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5 Emotional and Social Skills Your Teen Needs To Thrive

Teens and tweens with strong emotional intelligence are more self-aware, good communicators, and have strong relationships with others. We all want this for our children, but how do we help them when many of us have never been taught?

Parents can learn how to cultivate social and emotional intelligence in their teens and tweens in many ways. Jennifer Miller, M.Ed. has twenty-five years of experience working with adults to help them become more effective with children through social and emotional learning. She is the author of the book, “Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence In Ourselves and Our Kids — From Toddlers to Teenagers.” She is the founder of the website Confident Parents Confident Kids where she helps parents raise confident kids.

Scroll down to read the full episode transcribed.

What You Will Learn: 

  •  What is emotional intelligence and how can we teach our kids when no one taught us?
  • The five core skills of emotional and social intelligence.
  • How parents can coach their children through issues that arise within other relationships.
  • How you can use questions to help your child develop a sense of higher-order thinking skills.
  • When to step in and when to allow your teen to take a risk.
  • The value of parents expressing confidence in their teens’ abilities.
  • When talking with your teen, how you can help them see things from different perspectives?
  • What impact does it have on our families when parents take a “time out” to process their emotions?
  • Why you should have a phrase with your teen that means you both need to take a step away.

Where To Find Jennifer Miller: 

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And here is the episode typed out!

Welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. If some days you doubt yourself and you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve ugly cried alone in your bedroom because you felt like you’re failing. Well, I just want to let you know you are not alone and you have come to the right place.

Raising tweens and teens in today’s world is not easy. And I’m on a mission to equip you to love well, and to raise emotionally healthy, happy tweens and teens that thrive.

I believe that moms are heroes, and we have the power to transform our family and to impact future generations. If you are looking for answers, encouragement, and to become more of the mom and the woman that you want to be welcome. I am Sheryl Gould. And I am so glad that you’re here.

SHERYL: Welcome, Jennifer, to the Moms of Tweens and Teens podcast. I am thrilled to have you here. I’m so excited about what we’re going to be talking about today.

JENNIFER: Thanks, Sheryl. We have so much to discuss. We’ve already kind of chewed a little bit. I’m really excited about getting into the conversation. 

SHERYL: Yeah, me too. We’ve already been talking before we hit record for like 15 or 20 minutes making these connections, which is so much fun. Start by telling our listeners how you came to do what you’re doing because you have a backstory. Will you share that? 

JENNIFER: I have been doing what I am doing, broadly in the field of social and emotional learning, for a good 25 years. As I mentioned to you, I started out of college in advertising and volunteered for a year in southern Oklahoma at a Native American boarding home doing dropout prevention programs as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. 

It was so enlightening for me to realize that my charge was to prevent kids from dropping out of school. I spent all of my time nourishing their social and emotional development. It was such a powerful year. I’m glad to say that the boarding home has gone, and now the Chickasaw Nation has a Health and Cultural Center in its place. That’s a wonderful edge of evolution. 

I learned there how important every kid needs to have social and emotional skill-building throughout their development. I really chose to devote my career to that. For the past ten years, I’ve really focused on parenting. 

Before, I was focused on schools and how we integrate social and emotional skills into schools, and when I became a parent, it became apparent that I really needed to focus on my own home life and learn how to do these important life skills stuff with my own son. I really started to work with families and parents. 

SHERYL: Wow. So when you become a parent, then you’re really living it. 

JENNIFER: Right. I was traveling around the state working with school leaders and teachers, teaching them how to integrate social and emotional skill-building into their teaching and into the school building. I was coming home, and I was breastfeeding my son and thinking to myself, “I am going to need to figure this out in my own home with my son right here, how to manage to cultivate his social and emotional skills.” 

I really decided I need to start switching to working with parents and families so that I can become confident myself in how I’m raising my child, being a confident kid. 

SHERYL: Yeah, I love the connection that you make and everything I’ve read and listened to. You have your book, which I want to talk about. For our listeners, I think it’s important to start here. We think we know what social and emotional health is. 

But I think it’s helpful to hear it from an expert like you about how much it starts with us, which is where we’re so aligned. Because so often it’s like, we’re going to focus on our kids and teaching them these skills. But nobody ever taught us these skills to us. And so, how can we begin to teach our kids when we don’t really know how to do that. We’re going to talk about that but start with what is social, emotional intelligence exactly?

JENNIFER: Yeah, it’s on the nightly news, right? We hear about social and emotional intelligence health on a regular basis. I think it’s important to define it very simply, as a kind of deeply coming to know who we are, our strengths, our limitations, to know our hearts, what our feelings are, to reflect on our thoughts and our choices. 

It’s developing a relationship with ourselves and figuring out how to develop healthy, sustainable relationships with other people. That also involves making responsible decisions. Think about the consequences of our actions and how they may impact ourselves and others.  

The five core skills that are a part of that are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. 

SHERYL: Wow. And as you’re saying all of those things, I’m thinking, “gosh, that’s right where tweens and teens are. It starts when they’re young.” But when you think about how you impact others, like the adolescent brain connecting cause and effect, or how do I fit in. They want to belong so much when they’re this age, but then you have to be able to also learn to say no, to what’s not good for you. It’s a lot, and they’re in the thick of it.

JENNIFER: They are in the thick of it. If you think about it, they’re kind of at the gateway to adulthood, and they are redefining their identity for themselves versus what you told them about who you told them they are. They’re now saying,” Who am I,” and they’re using lots of cues, including teachers and coaches and peer feedback, and pop culture and social media feedback, to determine who they’re going to be as an emerging adult. 

They also have this great social awareness. So they can take others’ perspectives. They’re not always accurate with that because it’s a new thing, right? To see from another’s perspective and to figure out what other kids are sensing or feeling. So they become more self-conscious with that raised social awareness. Maybe that look on her face is she’s judging me when maybe she’s just really having a bad day. 

So they’re beginning to try to interpret body language and body cues. That definitely contributes to their social anxiety, and then relationships and budding romances, and dealing with impulses. You mentioned the teenage brain. Instead of being rigged for risk, they view things through the lens of reward. Teens are interested in what can get them that pleasure reward, which is why we worry about our teenagers, and how we can help them find healthy risk-taking opportunities. 

You mentioned consequences and how they can develop those higher-order thinking skills of “when I do this,” it may have this impact on them and on me today. And what’s it going to look like next week? And what’s it going to look like a year from now? So those are all parts of teen development that are social and emotional, and so critical to support them in their development.

SHERYL: Wow. Yeah. And that’s why it’s like a perfect storm. I think parenting at this age is where it’s all coming together all at once. I love how you talked about how they’re reading facial expressions, and they’re trying to assess, “what does that mean?” 

Moms that are on here listening, when you look at your kid a certain way, and I’m sure you’ve heard this, they read facial expressions often as anger; that the research has shown, that might be true. Maybe 40% that that might be true, but that they’re reading that, and it’s not always accurate. That’s so important, and I think as a parent to know where they are developmentally so we can understand and so we can respond more compassionately, more effectively. How would you say that? 

JENNIFER: Well, I love that responding compassionately, having that understanding. It’s like getting glasses for the first time, and they see things in a new way. And when you get glasses for the first time, it can be fuzzy, and it is an adjustment, and you get a little dizzy. 

Our teens are really learning that interpretation skill. And it is empathy. It is honing their perspective-taking skills, their empathy skills, but they need reflection with adults who are more skilled, more practiced at the ability to read facial cues to read body language and tone of voice to say, “Oh, I hear she’s angry, but I don’t think it’s it you. Let’s dig in further and find out what’s going on with her day. Because maybe something else is going on there.” 

SHERYL: That can be something that we can do as parents that can really help our kids. I’d love to hear what are some of the biggest mistakes that you see parents make? And of course, moms, we’re not judging. We all do this. What are some of the things that we do that get in the way of our kid’s social and emotional intelligence development? 

JENNIFER: The tough one for so many parents of teens is figuring out when to step in and when to step away and allow them the ability to take a risk, to be independent, to show their independence, and potentially to fail. And to live with the consequences of failing. Especially if you’re going to witness your teen in pain, it is extremely difficult as a parent to stand on the sidelines and say, “I give you space to be able to do what you need to do.” 

And especially in relationships with teachers, in relationships with friends, in new budding romances. Our teens need to learn how to have healthy relationships. And that’s something that we as adults struggle with. So, we know it requires a lot of practice. Our teens are going to get into difficult social dynamics and friendship conflicts. How can we act as coaches? Instead of fixing and jumping in there? Or even being a communicator and getting in the middle? 

How can we stand back and be a coach and ask really good questions? “Well, what do you think she was feeling? Well, what were you feeling? What else could have been going on there? How do you think you could repair harm if harm has been done in the relationship?” So asking those questions prompts your team’s thinking and also says, “Hey, I trust you to manage your own relationships. And I know you can figure this out.”

SHERYL: Gosh, that was so good. I have my little notes, but I put this one right in front of my face. So when coaching tweens and teens, moving from telling to asking, what you said expresses confidence in their kid’s efforts. I was like, “ding ding ding!” Because what you’re saying is, if we are rescuing, fixing, offering advice, telling, we’re sending the message, and we’re really not very confident in their ability to problem-solve and to navigate these things. We’re getting in the way of that versus coaching them by asking good questions. We’re actually showing more confidence in their ability that they have the answers already inside of themselves. 

JENNIFER: Right on, and when I coach parents, I will often say when they’re upset about their teen having a really stressful friendship challenge, what I let them know is, yes, it’s really hard to see your child in pain. But this is such a wonderful opportunity for you to serve as a coach by helping them work through the problem themselves and resolve it or make it better when they’re in college or beyond outside of your home; you are not going to have that wraparound opportunity to hear at the beginning of the problem and support them through the emotions of working through the problem. 

Then following up and reflecting on “how did you” or “what did you choose? And how did it go? And how did they respond? And what would you choose next time.” So, we have this precious time with our teens in our household, where we can see them through the whole process of working through difficulties in their social relationships by prompting their good thinking and supporting them through that process. 

SHERYL: I love that. I did something so different. I have three kids, but I have a nine-year gap between my oldest daughter and my youngest. On some level, I was thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be different than my childhood. They’re probably not going to get left out.” But it’s so normal, especially in middle school, that they have these issues with friends. There’s no way to escape it. 

But when my daughter got in the car, she was so upset; my oldest when she went through this. I reacted, which I think we so often can do. I reacted to my old fear. I said, “oh my gosh, I can’t believe she did that.” I just fed the beast. I was so upset about this girl. I said, “Well, was there something you did that caused this?” 

Which I’m ashamed even to say I said, and then the next day, everything was okay. I learned a lot in those nine years, and so fast forward and my youngest gets in the car, she’s crying, the same scenario. I’m like, “Wow, that must have been hard. How did you feel?” She’s like, “I was really sad and angry, and I couldn’t believe and blah, blah, blah.” 

I said, “What did you do?” And then she’s like, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I’m like, “how did it go?” And she’s like, “blah, blah.” And she talked and talked, then she was fine. And the next day, she gets in the car. And she’s like, “Mom, I thought about what we talked about. I realized it was really mean to my friend. And she told me she was upset with me because I had said something. And we worked it all out now we’re fine.” 

JENNIFER: She had raised self-awareness from you asking good questions and giving her the space to think about it.  

SHERYL: And that’s exactly what you’re talking about, is by asking those good questions. But I didn’t give my oldest at that time the opportunity to work it through.

JENNIFER: Yeah, well, we feel so protective of our teens, and it’s really difficult to hang back. But if you remind yourself that you’re building these invaluable relationship skills that can last them a lifetime, it really helps. Kind of being your own coach of stepping back and saying, “Hold on. She’s going to be okay. How can I take a breath here, take a pause, and ask some good questions.” 

And be careful not to judge friends. Because most of the time, we’re hearing it secondhand. We know that our teens can misinterpret, so we don’t know the whole story. We want our teens to be able to start to think about the story and see the story from different perspectives. 

So if we happen to judge, then we’re telling one story, and we’re really limiting or narrowing the focus. Whereas if we take some breaths, we breathe, we do our inner coaching of “Okay, step back, mom, hold on, it’s going to be okay. How can I find out more, be curious and really listen?” It can really change, as your perfect example showed change how our teen learns to deal with those situations in an empowered way. 

SHERYL: The word that I was thinking, as you were saying, is, it’s empowering our kids. I didn’t realize it, but my oldest one, I also was raising her anxiety, like she shouldn’t be having this struggle or something. I think we don’t mean to, but “oh, my gosh, this is happening, and what’s wrong with you that you’re having this issue.” But it really was more about my own anxiety. I think we can pass that to our kids without meaning to. So, like you said, taking a pause is so important. 

JENNIFER: It’s so true. And, of course, as caring, loving parents, we have anxiety about our kids. We do, especially when we feel like they’re getting hurt. You’re not expected to be superhuman. We all need to incorporate that pause, that ability to take a breath and manage our own anxiety before launching into a conversation that we know is going to get us fearful or worried about the pain that they’re going through. 

SHERYL: Thank you. We just need to remember that over and over and over again. That we care about our kids so much that we’re going to feel anxious that’s really hard. I love having like a little mantra, “it’s going to be okay.” We need that so much. 

JENNIFER: We do need that. I would build on that. As parents of teenagers whose job it is to push me, pull you, assert their independence, but then need us so badly because their emotions are a roller coaster ride. So often, it is so confusing to us to allow for independence and then also feel that need for emotional support. 

We have to remind ourselves that it is our job as teenagers and that we’re going to be okay on this emotional roller coaster ride. And they’ll be better if we work on supporting our own anxiety. And sometimes our own hurts because it hurts when they push us away, when they shut the door on us and go into their room and are unresponsive. 

It can be painful when in the younger years, we were with them. We were playing with them, we were reading to them, and we were engaging with them so much more. We do have to nurture our own wounds, as parents of teenagers, and be graceful and delicate with ourselves. It is an emotional roller coaster ride for us as well

SHERYL: Yeah, nurture our wounds. That’s so true, and it hurts so much. I remember each one of my kids through that. Went into their room and I’d knock on the door. “What?” I would be like, “what are you doing” or something and they would say, “can you please leave my room?” It was so painful to me. I remember I would just like want to wrestle the phone out of their hand. Something because you’re hurt. Good stuff for us to remember. 

So, tell us about your book. You wrote “Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence in Ourselves.” 

I love the colors. 

JENNIFER: I do too. Thank you. I got to do all the illustrations. It was really a dream come true. To get to illustrate in addition to writing the book. 

SHERYL: You did all the illustrations yourself? 

JENNIFER: Yes, I’ve done the illustrations on my blog for a decade. 

SHERYL: Oh my gosh, they’re fabulous. You’re an Artist. 

JENNIFER: On the side. Yes. 

SHERYL: Well, I can tell by looking at your room that you’re creative. I like the subtitle too. You say raising “emotional intelligence in ourselves, not just our kids and ourselves from toddlers to teenagers.” So, give us a couple of nuggets around your book. 

JENNIFER: Well, it does have an age-by-stage guide of children’s development, from birth through adolescence, particularly their social and emotional development. So that we can be aware of what they’re working on, what they’re learning, and ways in which we can promote it as parents. 

And then, there are particular pieces on parenting and the role of parents and how we can look at how we were trained, through our own childhood, the parenting we received, and the patterns that arise naturally because of the way we were trained in our own childhood, as parents, and how we can deal with that if we want to turn around habits or patterns that we want to change. And how we can deal with our own social and emotional development. Because the truth is, we are working on social and emotional skills for a lifetime. 

SHERYL: Yeah, we don’t arrive. For me, having the membership with these moms and doing all the teaching I do, that’s the biggest thing: we don’t arrive; we’re always in this growth process. And we’re always parents too, even having older kids, these things come up all the time. 

JENNIFER: Life changes when they move off and become adults, or you become a grandmother, and your relationship with your adult child has to evolve and change. That takes a lot of social-emotional skills. 

SHERYL: Yeah. Do you see a common – when you talk about looking at our own baggage as parents? Can you give an example of that, maybe from your own life? I’m kind of putting you on the spot. Or an example so that the parents listening can maybe make some connections in their own parent chain? 

JENNIFER: Absolutely. It happens all the time and when you least suspect it. An incident that came up in my life was really what sent me on the track to doing this work with my parents. When my son was a toddler, I went into his room one day and said, “Ethan, we’ve got to go to a library storytime. Pick your last toy to play with and then put it away, and we’re going to go.” 

He stood up and didn’t say a word, red in the face, waddled over to me, and smacked me on the legs. I mean, he was a tiny toddler, one and a half, maybe two. I remember vividly wanting to run away and cry. And my reaction shocked me. Because I felt like he was punishing me. I felt like he was somehow punishing me. 

Many of us were spanked as children, were punished, yelled at, and punished as children. And those feelings of being punished came right back at that moment. I thought how strange because I know, as someone who studies child development, I know toddlers lash out physically because they don’t have the words to put their feelings out there. 

It’s something that I expected, and yet I had this overwhelming rush of hurt. Then I had the feeling on top of that of “you’re ridiculous.” And then, on top of that, I had the feeling of, “oh my gosh, what if he’s going to be a violent person someday?” We have these layers of reaction and freak out in those moments. 

SHERYL: Yeah, I call them the stories we’re telling ourselves. We ended up catastrophizing. We think he’s going to be violent someday.

JENNIFER: Exactly, I was ready for him to be in jail when he was 30. And he’s 2. I walked away from that, confused about my own feelings. I took a journal, I sat down, and I took the time to unpack and say, “what were those stories? What was I feeling?” What were the multiple stories because there wasn’t just one? There were many. 

I realized that was a seminal moment for me to figure out: I had felt from my history, from my own childhood, that I didn’t, at the moment, make that connection. I wasn’t thinking, “Well, I was punished as a kid. And I’m feeling that same feeling.” 

I had to walk away, and I had to sit down. I had to really pause and reflect and think about it. What we know from the science of emotions is that emotions are informed by our past. And that includes any part of our past, including our childhoods. But when we’re feeling that rush of intensity in our bodies, we don’t associate it with that history at the moment. 

That’s why it is so critical that we walk away from that moment and later reflect on what was really going on there. One key question that I like to coach people in asking is, when was I feeling that exact set of emotions and that level of heat, before in my life? That really sends you back into your past into those stories, where those feelings were generated in the first place. Then you can ask what were the reactions of other people to me? And how was I taught in this way? How were my emotions trained in this way? 

That really makes a huge difference because you can say, “alright, now I know what’s going to trigger me. If he hits me, I’m going to have the same emotional reaction. So how am I going to be different next time? What can I do to take care of myself.”? 

And often, when there’s a trigger of big emotions like that, you need to take the time to pause to calm down. We often feel like we have to react immediately to our kids. We don’t, and we can sit down, we can close our eyes, can go inside, can hold our hearts, can feel our breath, can take a moment to center ourselves. And we know we’re going to react with more emotional intelligence if we do that. And by the way, when our child teen watches us do that, we are modeling emotional intelligence in a moment that’s difficult for us. I can’t imagine a more important lesson for them. 

SHERYL: Wow. That example was so helpful. And it looks different for all of us. But to realize when we’re in that when that emotion feels so strong when triggered. That is really good information that can take me back. Mine was anger, what I saw as defiance. When my daughter was a tween, and I said, “okay, you need to do this,” “No.” “Um, what?” 

When they were younger, I could control it a little bit more. But then they start individuating. In my family, boy, you did not say no. I just had such a strong reaction. It really helped me to understand myself and the developmental piece of it. Like, “Okay, at this age, they’re trying to develop their own voice, and this is necessary.” Not a bad thing. But I saw it as bad because of my childhood. And not having the freedom to even exercise my No.

JENNIFER: But it sounds like you came away and reflected on it: why am I getting so angry? What about this is making me angry? Did you come back and respond differently after you reflected on it? 

SHERYL: Well, not at the time. It was later through my own work. I think that when I first started feeling that, I reflected a little bit. But I like how you’re also saying, “what am I going to do differently next time?” 

JENNIFER: It’s really important to be away from your teen and think about it. Plan what’s that going to look like the next time? If the irony is, in your example, you want your daughter to be faced with her peers, offering her drugs and to say, No. You want her to have that sense of agency, that strong will, that she’s going to be able to say no when she is pressured to do something that she knows is not safe or not right. 

Yet, when they say no to you, it is it can be so infuriating. So, what do you do with that? Well, you want to promote that sense of agency. But the truth is, again, we are not superhuman. We’re human. We’re going to get angry. So then, how do we respond to our anger in ways where we are able to calm down and reflect before we respond impulsively? And in ways that we might regret later? 

SHERYL: So what would be something that a mom could say, to not respond at the moment? 

JENNIFER: I often coach parents to come up with a phrase and pair it with body language that they repeat every single time so that not only are you using it to train yourself, but you’re also training your teen: this is what I’m going to do. 

One mom agreed with her son that when they were angry at each other, they would say “red light.” And that was their signal, and they came up with it together. They would just say red light. And that meant that they were getting really upset, and they were going to start to fight. And they needed a cooldown period before they came back together and talked about it. 

I just use “mom needs five minutes.” That’s mine. I put my hand out because I put my energy through my hand. When I’m really upset: “mom needs five minutes.” And he knows that’s his cue that I really do need five minutes. 

SHERYL: That emotional regulation. We have to be able to start practicing emotionally regulating. Oh, gosh, so good. Jennifer, we’ll have to have you come back on because this is just so good. I think such a big part of our journey as moms, parents, and caregivers is helping us to support our kids on this journey as well. So, anything else that you want to share? 

JENNIFER: I would just offer that I have a free tool, in follow up to this, called the “Family Emotional Safety Plan.” It is just a really quick one-page PDF planning tool where ideally, a parent would do it first but then do it with their family. What am I going to say at that moment when I’m really triggered, and I’m really upset? What am I going to do? Where am I going to go to calm down? How am I going to prepare my family for this, so they know my plan ahead of time? When am I going to return after I sit and breathe a while? How am I going to return? 

So, it’s literally a one-page planning sheet. The people that have used it have said that it can literally change how you experience heated emotions with your teen. I’m happy to provide the link to that tool. And teens can use it as well.

SHERYL: I love that. I looked at it. We’ll provide that in the show notes. Repeat it one more time they can and tell them they’re your site because they can go to that. You have other resources too. Even sibling resources for sibling fighting. Tell them where to find you. 

JENNIFER: Yeah, so it’s confidentparentsconfidentkids.org. There are many free resources, as you mentioned on my site. 

SHERYL: Okay, wonderful. You’re on Facebook, and you’re on Instagram. I love that resource, too, because you can use it as a talking tool, even if your teenagers are a little resistant. Just like going, “Wow, look at this. Like I’m getting a lot out of this. Like when I’m noticing, I’m feeling reacted. Here’s what I’m thinking I’m going to do.” And ask, “what do you think you might do?” And they say I don’t know, but you include them. You’re raising their awareness even by talking about the tool. 

JENNIFER: That’s exactly right. 

SHERYL: Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing. Thank you for your incredible work. 

JENNIFER: It’s a joy to get to know your work and the support of parents with teens and tweens. 

SHERYL: You too, Jennifer, and just to end, I know that you do a lot of advocacy. What would that be for parents to be able to get social and emotional intelligence into their schools? 

JENNIFER: That’s also on the website. It is in a couple of great other websites for social and emotional learning in schools would be casel.org and equipourkids.com. So, both of those will have information on how you can advocate for schools to include social and emotional skill-building into the curriculum. 

SHERYL: Wonderful, thank you so much. 

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