Ep 63: Recognizing Strengths to Help Your Teen Thrive

Episode Summary

Jenifer Fox, author of Your Child’s Strengths and an education expert, covers the three areas to watch for strengths: learning, relationships, and activities. The key is to embrace your teens strengths, even though on the surface they might seem “different” from others.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Riiiiiing! Out of nowhere, your phone disrupts another day at work. The name of your teen son’s high school flashes across the screen as you reach to answer. A few thoughts cross your mind. Is your son hurt? Did something happen at school? Is he in trouble? As you raise the phone to your ear, the voice of the assistant principal comes through the line.

“Your son’s been having a problem focusing recently. Unfortunately, he’s proven to be a repeated distraction to the learning environment, so we’ve had to pull him from class for the rest of the day. Can you come pick him up?”

In an instant, your mind is filled with ideas as to why your son has become a distraction. As a kid, he was an endless ball of energy, jumping over couches and climbing trees in the yard. He might’ve burned you out at times, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a capable learner.

He loves science, and he is an avid reader when he isn’t running around outside. Hearing that he’s been pulled out of class troubles you, because you know about his deep passion for learning. When a school can’t see the potential in their kid, parents need to know how to help a teenager find themselves.

To answer these thoughts, I invited Jenifer Fox to discuss how to help a teenager find themselves. Jenifer has a Master’s in School Administration from Harvard and heads the Berkshire Country Day School in Massachusetts. After many years tracking child development, she wrote the book Your Child’s Strengths in which she explains the methods to discovering, developing and activating the strengths of your teenager. This week, we investigate how teenagers can recognize learning strengths and how parents can help!

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Jenifer has plenty of advice for how to help a teenager find themselves when faced with learning challenges at school. The academic learning environment, where teens are expected to sit still for an hour and listen to a lecture doesn’t work for everybody. Jenifer says in many cases, it’s not that the teen can’t learn in the academic environment, but that academic learning might not be a strength of your teen. Humans have a number of methods to learn information, and not everyone is geared toward academic learning. Some other forms of learning include:

  • Active learning
  • Visual learning
  • Audio learning

According to Jenifer, even if your teen isn’t a strong academic learner, there is a chance your teen is a strong active or visual learner. By understanding the different learning strengths of teenagers, parents will learn how to help a teenager find themselves.  

How to use learning strategies to help your teen

Parents who are looking for how to help a teenager find themselves should try to use different learning strategies as supplementary methods to approach their studies. By approaching one subject from a variety of learning methods, teens will be able to understand their topic in a more thorough manner. Unfortunately, our education system is built around one style of academic learning, and there isn’t much parents can do to change the way school is taught.

However, parents wondering how to help a teenager find themselves can optimize their learning by identifying the best strategy for their kid. Jenifer recommends parents watch out for certain traps and opportunities to help teenagers practice good learning strategies. Here are some tricks for how to do this.

Don’t talk down to Teens

  1. Avoid Critiquing your teen

It might be easy for parents to identify where their teen is struggling, but merely pointing out where someone faces obstacles doesn’t help anybody improve. Critiquing someone is a negative way to point out deficiencies, and neither teens nor adults are receptive to this form of help.

For example, if a parent were to point out to their teenager where they’re struggling in academic learning, the parent is focusing on the negatives of the situation and that doesn’t teach them how to improve.

  1. Avoid telling your teen their strengths

Parents wondering how to help a teenager find themselves shouldn’t tell kids what strengths they have. Parents will likely be able to understand some learning strategies that might create success or failure for teens. However, teenagers are less likely to follow parental advice if a parent spells out everything for their teenager.

If you’re a parent who doesn’t know how to help a teenager find themselves, it’s likely because you’re not aware of their exact strengths. If a parent were to tell a teenager what learning strategy is best, the parent might steer a teen down the wrong path and into more learning troubles. Parents should be weary of steering their teen in a certain direction, as it can have negative consequences on your teen’s learning.

For example, if a teen normally completes homework after a sports practice, pushing the teen into a higher level of competition might exhaust them and cause their grades to decline. 

Be a Teacher

  1. Observation as a positive strategy

Parents should make good observations about teenagers to play the role of teacher when it comes to learning strategies. By observing how your teenager finds success, parents will be able to guide teenagers towards constructive long-term solutions to learning problems.

For example, if a teenager is regularly productive when they complete homework right after returning from a sport, take note! Keeping track of minor details like this can help parents understand how to help a teenager find themselves and discover the best learning strategies. When parents observe this information, they can talk with their teens to see if they agree about when they are most productive. Identifying this pattern could empower your teen to make a positive change in their habits.

  1. Ask teens about their preferences

A more constructive way for how to help a teenager find themselves is for parents to ask about how their teenager prefers to study. Asking introspective questions to your teen will help their understanding of good learning strategies, which is a huge benefit as teens grow into adults.

Some templates for asking a teen about their study preferences are:

  • Why do you study like that?
  • Is there a reason to how you organize work?
  • When does it feel good for you to study?

By listening to teen’s answers about learning preferences, parents will be able to learn how to help a teenager find themselves. Teens can take the insight gained via a discussion of learning habits and use that knowledge to build a more productive schedule. An optimized schedule will help teens maximize their learning both in the classroom and at home.

Final Thoughts

While some teenagers might struggle more than the crowd when it comes to academic learning, teens don’t have to be at the mercy of a rigid education system. Attentive parents can help teenagers design learning strategies that cater to the teen’s strengths.

While earning strategies are an incredibly helpful tool for parents looking for how to help a teenager find themselves, there is so much more advice Jenifer has to offer in this week’s episode! 

  • Better strategies to interpersonal relationships
  • How to show affection in a way that’s best for you
  • Extroverts vs. introverts
  • Locating the activities that recharge your battery
  • How parents can open their minds to alternative careers for teens
  • And so much more!

Thank you so much to Jenifer Fox for coming on this week’s podcast to explain how to help a teenager find themselves. I was astounded by all the information she was able to share- I truly believe that every parent should listen to what she has to say. If you want to hear more of what Jenifer has to say, check out this week’s podcast or read her book, Your Child’s Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them. You can do it!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When you notice your teen struggling with a chore, task or assignment, uncover underlying preferences:

“Why isn’t this the thing you’re good at? What would you rather do instead?”

-Jenifer Fox

2.  Instead of accusing your teen as being a slob, discover if organization is maybe not their strength:

(Members Only)

3.  After introducing your teen to someone new, see what your teen thinks:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Identify Your Teen’s Activity Strengths:

In my interview with author and education expert Jenifer Fox, we discussed three areas to identify strengths: learning, relationships, and activities. The area that parents may be best equipped to help identify is the activity strengths. Jenifer cautions against being evaluative with your teen’s strengths – rather she suggests you create discussions around it, and let your teen tell you their strengths. One place to look at is chores. Take the next week to observe when your teen does an outstanding job or a really poor job on a chore or task. Maybe you notice that one teen likes to use their hands (doing dishes, folding laundry) while another prefers to use their body (sweeping, mowing the lawn). And maybe another prefers to do organizational tasks, like unloading the dishes from the dishwasher or cleaning out the garage. Hobbies are another area to pay attention to as well. After a week of jotting down things your teen enjoys/excels at (and the opposite) make a pint the following week, let them know you’ve noticed a few things – and then ask them if they think your observations may have any merit. Do this exercise every few months and see if you notice new strengths or if your teen’s strengths evolve.

2. Get Out in Someone’s “Field”:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Can you tell us a little bit about where you are now and what you’re doing?

Jenifer: So I am the head of Berkshire Country Day School in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; a school that is really focused on the individual. And we teach two-year-olds through eighth grade. I really developed this whole philosophy around high school kids. And so now it’s really great for me to be working at a place that really sees the need for young people to understand that they are needed and that they belong and that they can make a difference in the world, even at a very young age.

Andy: And what inspired the book about strengths?

Jenifer: I’m somebody who didn’t feel seen as a child. And so I know that that’s so valuable to feel like you’re here in this life for a purpose. And so I decided to make up my own purpose and that was, I really wanted to be a teacher. And as I became a teacher, I saw more and more kids who just didn’t really feel like they were engaged in school and they really needed to feel like they had a purpose and meaning. And I saw teachers who discarded kids if they weren’t top of the grade scale. And so many people who had such valuable things to bring were turned off and shut down. And so I just didn’t think that was right. So I wanted to turn that around.

Andy: So there are different types of strengths that you cover in this book and they are all important and they’re all very cool. I’d like to talk about a couple of them. The one thing that I thought was really interesting was, you talk about learning strengths. And you talk about a kid named Timmy in this book that was kind of being disruptive in class, and you were getting complaints from the teachers and you then kind of had a realization that the problem was just Timmy’s learning strengths. So how do learning strengths work and why did they sometimes lead kids to act out like that?

Jenifer: So our school system is set up for one kind of learner and it’s pretty much an academic. It’s people whose strengths are in reading and discussion and in writing. And we also value really highly, short term memory. So that’s therefore tests. Tests are recall. They’re factual, memory, memorization and that’s one slice of the big pie of how people learn and how people relate to the world.

Jenifer: Howard Gardner out of Harvard, long time ago sort of identified this concept and framework of multiple intelligences and coming up with the idea that people are intelligent in all kinds of ways, not just academically, but kinesthetically. Some people learn through movement and some people learn through listening and hearing. Some people learn visually. They have to see an example of something before they get it.

Jenifer: So people relate to learning in all different ways. And problem is our school is set up really for one kind of learner. And it happens to be mostly females, girls. Boys are not usually accommodated by their styles. They tend to be much more kinesthetic learners. They need to move, hold, touch feel. And so in a classroom, if they’re really trying to sometimes grapple with knowledge and they might be doodling or fidgeting or whatever, they can’t sit still, it’s not necessarily because they’re being bad or disruptive. That’s how they’re processing the information. And rather than say, “Hey, how can we help you with this? How do you learn?”, we’ll tell kids to stop disrupting, to get up, to leave the room. They’ll get in trouble.

Andy: And so what do you do if you have a kid whose learning style is not a match for the school environment?

Jenifer: Well, see, I believe the school environment needs to become much more matched up with all different kinds of kids. And I believe the way to do that is… I’m a huge proponent, I believe so much in project-based learning because it’s active, it’s authentic, they solve real problems and they’re doing things that matter and are real. And within those contexts, you’re doing science, you’re doing math, you’re writing, you’re reading. You can cover all of the topics, but you’re learning them and applying them in their use in a variety of ways that should have every learner engaged.

Andy: So then the question is, do you tell your kid what their strengths are?

Jenifer: Nope, the kid tells you. And you can observe at a very young age what a kid’s strength is. And you’ll talk to parents all the time who have more than one kid. They will say, “Oh, they’re so different.” And then if you ask them why, they’ll tell you. They’ll say one child is very athletic. Runs around and sort of learns from doing. Whereas one of my children will sit and be quiet and read and enjoy that. So they’re not telling them what it is. The kids will show through behaviors, what energizes them and what keeps them feeling alive and motivated.

Jenifer: But if you introduce the concept to parents, they’ll be able to start to talk that language with kids earlier, and kids will start to monitor themselves and try to figure out what it is that’s making them feel excited.

Jenifer: This is not a new concept. We do this with kids in trauma all the time. So kids in trauma are taught to learn how to regulate their bodies, how to understand anger, how to feel sadness when they’ve been traumatized. So if you look at school as sort of one big traumatic experience, how do you get through it? And then if you reverse that and look at school as one big wonderful opportunity to express your identity, you’re going to look to your body, and to feel, “What does it feel like when I’m doing this? Is it good? Is it bad? How can I maximize the good feelings over the bad ones?

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Andy: If you’ve had any trouble finding the right match for your teenager, or if you’ve thought about maybe getting a counselor or a therapist, but weren’t sure where to go to look for the right person. I recommend teencounseling.com. You answer a few questions and they pair your teenager up with the perfect counselor therapist, right where they spend the most time, on their smartphone. It’s completely affordable and scholarships are available. To find out more head on over to teencounseling.com and use the code Talking To Teens.

Andy: So how do you help kids find their strengths without telling them what their strengths are? There’s a way to say things that help kind of realize that they’re more drawn to some things other than others without saying, “So it looks like you have a strength in this, or it looks like you have a strength in that.” How do we kind of provide a little scaffolding or help them out a little bit in discovering or exploring themselves?

Jenifer: Sure. So one of the problems we have in this society, I believe, is that everybody is a critic, right? We’re all critiquing each other all the time. And so there’s nothing that parents like to do more than critique their children. And so they’re very quick to tell them, “You’re doing this right, you’re doing this wrong.” And kids aren’t really shining to that any more than adults, unless they ask for it. Evaluations, aren’t really helpful without people really buying in and trusting the evaluator.

Jenifer: So I think what parents and teachers can do is really start to ask, not just kids, but adults too, questions like, “Why do you do that? Why do you organize that way? Does that make you feel good? How do you feel about the fact that your locker is completely disorganized?” And a kid might say, “I don’t have any feeling about it at all?” Or a kid might say, “That makes me feel uncomfortable, but I don’t know how to get it organized.” There’s a clue, right? But there’s an opening for some help there, versus, “You’re disorganized. You got to fix that right now.”

Jenifer: So underlying conversation with other people, I believe is an approach of, everyone’s trying their best and some people might need some help. How can we help them be more successful? And if we started to really think about that in terms of our friends, our family, our kids, even people we don’t know, I think the world would be such a better place.

Jenifer: And then when you’re asking, “How can I help?”, You’re a teacher at that point. When someone asks for help, they’re asking you to take a role of a teacher, “Help me, show me. Show me how I can get better at this, or be better at this.” Or, “I’m working on this and I need a helping hand. I can’t do it alone.”

Andy: So other than the learning strengths, which we talked about, there are relationship strengths. How do those work?

Jenifer: Well, I think today, those are the most important strengths there are, and needed really. So how that works is there’s this idea that we are in relationship with other people, and there’s some of these expectations that we should be someone to every one all the time. Everything to everybody all the time. But we know for a fact that if you have high expectations that someone’s going to fulfill all your needs, that you’re probably going to not have a very long relationship with them. So you have to actually look and figure out, “What does this person do? What’s their strength with me?”

Jenifer: And so I have a friend who is not really good at deep conversation. I really like to talk about things that are interpersonal and deep, and this person doesn’t do that really at all. But if I have any need to have something fixed, like a car breaks down, or my vacuum breaks down, this person’s going to show up and be there. And so I think it’s really about finding what each person can bring to a relationship. And then if we could all figure out… I can listen to you if you have a problem and I can offer you solutions. But if you don’t act on those suggestions and you come back with the same old story, I’m not really the good friend with that because I like to… My strength is offering advice that will work and then have people follow through. And so I don’t want to hear the same story over, but there’s plenty of people who do.

Jenifer: I mean, that’s a real strength of people who are born for counseling and things. They’ll keep processing with you and they’ll get something out of that, but we can’t expect everyone to be everything. And so it’s good to identify what your contribution is that you can do consistently over time with people and let them know that. I’ll show up for anyone, but I don’t really huge parties all the time. But if you want to have coffee with me, I’ll show up every Thursday with you for coffee, but I might not show up to your Christmas party.

Jenifer: So it’s just a way to think about how people bring something to the table each time to make them necessary in the relationship, and to not have as many conflicts, because we don’t expect everyone to be everything.

Andy: And that we don’t expect ourselves to be everything. Or that, “Oh man, I’m just not good at relationships or not social because I don’t do the stereotypical way of being super extroverted and go into throwing parties” and that there’s other ways to be a good friend and have good relationships that are not the norm and that you can find your own way of doing it and what you want to kind of bring to your relationships that can make you a positive person to interact with and a positive person to know. I’ve been really thinking about this a lot.

Andy: And we had this lady on the podcast recently, Joanna Guest, who wrote a book called Folded Wisdom. And it was all about how her father had written a note every morning to her and her brother from the time that they were four years old until 18. And he was an artist. So he illustrated them all in color. And they’re these beautiful notes. And she saved them all and she put together this book about all the wisdom that she learned from the notes.

Jenifer: Oh, that’s beautiful.

Andy: It’s so cool, right? And it really made me think about strengths because she even talks in the book about how my dad is not the kind of person who felt like he was really good face to face with people. But he felt really strong as an artist and be writing things down. And he also said he felt really good early in the morning at 5:00 AM. He’s an early-morning person. So he found a way to find it his best time of the day and what he does best, which is writing and drawing. And combine those things into this morning routine that he started doing, where he’d get up two hours before everyone else in the house and go and write these notes to his kids.

Andy: And it just so struck me that he’s doing what you’re talking about in this book. He’s finding a relationship strength that’s not necessarily, “I’m going to sit down and have a deep conversation with the kids” because that’s not him. But he found a way to use the strength that he did have to do something that’s so meaningful that now she’s writing a book about it all these years later.

Jenifer: Yeah. That’s really beautiful. I love that story because it’s true. People show up in different ways and if we could acknowledge the ways that people show up and realize that you don’t have to show up in every single way there is, then people could have a bit of a break. It’s a burden to feel like you got to show up in every single way that you’re not particularly skilled at. And especially that’s burdensome, you named it. You’re absolutely right, between extroverts and introverts. And I think Susan Cain who wrote the Quiet Revolution book that really gave permission for introverts to be seen as whole people, especially in academic settings.

Jenifer: So yes, that notion of bringing the piece of you that’s the most authentic to a relationship and hoping that’s enough. But I make a lot of recommendations in the book for how you do that. And some of that is by way of announcement. It’s by way of, “This is who I am and I want you to understand it.” And teaching kids to be brave about one, first understanding what that is. And then second, being able to advocate for themselves around what they’re good at and what they’re not good at.

Andy: Yeah. “Here’s what I will do. And I’ll do it really well. And I’ll work really hard for you on this, this and this, but these other things, not my thing.”

Jenifer: “I might not be able to.” Yeah.

Andy: “I can’t make any promises over in this area.”

Jenifer: Right. And then people know they should go find someone else who’s that’s their strength.

About Jenifer Fox

Jenifer Fox holds a Masters in Education from Harvard and has been working in the education sphere for over 30 years. Her work on strengths has led her to publish two texts on the subject, Your Child’s Strengths, for parents and teachers, and The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists, a resource text for teachers. 

Jenifer’s expertise in strengths-based education has led her to become a leader in her industry and she is regularly engaged in speaking jobs to business leaders, schools, and companies. She has given talks at corporations like Microsoft, Gap, Best Buy, and Yahoo, as well as a variety of elite schools. Additionally, Jenifer has been featured on The Today Show and writes for The Huffington Post

An educational visionary, Jenifer feels the differences between people should enrich our lives and understanding of the world, rather than keeping us fractured from each other. She wholeheartedly believes that schools, at their best, are places of wonder and joy.

Want More Jenifer Fox?

You can find Jenifer on her website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.