equally important, he adds, is teaching kids to save. Some parents use the “Bank of Mom and Dad” approach, through which they give their young child a small monthly allowance and pay 25 percent compound interest for any money their child puts into “savings” so he can watch his money grow. 

“Compound interest is the embodiment of deferred gratification,” Troy says. “It’s a great lesson.” 

Another strategy is to be open about “real-life” expenses. Show children how much money is coming into the household and how much goes out to pay bills and living expenses. But, Troy cautions, “be sensitive about making a child feel guilty, inculcating a notion of burden — this is how much you’re costing us — as opposed to simply providing a teaching moment.” 

With older kids, talk about the difference between credit and debit and the potential danger of credit card debt. Discuss the concept of insurance —  particularly how car insurance works — and what to do if your teen is involved in a fenderbender. 

Troy is quick to add that he does not implement all of these things in his own house. “People communicate their values to their kids in their behavior,” he says. “Figure out what your children have naturally picked up from you, and then tailor your lessons to suit your child. I have to actually encourage my daughter to spend money.” 



The first thing Darren Phillips, owner of Carolina Self-Defense & Krav Maga in Raleigh, teaches in his self-defense classes is how to recognize and avoid conflict. Situational awareness is a great lesson for all teens, whether they are starting college, traveling in Europe or heading to a concert. 

“You have to learn to judge character,” Phillips says. “Whenever possible, you want to de-escalate a situation and avoid conflict.” 

Phillips and his wife have six kids. They decided to take self-defense classes as a family when his oldest was just starting college. They chose Krav Maga, a defense method developed by the Israeli national forces in the 1940s. All of them loved it. 

“It is extremely practical, not a lot of style or fancy moves,” Phillips says. “It’s all about getting home safe, which sometimes means just turning around and running.”

Phillips says it can be difficult for teens to decide if a situation is going to lead to conflict. “You have to learn to see conflicts before they occur,” he says. “Trust your intuition. If you don’t feel comfortable around someone, don’t allow them to get into your space. Move away. Make noise.” This kind of training can be great for self-confidence, he adds. 

And when bad stuff happens? 

“You need to flick the ‘on-switch’,” he says. “Cats weigh a fraction of their owner’s weight, but if a cat decides it does not want a bath, then it’s impossible for anyone to wrangle it into the water. You just have to be like that cat and say ‘this is not going to happen.’”


Caitlin Wheeler is a Parenting Media Association award-winning freelance writer who in Durham.


Lessons from a College Student 

Jocelyn Reckford, a graduate of East Chapel Hill High School and junior at Princeton University, never had a lesson in financial literacy or cooking. She and her friends have talked about taking a self-defense class for fun, but haven’t yet. For Reckford, the life skill that has been “by far” the most valuable in navigating college is “strong self-awareness.” 

“It's relevant to every aspect of my life,” she explains, from how long an assignment will actually take her (she’s not as efficient as she’d like to be), to how much sleep she needs (she’ll forgo a party to make sure she gets enough). Also a residential college advisor, Reckford says her strategy has kept her healthy and relatively stress-free. 

Here are a few lessons she shares with her first-year mentees: 

Learn to say no. “There really are always distractions, and I do a good job picking the ones I'll actually enjoy and making sure my health and schoolwork come first,” she says. “I never feel pressured to go, and have zero qualms saying no when a friend seems disappointed that I'm not coming out. Being able to say no has served me very well. I already have too many commitments, and I have seen friends way overextend themselves because they can't turn down an "opportunity."

Know when to ask for help. “People who ask for help get help, and sometimes that's way more efficient and beneficial than trying to figure it out by yourself,” she says. 

Believe in yourself. “Being able to articulate your knowledge, experiences and opinions helps you win  respect. Standing by your thoughts is just as important as listening to others' (thoughts),” she says. “No one wants to get lost in the crowd.”


Categories: Development, Education, Lifestyle, Teens