Teenagers spend a good chunk of their learning time immersed in such subjects as algebra, history, biology and geography.
But the march toward a successful and satisfying adulthood involves more than the ability to add numbers or read and analyze complex material.
Equally vital are skills that help young people develop character and give them the courage and fortitude to deal with the many challenges life will throw at them, says Linda Mornell, founder of the nonprofit organization Summer Search , which provides disadvantaged young people with life-changing and challenging summer opportunities.
“During the physical, emotional and intellectual explosions of the adolescent years, it’s critical that teenagers develop a belief in their own ability to succeed,” says Mornell, who also is author of the book “Forever Changed: How Summer Programs and Insight Mentoring Challenge Adolescents and Transform Lives.”
“People who truly believe they can perform well are more likely to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than something to be avoided.”
Skills and values that help lead adolescents to a more satisfying life can range from respecting their parents to understanding that making mistakes is part of life.
5 of the many skills Mornell says can make a difference.
- Learn to listen. The willingness to listen is a direct reflection of how much we value each other, Mornell says, and being listened to reduces stress. “Nothing teaches young people more about how to become good listeners than having a mentor or other adult who consistently and intently listens to them,” she says. “The ability to listen with intention and compassion creates and enhances qualities like curiosity, empathy and altruism.”
- Understand and manage stress. It’s essential that young people understand the role stress plays in their lives and the difference between healthy and unhealthy outlets for handling that stress. Healthy outlets for stress include exercise, talking, creative pursuits and venting anger through words and exercise in safe environments. Unhealthy outlets include withdrawing and bottling up feelings, overeating or restricting food, violent behavior, relying on passive activities like TV and video games, alcohol and drug use, premature sexual activity, and blaming others.
- Embrace anger. Young people (and perhaps adults as well) who want to achieve success often try to keep a lid on negative emotions, Mornell says. For inner-city students, she says, that instinct is especially understandable because acting on angry impulses raises the risk of getting hurt in the neighborhood or can be a threat to fragile relationships at home. Yet Mornell, who worked as a psychiatric nurse, has seen despondent patients find relief when they are given permission to appropriately vent their anger and frustration. “We definitely see that with Summer Search students as well,” Mornell says. “They consistently feel better when their mentors help them talk about rather than swallow their frustrations.”
- Reject the victim mentality. Many young people struggle at times with feeling like victims. That especially can be the case for those growing up in poverty. “In truth, they often are victimized,” Mornell says. “They may live in a dangerous neighborhood with highly stressed and single-parent families, and every day they are confronted with the harsh realities of poverty.” The challenge, she says, is for young people to separate their experience of literally being a victim from the tendency to develop a victim mentality. They can’t control the former, but they can control the latter.
- Value humor. Adolescents are turned off by sarcasm from adults, but they have a great appreciation for humor. “If a mentor and a student can start poking fun at each other, the friendly teasing can lead to a closer and more trusting relationship,” Mornell says. “Learning to laugh at oneself is an important skill for us all.”
About Linda Mornell
Linda Mornell is the founder of Summer Search (www.summersearch.org), a nonprofit organization that provides disadvantaged young people with life-changing and challenging summer opportunities. She is also the author of the book “Forever Changed: How Summer Programs and Insight Mentoring Challenge Adolescents and Transform Lives.” Mornell was born on a farm in Muncie, Ind. After getting her RN and bachelor’s degrees from Methodist Hospital and DePauw University, she headed west on a Greyhound bus. She received psychiatric training from Langley Porter at the University of California in San Francisco and married a psychiatric resident, Pierre Mornell. She has three adult children and seven grandchildren. Mornell divides her time among family, writing and consulting. In 2014, she was blessed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama for her efforts to empower disadvantaged youth.