How to Teach Growth Mindset to Teens
This is a reprint from the brilliant Nicole Schwarz, the mastermind behind imperfectfamilies.com.
His hands bang the table as his chair tumbles to the floor.
“I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I quit.”
Rushing in, you attempt to offer comfort, “It’s OK. You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.”
He scoffs. “No mom, you don’t get it. They want a five-page paper by tomorrow. I don’t even get this assignment. I quit. I’ll get a zero. I don’t care.”
Panicked, you try to help but it’s no use. His history grade has been dropping all year but it seems like you’re the only one who’s worried.
If he fails this class, his GPA might suffer…then college…career.
How do you encourage a teen to take ownership of their life? To put forth the effort and work toward their goals, even when life gets challenging?
It starts by realizing your teen’s brain is flexible and adaptable. And, with the right type of support and encouragement from you, he can learn new ways of thinking, adapt his study skills, and even plan for the future.
Understanding the Teenage Brain
During the teen years, your child’s brain goes through what author Dan Siegel calls “remodeling.” A process that helps build a stronger more effective brain, which will serve them as they become independent adults.
Unfortunately, this remodeling includes periods of extreme emotional responses, risk-taking behavior, boundary-pushing, and a lack of consistent impulse control.
When they were younger, they soaked up facts and thought in concrete ways. Now, teens are able to see things in a more abstract way. They are able to be more creative with their problem-solving and think critically about themselves and others.
This also means your teen may be idealistic and opinionated, and they may challenge the “old ways” of doing things.
It’s normal for parents to feel threatened, concerned, and confused when faced with the emotional rollercoaster of the teen years.
But teens often feel overwhelmed by these dramatic brain changes, too. The rush of new experiences can be exhilarating. However, changes in relationships, managing mature social situations, and feeling torn between pulling away from parents and wanting to stay “little” forever, can be overwhelming situations for some teenagers.
As parents and teens learn to navigate this “remodeling” stage, helpful comments are interpreted as criticism, suggestions turn into lengthy lectures, and differences of opinions quickly become power struggles.
It’s often hard to know how to motivate your teen.
Embracing a Growth Mindset
Though the conversations sound different now, you can still play an important role in helping them build strong, healthy, “growth mindset” brains.
A growth mindset is about believing people can develop and improve their abilities, while a “fixed mindset” is about believing intelligence and abilities are inborn and cannot change dramatically.
Many teens are stuck in a fixed mindset. They believe they are “not good at math” or “will never be on the tennis team.”
Incorporating a “growth mindset” into your conversations sends the message that, with effort and support, your teen can
- improve their results (“Meeting with my algebra tutor helped me understand the last unit”)
- develop talents (“I enjoy signing and I can get better with practice”)
- grow their skills (“Practicing daily will improve my serve”).
The benefits of a growth mindset don’t stop at grades and athletics (in fact, your teenager may tune you out if that’s all you focus on).
It can be applied to anything your teen is passionate about: strengthening their friendships, improving their relationships, being seen as an important member of a team, speaking out about something they believe in, or overcoming a fear.
From a calm, confident position, you can encourage their growing brains to be flexible. You can give your teen space to think, process, and even question the status quo.
Find outlets for their creativity, provide them with appropriate alternatives to risky behavior, and encourage goal-setting.
This role is not easy, though.
The tips below will help you interact with your teenager in a way that keeps the relationship strong while encouraging them to grow and develop as an individual. The focus is on keeping healthy connections, rather than finding the “perfect” consequences.
When your teen knows you’re on their side, they may be more open to your point of view, and may even come to you for guidance as they set and reach goals in the future.
8 Helpful Tips for Teaching Teens a Growth Mindset
1. Share Facts About the Brain
Most teens know about the physical changes their bodies will experience during puberty, but don’t stop there!
Share what you know about the brain or explore together.
- Use books or videos to learn about the parts of the brain, how feelings are expressed, and new information is processed.
- Explore words like “neuroplasticity” and reinforce that their brain has the ability to learn new skills – and improve old ones – throughout their entire lifetime.
- Have your teen read the fun comic included in Big Life Journal – Teen Edition which explains the basics of neuroplasticity.
2. This is an Ongoing Conversation
Teenagers tend to tune out, ignore, or push back when parents start to lecture. Remember, your teen’s brain is looking at the world differently now.
- Incorporate a growth mindset into your household vocabulary, but keep the conversation open-ended, rather than forcing it.
- Encourage teens to look for examples of a growth mindset in everyday experiences (someone on TV, in the news, or at school).
- Share ways YOU are growing and learning – even as an adult!
3. Goals are Good, the Pressure Isn’t
When it comes to goal-setting, some teens are dreamers, they have goals for themselves long into the future.
Some may still be on the fence about what to do next, while others may struggle to think about goals in a concrete way.
It’s easy to transfer your own hopes and dreams onto your child. Instead of pressing kids to fit your mold, come alongside as support.
- Focus on the process of goal-setting rather than the goals themselves.
- Use creative options such as bucket lists or vision boards – either as a family or individually.
4. Make Space for Failure
Many parents see failure as something to be avoided. However, in a growth mindset, failure is not the end and it doesn’t define your teen.
Rather than trying to make the path smooth for your teens or keeping them perpetually happy, focus on your role as support, or staying close at hand.
Carol Dweck recommends “addressing the setback head-on and talking to your children about next steps for learning.”
5. When Things Don’t Go As Planned, Brainstorm Solutions Together
Teens are bound to run into challenges as they practice independence. Your job is the cheerleader, not the director.
Rather than telling your child to “ask the teacher for extra credit,” when they do poorly on a test, walk through what happened and explore problem-solving options with your teen. See what they’re comfortable with rather than dictating their next move.
6. Address Lacking Skills
Problem-solving together may highlight areas where your teen needs additional help.
“ [Some kids] with an undiagnosed learning or attention disorder look as they have a bad attitude because they feel discouraged or struggle to maintain their motivation.”
– Lisa Damour, author
Other teens are impacted by mental health concerns, such as anxiety or depression. Seek outside support for your teenager as needed.
7. Listen More Than You Talk
Parents have so much wisdom and insight to offer, but, unfortunately, it looks more like a lecture than a conversation.
Instead, ask open-ended questions.
- Ask your teen for suggestions, solutions, advice, and thoughts.
- Empathize with their perspective, rather than jumping to a solution, criticizing, or judging.
- Reiterate you are willing and available when they need a listening ear.
8. Watch Your Reactions
Encouraging your kids to adopt a flexible growth mindset might require you to work on your own mindset, too. How you describe challenges or talk about your teen’s struggles matters.
If you overreact to small infractions or mistakes, your child may be cautious about pursuing goals or may shy away from sharing challenges with you.
It’s OK to struggle with a growth mindset. Let your teen know you will be working on it together!
Mindset in Action
Stepping into the other room, you take a few deep breaths. Your son’s panic doesn’t mean you need to panic too.
When you’re ready, you approach him empathetically.
“This is a tough assignment, isn’t it?”
Undeterred by his grunts and eye-rolling, you continue, “Want to talk through the assignment together?”
He tosses the paper to you.
Maybe tonight he’ll get through the assignment. Maybe not. Maybe all you’ll do tonight is identify some roadblocks – typing slowly or not being able to organize facts – that can be addressed with his teacher in the future.
Maybe all you’ll do is change the message from, “I can’t do it” to “I can get the help I need to pass history this quarter.”
And that is progress from a growth mindset perspective.
You know building a teenage brain takes time. And you’re committed to supporting him as his brain grows and matures.