Want Your Teens To Become More Awesome? Instill This Habit

Before full blown adulthood hits, parents may feel the urge to right whatever wrongs exist in their teen.  If this sounds familiar and you want to instill good habits that will serve your teen in adulthood, read on. This post talks about how to cultivate the first of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. In it, Sean Covey empowers his teen readers to start with where they are.

Parents want to make sure their kids know how to manage their time, be accountable, and prioritize. In reality, many of these skills are not innate and this drives parents nuts. But good news: these are habits (learnable), not talents (natural).

Starting where you are is the ability to honestly assess yourself. This is hard for many teens because they are defensive and  not particularly objective. Read on for tips on how to help your teen form this mindful  habit, and some examples of how it has played out in my work as a teen tamer.  

The First Habit of Highly Effective Teens:

My job as a professional teen harasser is help teens better understand where they are.  We communicate in a way that surprises them: I ask them lots of questions about various aspects of their lives–school, habits, scheduling, social stuff–and as objectively as possible, I listen.

I don’t tell them where they are; instead I hold the mirror up for them to see their strengths and weaknesses for themselves.  This is different than what they are used to and I think it’s why they tolerate me.

I can’t get many of my students to read Covey’s book, but I can use Jedi mind tricks  on them to implement his habits.

 “Starting Where You Are” is the teen version of taking stock. It means understanding the parts of life you are responsible for, and differentiating them from circumstances beyond your control. Covey suggests that teens start with “the man in the mirror” and that they learn their strengths and weaknesses. 

This is the foundation for taking responsibility for yourself and becoming accountable. It’s how you stop blaming the teacher for failing a test, and instead realize that you didn’t study. Even if the circumstance stinks (teacher) you can still thrive.

If I get kids to “Start Where They Are,” it is a before-and-after moment. From then on, a new trust and rapport emerge. And if the goal to get them to change, this is necessary.

You can do this because you aren’t their parent. What kind of tips do you have for parents who want their teens to be more highly effective?

It’s true that my work affords me objectivity that parenthood does not provide. But it’s also true that certain parenting styles are more effective than others for encouraging personal responsibility and self awareness.

There are also some communication tips that I find to be consistently effective when relating with teens. Here are five of them from my bag of tricks:

  • Listen without judgement: I think this video is a great refresher on listening skills. It’s been super useful for me and I recommend it to teens and parents alike.
  • Give them space to explore their truths: How your kids see their world is different from how you see their world. AND: their world is so different than the world you grew up in. It’s not going back–kids don’t want to hear about how much harder our lives in the pre-internet era were. They start tuning out as soon as we go there. Instead of trying to draw a parallel between you and them, let them tell you about their world. This goes hand in hand with listening without judgement.
  • Get them talking. Use a car ride to ask lots of questions that are not rhetorical, habitual, or generic. That’s the thing–they are quite used to be spoken at by grownups. Flip the script and talk to them with no agenda. In other words, cut back on questions that begin with “What” (What grade did you get? What team did you make? What are you doing this weekend?) and increase those that begin with  “Who,” “Where,” and “How”? For example:
    • “Who is the teacher/grown up you are really learning from?”
    • In relation to college: “Where do you think you’d be the happiest, a city or a small town?”
    • “How do you see yourself as a team member/student/friend?”
  • Make connections aloud for them. A lot of times teens with just say stuff that they don’t mean. Hold them accountable for their words by parroting or paraphrasing what they say. An easy way to do this: repeat the last 6 words that they said with a tone that sounds like a question.  Sometimes they will hear how absurd they sound and try to backpedal. Let them. If they say “That’s not what I meant,” give  them a chance to clarify.
  • Take note of their complaints. If your teen repeatedly says that he was overscheduled, it may a window into his experience, not just him complaining. Ask him how much he thinks his track practice gets in the way of his homework, and then pay attention in the week ahead to notice if he seems exhausted, or if he is just on his phone procrastinating.

Teen tamer: Can you provide examples to illustrate how this plays out with teens you work with?

Here are some examples of teenage clients of mine who started where they were at in order to form different habits.

Motivated, but not confident

Paulette is a high school senior who contacted me because she feels like “she can’t write” and is “worried about college next year.”

While her concerns are valid, after meeting with Paulette, I have more of a picture of where she is at. She is highly motivated, given that she reached out to me. She has good social skills–she makes eye contact and when asked specific questions, she answers freely.

But she lacks confidence. She answers reluctantly, and when she talks, she ends her sentences with a question mark.

Though she reads well aloud, she does not understand or remember much of what she is reading.

Where is Paulette at? She is motivated and teachable, but her confidence is low and she does not retain what she is reading. The starting place: build her reading skills and ask her specific questions that she can answer to help bolster her confidence.

Super smart, but he can’t get out of his own way

Another student is Jesse. He is very bright, but he is also quite disorganized. His grades are slipping.

To start, we discuss schedule. Jesse takes 9 honors classes a day with no break, runs track and get home at 5. When he gets home, he wants to zone out on a device. Though he wants to get his work done, he gets lost in his phone or computer.

Disorganized is not Jesse’s real problem. He is spread thin. He is “not that motivated to change”. Those are his words, not mine.

Granted Jesse shows a lot of self-awareness for a 16 year old boy. When I heard him out and learned this: he lacks will-power to do more because he is already doing the best he can.

Where is Jesse at? All the calendars in the world will not change this for Jesse. As a first action, we decided that he needs to incorporate more down time. When he gets home, spending 30 minutes just chilling. He can be on a device then, but after that, he eats and the devices go away.



Another one of my clients is Sam, whose parents know that his weakness is in reading and writing.

Over time, I’ve come to agree with them. He is weak in these academic areas. But he is also on a competitive, traveling sports league all year. He has a demanding private school curriculum. And yes, he’s a math/science guy, not an English guy.

Where is Sam at? Sam wants his parents to understand that between school, sports and their expectations, he is stressed and stretched. When he says he’s tired, he’s being serious.

In the closet

Meg’s mom contacted me to mentor her daughter. Her grades were slipping, despite spending a lot of time on her computer “studying.” She was losing friends. Their once open relationship was crumbling. There moodiness and fighting. Mom was worried about her daughter’s social life and her academic future.

After meeting Meg and talking with her, she came clean about the problem: she is gay. Her friends aren’t gone; she’s just hanging out with the queer kids now and she doesn’t want her mom to know. Her grades are slipping because she is spending a lot of time researching queer issues.

Where is Meg at? She is scared of what her mom will say once she learns she’s gay. She is exhausted from the secrets.

Our teens are over-scheduled. They constantly blasted by media. Can they really learn how to become responsible for themselves also? 

Yes, they can. I’d argue that they has never been a better time to encourage self-awareness. It’s a foundational life skill that many people lack. It aids in decision-making, goal setting, and prioritizing.

I get why parents worry about their teens. Teens give us lots of reasons to worry about them.They see the behavior of today affecting their teen’s future. Parents want to be sure that their teens will grow into responsible people who can weather life’s challenges effectively.

Starting where you are at means it’s okay to not already be perfect.

Why do teens need to start where they are?

I provide these examples to illustrate the same point: teens are only human. They can only change what they understand and often they don’t understand themselves. My interactions with teens constantly remind me that they are just inexperienced humans. They have little in the way of self-awareness or good habits.

However, when teens are guided and accepted for where they are, they tend to be responsive. By the way, being responsive doesn’t mean all the problems get solved. It just means that they become more aware of themselves and more honest and clear about what is really going on.  

Life regularly presents us with challenges. The more we are able to just start where we are, the more likely we are to weather them gracefully and successfully.  If you want teens to be capable, launched adults, teach encourage this habit now. Help them take inventory of both circumstances and habits. Remind them that everyone has both weaknesses and strengths. Listen to them and ask questions that help him know himself better. Teach them to start with themselves first and be amazed and patient. They will mature and grow more once they can see themselves more completely.



  • so many many takeaway gems here, helaina! (i actually took notes as i was reading.) as the mother of two boys (now 23 and 18) and a former adolescent counselor, i applaud you on meeting these teens where they are and on truly listening to them as they try to assimilate into the adult world.

    my favorite line: “give them space to explore their truths: how your kids see their world is different from how you see their world.” i think this leads to a healthy and satisfying curiosity about life. (i have tried very hard to do this with my own sons, to understand their perspectives, their interests, their reactions and responses.) thank you for this beautiful article.

    February 6, 2017 at 8:05 pm
  • Love your post and love the illustrations of real the teens as it brings it makes it so much more real. I love how you show, that the assumption a teen is disorganized may actually be the teen is spread too thin. Parenting can be a very humbling experience along with blessed experience. I love this philosophy and use it with my clients, “Start where you are.”

    February 7, 2017 at 7:00 am
  • Active listening and communication is key when supporting children to discover themselves and their talents! Very nice, thank you

    February 7, 2017 at 9:29 pm
  • Christy


    This is AMAZING info and SOOOO helpful to me as a mom of teens! I will definitely be checking out that book! Thank you!!

    February 13, 2017 at 5:25 am
  • Pam


    I love how you approach teen relationships as a coach rather than as someone just telling them who they are or who they should be. It is a challenging time for them, so important they feel they are getting the support or listening ear they need as you help them navigate their way.

    February 16, 2017 at 4:58 pm

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