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Empower Our Teens to Be Compassionate Leaders

When our teens have ideas and are ready to work for change in our world, how do we keep their hopeful spirits rising?

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After the recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, teenagers are rising and making their voices heard, culminating so far with the March for Our Lives rally on Sunday, March 25 in Washington, D.C. The next generation of leaders and “game changers” are inclusive. They are what William Damon, the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, defines as “the purposeful.”

They are focused. They have incredible ideas. They believe in unity. And they know how to utilize technology to make their voices heard. They are purposefully stepping up as the next generation of compassionate leaders. According to Damon’s research, extremely purposeful students exhibit high degrees of persistence, resourcefulness, resilience, and capacity for healthy risk-taking.

Maybe you have a teenager who wants to make a big impact in this world. Maybe your son is working hard to bring attention to social justice issues and to raise awareness of political issues that matter to teenagers. Maybe your daughter is a staunch advocate for LGBTQ rights and is gathering with her peers to develop ways to end gun violence and make our schools safer.

Our teens are brilliant and motivated. They care deeply, they exercise autonomy, but they still need us to lift them up. When our teens have ideas and are ready to work for change in our world, how do we keep their hopeful spirits rising? How do we build their resilience? And how do we keep this next generation of leaders healthy?

According to Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, in their book, The Yes Brain, we as parents can help to support our children’s ability to navigate difficult decisions and “say yes to the world and welcome all that life has to offer.” We want to help foster our teens’ sense of resilience while supporting them in making wise, healthy choices. We want to move beyond managing our children’s behavior, and instead, help them to develop skills that they can use for life.

Here are some basic, everyday strategies to help make sure our teens are fueled with the hope, health, and resilience needed to become compassionate leaders.

Make sure they get enough sleep

I know this is hard for the teenagers in our homes, but they do need a lot of sleep. Start with a plan of how to get the best sleep, and how to make sure that your teen gets enough sleep. Ask your teen what differences they notice when they are well-rested. Relate good sleep to their improved focus and efficiency in what matters to them, which helps to remind them that good self-care is important for everyone.

Teach teens to regard their bodies, and the bodies of other people

Model to your teenager what “regard” for one’s body looks like. Maybe it’s considering the food you put into your body and how it makes you feel, or maybe it’s listening to that “gut feeling” you get around someone and making a choice to get safe. Maybe it’s taking a break from work, school, or activities when you feel tired and your body says, “I need a break.”

Also model regard for other people’s bodies by respecting your kids’ personal space. For example, ask if you can give them a hug, which helps reinforce the concept of proper consent. Communicate to them that a “yes” can become a “no” at any time – especially when it comes to intimacy.


Listen, listen, listen. The other day, I found myself talking way too much when our son approached us about his online time. I caught myself and I stopped and said, “Let’s begin again. I’d really like to hear your ideas.”

It opened up a whole new conversation and I clearly understood what he was asking. We were able to come up with a plan. And, more importantly, he felt heard. When you talk to your teenager, listen first and seek to understand before talking. They will feel validated and respected.

Tell them “You matter.”

When you see your child in the morning or evening after school, pause what you are doing and make eye contact with them. Ask them any kind of open-ended question that starts with, “What do you think about….?”

This communicates to your teen that you believe they have good ideas that are worth listening to, and that their opinions and beliefs matter to you and have value.

Thank them

When you see your teenager doing small acts of kindness and taking initiative, thank them. You don’t have to go over the top—just offer something like, “Hey, I noticed you helped your sister out with that math problem. Thanks for that.” Showing that you notice their contributions communicates that you value them.

And if you want to go over the top once in a while, then thank them for their passionate hearts. Thank them for their vision and desire to create a more compassionate, just, inclusive, and safe world. Sometimes we have a tendency to point out where our children fall short and what they are doing wrong. Instead, see the good in your child and let them know.

Regularly say, “I believe in you.”

Maybe your daughter comes to you with a new idea. Maybe your son is struggling to figure out a solution to a problem. Be receptive to their ideas and concerns, and tell them, “I believe in you.” This helps them to build resilience. It communicates that you know they can overcome challenges, that you have faith in them, and that you fully support them.

Be a sanctuary for your child

Even as our teens spend less time at home and more time out in the world, they, like anyone else, still need a sanctuary. Make sure that your home is a space that offers refuge from the difficulties and challenges of everyday life. This will give them space and time to decompress, practice self-care, and connect with you.

Our teenagers are the next generation of leaders, and there is much we can do every day to build them up and inspire them to be compassionate. We can raise our teens’ sense of courage, resilience, and self-worth when we bring these practices into our everyday lives. Investing in our children by expressing our appreciation for them will help to create the positive transformation we need in our world.

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Lisa McCrohan, MA, LCSW-C, SEP is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, Personal Coach, Speaker, and Author of Gems of Delight. She works with clients all over the world and gives talks on compassionate leadership and parenting. Her writings have been published on The Gottman Institute, Georgetown University, Motherly, Upworthy, and NBC. She lives in Middletown, MD, with her husband, two children, and her dog, with the mountains outside her back door.

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