When you picture your kids as successful adults, what do you see? According to a Pew Research study, most parents hope their kids grow up to be financially independent and satisfied with their careers. These are solid goals, but they’re only one small slice of what it means to be successful.
In fact, a universal metric for success isn’t realistic in a society of individuals with different strengths and weaknesses, says Lindsey Giller, clinical psychologist at Child Mind Institute. Especially if that metric involves personal worth, number of followers or friends, or the types of degrees you hold.
“When I think about the term success for my own young children, I think about wanting them to be well adjusted—people who can navigate challenges and the ups and downs of life,” says Giller. “I want them to be people who can ask for help when they need it, self advocate when appropriate and needed, and be comfortable pushing themselves out of their comfort zone and have the confidence to apply all of that to future learning, innovation, and growth.”
Aja Chavez, therapist and executive director of adolescent services at Mission Prep, a residential adolescent mental health treatment program in California, agrees that success is not a measure of outward production or achievement, but rather a (much harder to quantify) inward strength. To foster that type of success, she says, parents should help build up a solid sense of self.
“You’re guiding someone to a place where they are able to fully experience what’s called agency, the ability to make wise choices in their world,” says Chavez. “Success for adolescents is them being able to really start to differentiate and separate a bit from the family system so they can step into who they are as an individual.”
Here are five ways to help them do that:
1. Praise actions not character
When your kids do something well, it’s natural to give good feedback, but keep it concrete, says Chavez. Instead of using praise that reflects who they are as a person and their identity (“You’re such a good kid!”), use praise that names the behavior you observed and how it affected you.
“Say something like, ‘You must be so proud of yourself!’ instead of saying, ‘I’m so proud of you!’” says Chavez. “Because you don’t want them always seeking external motivation, you want them to do things because it feels really good to do so.”
2. Help hone their gut instincts
When your child comes to you with a problem—an argument with a friend, for example—pause and give them a chance to use their own intuition instead of pitching them solutions. By turning their senses back toward their inner voice, you help them practice their reliance on what their body and brain are telling them they should do.
You can use question prompts such as: How can I be helpful in this situation? Do you need me to just listen or would you like my advice? What action might help? Do you need me for this action, or do you want to try to work through it on your own?
“I would encourage parents to explore what they believe their role is in their teen’s world,” says Chavez. “Do you see it as problem solver and fixer? Or is your role truly to help them learn how to identify what’s going on in their world and give them the verbiage, skills, and resources to then go out and navigate it on their own?”
3. Have them pitch in
Assigning your kids chores isn’t just helpful for you, it’s beneficial for your kids’ wellbeing. In fact, a 75-year longitudinal study at Harvard found that kids who do chores are more successful as adults. That measure of success included high marks in self-competence, prosocial behavior, and self-efficacy.
“The way we build self esteem is by doing esteemable acts,” says Chavez. “Chores create a sense of community and connection and start to build in personal responsibility.”
Show them how to do a task, practice it together, and then set a realistic timeline for when they’ll do it on their own. As kids get older, this can extend to responsibilities such as scheduling hair cuts.
“It’s a titration process,” says Chavez. “If all of a sudden we announce they’re responsible for something they haven’t done before they might just completely avoid it because they don’t have the resources, skills, or knowledge they need.”
4. Measure them against themselves
It’s natural to take stock of other kids’ milestones and achievements when assessing your own children’s progress. No two kids are going to have the same scale for success, however, so the more you can focus on the stepping stones unique to your kid, the better.
“For a child with anxiety, simply getting up in front of a class to give a presentation may be a moment of success,” says Giller. “So at home, parents can develop language focusing on where their kid is and treat the rest of it as white noise.”
5. Work on your own success
This one’s a tall order, but it’s crucial: To raise well-adjusted kids, parents also need to work on adjusting themselves. You are your child’s best example of the behavior you want them to have, and that means working on your own emotional regulation.
When you’re in a situation with big emotions, name what you’re feeling in your body, and what you’re going to do about it, says Chavez. Many adolescents are still learning how to pause and assess how they feel instead of just reacting immediately to stimuli, so the modeling helps.
“For example, if you get text from a friend canceling plans, and your kids notice your reaction, you can say, ‘I feel really disappointed right now. I feel kind of sad. I really was excited to spend time with this person and I’m just super bummed out that I won’t be doing that,” Chavez says.