11 Life Skills for Teens

December 21, 2023

life skills for teens

By the time our children are ready to fly the coop, we hope that we’ve done everything we can to raise smart, independent young people who are capable of fending for themselves. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, parenting concierge services for college students have started populating near a number of different campuses, raising questions about the ability of today’s teenagers to survive on their own—particularly if they elect to attend a non-local or out-of-state college. If needed, can they get themselves to a medical facility? Do they understand how to manage their bank accounts? Do laundry? Get their car inspected? To increase their independence (and their confidence!) we can encourage proficiency in skills that will positively benefit them in college and beyond. Read on for our list of the most important life skills for teens. 

What are life skills?

Life skills are specific competencies that our children need to master in order to gain independence. Essentially, they’re the skills needed to perform a basic level of self-care and to function in society. 

Before becoming parents, teaching our children certain skills felt like it would be intuitive–of course I won’t be tying their shoes until they’re ten! In reality, though, knowing when to promote certain skills can be more complicated than expected. Additionally, it can be difficult to emotionally acknowledge that our children have moved on to a new, more independent phase, sometimes raising feelings of both relief and resistance. While we want to appropriately support our children’s needs, we also don’t want them to be the student who isn’t capable of starting a washing machine. 

What are the benefits of life skills for teens?

Hopefully, the mere vision of your child confidently navigating their college campus, keeping their apartment clean, and getting themselves to appropriate medical professionals, among other accomplishments, is enough to make you jump on board the Life Skills Train without reserve. Although there is a dearth of quantifiable data on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that life skills contribute to higher levels of self-esteem and independence as well as lower levels of anxiety. 

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that most teenagers will have the opportunity to learn life skills in a formal setting. Financial literacy for teens or family and consumer sciences classes are difficult to find at most high schools. As such, it’s essential to evaluate which life skills we’re currently giving our teenagers the opportunity to practice and which skills could be more intentionally integrated into their lives.

How can teens develop life skills?

Practice! Some of the skills below are only “practiceable” in certain situations (i.e., voting or sending packages). However, many of them, such as doing laundry, could be undertaken at any time. That said, what may be more difficult than finding practice opportunities is letting your teen make mistakes. Since most of the skills on this list involve a certain level of trial and error, do your best to avoid hovering over their shoulder. No need to remark on their every move like a sports broadcaster. 

Without further ado, let’s jump into our list:

Skill #1: Healthcare

What happens if (and when) your child falls ill at college, especially if campus isn’t close by? They’ll need to know how to find their college’s medical services and the closest pharmacy as well as how to administer self-care, such as staying hydrated and taking medications. (Tip: Instacart, DoorDash, and UberEats can often deliver groceries or pharmacy items straight to dorms.) Moreover, they should know when and how to call urgent and/or emergency services for themselves or a friend, as well as how to get there. They should also understand what may not may not be covered by their healthcare insurance.

Skill #2: Laundry

Unless your teen attends a local college and monopolizes your washing machine, they’ll have to do their own laundry. Since we’ve all seen and experienced multiple laundry horror stories, some of which include accidentally pink-ifying white shirts with a pair of brand-new red socks, forgetting a pen in a pants pocket, or ending up with a doll-sized wool sweater, now is a great time for teens to practice the basics of sorting, washing, and folding clothes. 

Skill #3: Cleanliness and Organization

You don’t need to make your teen read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up or keep their room looking like it’s ready for a drill sergeant inspection. However, living at home is great practice for what they’ll encounter at college. If they share a room with siblings, it’s even better practice. Teens should be able to respect the space of others and maintain a basic level of cleanliness. Harmless clutter that’s contained to their side of the room? Great. Garbage, old food, and dirty tissues? Nope.

Moreover, teaching your child a basic level of organization can help smooth their transition to college. They should be able to collect what they need for the day as well as maintain a solid sense of upcoming projects, assignments, and responsibilities.

Life Skills for Teens (Continued)

Skill #4: Vehicle Maintenance

If your teen drives–and will be bringing their vehicle to campus–basic troubleshooting skills are essential. While they can always call AAA, the ability to change a tire themselves can save hours of time and stress. This is particularly true if they get a flat on their way to a time-sensitive destination, such as the airport. Teens can learn the basics of using a jack, removing the tire, and installing a new one. They should also memorize the guidelines for spares (i.e., traveling no more than 50 miles on a donut, and keeping the overall speed under 50 mph). In addition, they should know how to check and add oil and washer fluid, and jump the battery. If they drive an older car, these skills are especially important. 

Moreover, if your teen will be living far from home, general maintenance tasks shouldn’t be overlooked. Examples include how to take the car for an oil change and obtain a yearly inspection. 

Skill #5: Safety

Young adults often feel invincible, which is why imparting essential safety skills should be a top priority. Although this list depends on where you live, some safety-related life skills for teens include:

  • Using the safety features available in ride-share apps, such as sharing your ride with a trusted contact.
  • Never drinking and driving (or riding with anyone who has). Peer pressure and logistics can sometimes make this a more difficult choice than expected. Talk through different situations and have a backup plan.
  • Never texting and driving. 
  • Staying aware of drinks at parties and bars. There are many handy and discreet tools for this, such as physical covers and test strips
  • Using safety measures when meeting someone on an online dating app. These can include convening at a popular restaurant or public place. 
  • Using safety measures on public transit. Stay aware, avoid unlit areas, and plan your routes ahead of time.
  • Staying aware when walking, running, biking, or traveling alone, particularly at night. There are many useful tools available, such as glow vests, self-defense tools like pepper spray, stun guns, and defense rings (check your state’s rules on these), apps like Noonlight, and the SOS feature on phones or smartwatches. Self-defense classes are great options, too.

Skill #6: Internet/Social Media

Whether or not you allow your children to use social media at home, they’ll have wildly free access to the internet once they head off to college. This privilege can be intoxicating to teens who are experiencing certain applications for the first time. In this day and age, when people thrive on digging up old tweets, teens should know that what they post will survive well into the distant future. Moreover, prospective employers and college admissions officers may take a look at social media accounts during the application review process. According to some recent surveys, nearly 70% of employers have screened applicants’ social media platforms and up to 36% of admissions officers have. 

While teens don’t have to scrub themselves from the internet or exclusively post pictures of puppies, there are real consequences for posting certain types of content. It should go without saying that anything violent, racist, bullying, or hate speech-containing should never be tolerated. However, other types of posts–such as those that are sexually explicit or provocative, drug/alcohol-related, or appear unhinged (such as nightly all-caps tweetstorms at 2 AM)–can also reflect negatively. In addition to what your child posts, they also need to be aware of what they are tagged in. Tagged posts can pop up in social media screenings as well.

Life Skills for Teens (Continued)

Skill #7: Professional Etiquette

Giving a firm handshake, making eye contact, carrying on a pleasant and engaging conversation, dressing appropriately–these are all skills that your teen will hopefully be adept at by the time they enter the workforce. However, a recent survey of over 800 employers found low levels of such job readiness proficiencies in recent graduates; a staggering 58% were perceived as unprepared for the workforce. A yikes-worthy 19% of employers had even experienced a college graduate bringing a parent to a job interview. 

While pandemic-era isolation surely contributed, the evidence is convincing: give your child a jumpstart as early as possible. For example, students as young as elementary school can practice answering for themselves at appointments, ordering food at restaurants, talking to teachers, and engaging with their friends’ parents and other adults. As they get older, use role-playing to help them prepare for school presentations, projects, and part-time job interviews. (But please, do not attend those interviews!) Teens can also join clubs meant to enhance their public speaking and engagement skills. Such clubs include debate, student government, or improv.  

Additionally, when teens and young adults begin navigating job interviews, networking events, fairs, and research presentations, they should understand the standards of professional dress. These vary based on the industry but are often an important outward marker of presentability and preparedness. Helping them build a professional outfit or two is a great step. Moreover, some schools, like Boston College, Auburn, and UC Riverside, run career closets stocked with borrowable professional attire in a range of sizes.

Skill #8: Financial Literacy

This is one of the most essential life skills for teens. Does your child understand the difference between a checking and savings account? The basics of budgeting? The ins and outs of credit cards? If not, high school is an essential time for them to learn how to deposit, withdraw, and save money as well as responsibly manage a credit card. They should also understand how student loans work, and what their disbursements should and shouldn’t be used for. For example, any money disbursed needs to be repaid with interest, so students should only use what they need for education-related or living expenses. It’s important to avoid using loan disbursements for “extras,” such as eating out on a regular basis or weekend trips. 

Finally, teens should understand how to employ basic identity theft safety measures. These include keeping banking passwords and PIN numbers private as well as shredding financial documents instead of throwing them in the trash. 

Skill #9: Food Preparation

Most teens who live on campus (particularly freshmen and sophomores) are enrolled in their school’s meal plan. Accordingly, they may not be allowed to have certain cooking equipment in their room, such as hot plates or microwaves. However, many dorms are equipped with small kitchens that give students the ability to cook meals and snacks. Also, if they ever move into on- or off-campus apartments, they’ll have to contend with a kitchen. Consequently, they should understand the basics of using stoves, microwaves, and other cooking appliances safely. They should also have the ability to prepare and store basic items such as eggs, meat, pasta, and vegetables.

Life Skills for Teens (Continued)

Skill #10: Post Office

Does your teen know how to use stamps and send a package? Sounds deceivingly simple. However, since we rely so heavily on email, texting, and social media, it’s rare that we send mail or packages. As such, your teenager may have low competency in this life skill. However, whether they have to ship a care package, re-sell old textbooks, or mail an absentee ballot, they should know how to navigate the post office’s basic services. 

Skill #11: Voting

When your teen turns 18, they can register to vote. A recent Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) survey found that teens are more likely to be civically engaged if they have been encouraged and taught to vote in high school. As such, help your child understand how to find or get to their polling place, or request an absentee ballot if they’ll be attending college out-of-state. Submitting their absentee ballot would be a perfect use of their post office skills. 

Final Thoughts – Life Skills for Teens

Teaching our teenagers the life skills that they’ll need to be independent can be a daunting task, and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. It’s true that our children will learn many skills on the fly through their own mistakes. However, it’s also true that preparing them for basic situations can make a huge difference in their confidence in–and readiness for–college as well as the world in general. 

Looking for more advice on how to help your teen navigate the transition to college? The following blogs may be of interest: