35 Essential Life Skills For Teens To Master By Age 18
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35 Essential Life Skills For Teens To Master By Age 18

In recent years, there has been a focus on technical skills. But what are the life skills for teens born in the world of smartphones and social media?

To make connections, launch a career, and inspire change, teens need key abilities that allow them to thrive. Here are 35 of these valuable new life skills teens can work on mastering before they are 18. When your child finally finishes college, they’ll thank you.

Basic Life Skills

1. How to Personal Groom and Be Clean

While it doesn’t seem glamorous, personal grooming is one of the foundational life skills. Cleanliness and hygiene are life skills essential to our social interactions. Pig-Pen didn’t earn a ton of love from his friends, except Charlie Brown. Your teen won’t either unless their care routine is on-point. Regular showering, dental care, and skincare promote good physical (and mental) health. Lead the way and teach your kid to soap up, scrub off and rinse away. Basic life skills and a little self-awareness (Do I stink?) might ensure a comfortable and healthy life.

Speaking of rinsing the right way, let’s talk about hand washing. Sanitizing your hands might not alter your appearance. But, these kindergarten level child skills like wearing clean clothes and living in a clean place might prevent your teen from getting sick. In the life skills game, physical health is job number one. If they need tips, have your child take a look at this video from Johns Hopkins. Or remember, Mari Kondo was right: there is a joy to tidying up.

2. How to Perform First Aid

Knowing basic first aid skills can help your teen when there’s an accident or injury. It’s like having superhero life skills to help people in trouble. Teens should learn how to clean and bandage wounds, perform CPR, and help someone choking. Your kid might be a lifesaver via basic first aid. We can help with that.

3. How to Have Impeccable Social Skills and Manners

Grace and courtesy aren’t limited to Montessori kindergarten. Knowing how to interact with others is one of the most important life skills. It helps make friends and get along with people. Manners are a guidebook for being a good friend. Saying “please” and “thank you,” listening when others talk, and being kind are simple ways to bond with others. A business skill like executive leadership often begin with being likable.

4. How to Stay Organized

Teach teenagers better time management. Keep on top of homework assignments, chores, and extracurricular activities. Being ahead reduces stress. Practice strategies to stay organized, like calendars and to-do lists. Find a system that works for them to be more efficient and productive. Time management apps like Monday or Trello can help build these essential life skills.

5. How to Swim

Teaching your kid to swim is a critical skill that can save their life or someone else’s. They should know how to float, tread water, and perform different strokes. This main life skill that helps with maintaining physical health and enjoying the water safely.

6. How to Send Mail

The essential life skills are not always the most obvious. Understanding how to send and receive mail is important for communicating with others and shopping online. Practice addressing envelopes, using stamps, and tracking packages. Plus, every teen wants to learn Amazon drop shipping these days, so help them out.

7. How to Use Tools

Knowing how to use tools like hammers, screwdrivers, and wrenches helps teens fix small problems on their own. This do-it-yourself set of key skills builds confidence. Moreover, being able to tighten a loose screw or hammer a nail might save teens time and money.

Essential Life Skills:

8. How to Budget and Manage Money

Make the bank of mom and dad a luxury, not a necessity. A few pointers to managing money herewith. Financial management is essential; budgeting skills are a must. Teach them how they should spend your (and one day their own) money.

Also, your teen should save for emergencies or big purchases. Bonus points for teaching about investing and compounding before high school graduation. Teens should learn financial discipline to prepare for life. Start by understanding the value of money. Then, learn to plan through budgeting. Provide an allowance and help your child calculate the cost of their basic needs. Engage in proactive conversations about how to save money. Teach credit card management for improved decision making skills, possibly starting with a prepaid card. Financial literacy like budgeting skills starts early.

Pinching pennies long term is tough on mental health. Make sure they won’t run out before they get what you need. Don’t let your teen wait to learn these financial management skills lessons in their twenties.

9. How to Buy and Make Food

Buying and cooking food are two self management skills for teens. Teach your teen to cook basic dishes: roast a chicken, make rice, boil pasta, scramble eggs. Basic cooking skills help them learn to make healthy choices and improve money management compared to eating out. If you’re feeling like Julie or Julia, teach them your favorite family dishes and pass on a legacy. Learning about different ingredients and recipes makes cooking fun and creative. Also make sure your teen knows other domestic skills like how to handle knives, use kitchen appliances, and manage a gas stove.

10. How to Dress and Care For Their Clothing

Knowing how to choose clothes appropriate for different occasions and weather is an important skill. It helps you feel confident and comfortable. Clothing skills — proper washing, pressing and folding — helps them last longer and look better. Teaching them valuable skills like sewing buttons and mending small tears will save your teenager money over time.

11. How to Communicate and Cope With Emotions

Express yourself with strong interpersonal skills for strong relationships and maintaining mental health. Equally important, though, is active listening. Active listening is understanding the text and subtext in life moments. These communication skills like speaking clearly and active listening help your teen succeed in school, work, and social situations. Learn from your Montessori pre-K; demonstrate good communication skills by being respectful and considerate of people’s feelings.

Teach your teen healthy ways to cope with their feelings. Reinforce that sadness, anger, and fear are ok. Embrace it or risk falling to the dark side. Help them find constructive ways to manage their stress and build support networks of friends, family, or counselors.

12. How to Problem Solve

Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are essential primary life skills to success. When you’re out in the world, an important life skill is to identify problems and find solutions. How do you eat a big bag of chips? One at a time. Break down big problems into smaller ones. Then, brainstorm different possible solutions. Think about the downstream consequences of each solution before making a decision. Building problem solving skills for teens benefits them later in their personal and professional lives.

13. How to Master the Basic Educational Skills

No matter what they say about the ai robots taking over, basic educational skills education like reading, writing and arithmetic will still matter. Practice these basic educational skills with teens to improve their foundation for learning. No, you don’t need to quiz multiplication facts at the dinner table, but make sure the learning never stops.

14. How to Set Goals and Manage Time

Setting goals helps teens stay focused and achieve in life. Goal setting is the life skill which begets more advanced life skills. Keep your goals SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Break bigger projects into smaller ones. Then, celebrate your progress along the way. You been good; you deserve it.

Time management helps you achieve goals without feeling overwhelmed. The poorly organized person is not going to get as far as the person with the essential skills to win. Teach these key life skills early. Use tools like planners or calendars to organize adn stay organized. Learn to say no to things that aren’t essential so you can focus on what matters most.

15. How to Make Decisions

Amongst the most important life skills is an ability to think through various challenges. Decision making skills start by considering the pros and cons of each option and thinking about how each choice aligns with your values and goals. Calculate the impact of each decision and weigh it against the expected likelihood of each outcome (This is an expectancy vs. valence calculation for the nerds out there). These essential life skills for teens don’t just happen. They must be taught by parents or teachers.

16. How to Be Employable

Not everyone is going to be an influencer. Some people will need real jobs. Teach your teen to be employable. Teamwork, communication, leadership skills and problem-solving are important employability skills for later workplace success. Practice these life skills through volunteer, extracurricular, or other activities. Help them build a strong resume to stand out to potential employers.

17. How to Drive

A few basic things might save a life. Teach teens traffic laws and safe driving habits. Reward safe driving. Avoid distractions like texting or talking on the phone while driving. Show them to wear seatbelts and follow speed limits. Model the behavior you want to see and you’ll have a safe teen behind the wheel.

18. How to Be a Self-Starter and Cope With Failure

Taking initiative and being proactive in pursuing your goals sets up later success. Teach responsibility for actions and willingness to learn from mistakes.

Failure is a natural part of life. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, focus on what they can learn from the experience. Consider how they might improve on the next go around. Everyone fails, and it doesn’t define worth.

19. How to Stand up for Yourself

Standing up for yourself doesn’t always come up when teaching life skills to your teen. But it is important for them to know how to assert themselves. Then they can be an effective advocate for their needs and boundaries. Practice assertive communication with your teen by encouraging them to express thoughts and feelings.

20. How to Volunteer Your Time and Help Others

Volunteering helps others and gives a strong sense of purpose. Volunteering also helps them develop new skills and expand their social networks beyond Insta and Bookface. Look for opportunities for your kid to volunteer in areas that interest them and align with your family values.

21. How to Prepare for Natural Disasters

You want your teen ready to respond and be safe in emergencies. So, create a disaster preparedness plan. This plan should include evacuation routes, flashlights, food and water. Also, remember a first aid kit, backup batteries and emergency contacts. Stay informed about risks in your local area. Practice drills to ensure they are ready to respond.

Important Life Skills

22. How to Handle Change

Child development experts mention kids’ ability to handle transitions. In the teen years, that may seem like a small matter. Teens need to be able to change how they do things. When Forbes queried business experts about desirable employee traits, flexibility and adaptability were among the most desirable.

Learning to be flexible is important when the unexpected arises. Parents and teens themselves can find other ways to foster this skill. Perhaps this includes putting teens in unfamiliar settings through travel programs and other learning service opportunities.

23. How to Use Your Voice Bravely

Most teens are masters at texting. But, the decrease in long-form writing might make it daunting to share ideas. Practice talking about complicated topics at home. Suggest debate teams and other in-person programs to hone communication skills and critical thinking. Get your teens involved in leadership positions in the community. Nudge them to interact with people of different backgrounds. They might even make new friends.

Rustic students gather for a discussion during their Hawaii Service program.

24. How to Understand Diverse Viewpoints Through Listening

Our world is becoming more connected. It’s more important to communicate with people with different views points. The Deliberative Polling process founded by Stanford University Professor James Fishkin is one way to help people come together to discuss topics and gain understanding.

Another way is for teens to spend time in communities that are different from their own. This may be possible through local volunteer opportunities or to experience a different culture through travel.

Rustic students interact with local villagers during the Floating Village Service Expedition in Cambodia.

25. How to Help Others Through Empathy

We hope teens have the desire to help others. Exposing young people to the experiences of others in need can help foster empathy. It’s also helpful to work with organizations that have the know-how on ways to provide help. On our programs, we emphasize balancing primary life skills for teens and the needs of communities and see how to ease problems.

Sydney Roach plays with children during her service trip to the Dominican Republic.

26. How to Tackle Challenges with Grit

Teens who have grit can better handle life’s inevitable challenges. Seeing others find their way through challenging circumstances can help with this. Students who travel mention this when they share their stories. Megan Kahrs made five trips with Rustic Pathways. She pointed out how much more she appreciated education after visiting a Tanzanian village:

“Many of the school kids would spend up to 5 hours walking, round trip, to get to school and back home. They didn’t have access to a shower or clean clothes. That was their daily routine and it quickly became ours too. From this, I learned so much that made me respect their culture. Education was so important to the families of Hayedesh. They would send their young, unsupervised children walking for hours in the dark, on dirt roads to get to school and learn.”

Teach your teen to keep trying even when things get tough, and they’ll get through challenges.

Photo: Megan Kahrs

27. How to Be a Leader Through Independent Thinking

There often is a strong desire to follow the crowd in the teen years. That tendency hinders decision-making. Teens can develop independent thinking life skills by gathering information before coming to conclusions. Remember: the internet and social media sites feed users information based on algorithms. To get a wider information set, you may have to search a little longer and work a little harder.

28. How to Foster Growth Through Curiosity

Curiosity is natural in many children who ask “why” at a young age. This wanes over time. So, it’s worthwhile to keep recognizing learning opportunities. If your teen wonders why their dog is acting a certain way or the sky is yellow, encourage them to look it up.

Or, watch a documentary together and observe life’s patterns. Get out and experience life to its fullest. Visiting new places through travel keeps curiosity alive. Trying new things keeps learning skills fresh.

Hayes Benenson enjoys climbing in Peru during the 2021 Andes to Amazon program.

29. How to Handle the Day to Day with “Adulting” Skills

Adults don’t remember learning the things that teens need to master. Taking care of detailed “adulting” tasks is important for day-to-day adult problem solving. Teach these basic home management skills that you might take for granted. These everyday skills helps teens learn to plan and organize. Before age 18, teens should learn many tasks like registering to vote, online shopping and paying bills.

30. How to Achieve Goals Through Planning

The ability to make plans has seemed to decline with the rise of the smartphone. With texting and Snapchat come last minute decisions about where to go and what to do.

Putting a teen in charge of family time management may help them become self sufficient. Have them make plans and work to realize them. Perhaps your teen might plan to take part in a spring break or summer program. Task the teen with the steps involved, ranging from fundraising to electronic paperwork.

31. How to Find Your Path Through Initiative

Finding initiative and drive is easier when we are working on something we love. So, discover your purpose. Rustic Pathways partners with the Boston College Purpose Lab but this can come from taking time to explore new ideas.

Help your teen to find a path to future goals. Make plans with your teen to try, fail and explore. Keep trying even when things get tough, and you’ll get through challenges, together.

32. How to Treasure Life Through Relaxation and Reflection

Sometimes the to do list never ends. So, the ability to relax and reflect may be harder than it seems. Young adults need to manage their mental health. Getting out in nature is one way to do so. Other options include journal writing, drawing, fitness, hanging out with friends and listening to music. Maybe just touch a little grass and stare up at the sky together.

Rustic students take a break to relax during their Off the Map program in Alaska. Photo: Tristan Grosham

33. How to Physically Navigate The World and Use Ride-Sharing Services

Make sure your kid knows where they are going and how to get there. Not only make sure they are savvy with google maps, but also with a physical map. Google doesn’t always work in a built environment or in a rural one. For personal safety, travel planning and spatial awareness, practice navigation with your teen.

Even in rural areas, ride sharing has taken over. Teach your teen to use these convenient new forms of transportation. Make sure they avail themselves of the safety features, particularly sharing their location with you.

34. How to Talk on the Phone (Politely)

In our texting-based world, a few life skills for teens might seem out of date. In personal life or in business, young adults may need to communicate to a person on the other end of the line. Teach your teen to speak on the phone to express their complex ideas. In their future business calls, talking on the phone demonstrates professionalism and courtesy. Personal relationships still drive professional success.

35. How to Regulate Social Media Time and Use

Limit the time your teen spends on social media. Overuse can lead to anxiety, depression, mental health issues and loneliness, especially in teenagers. Sosh meeds is here to stay. But, spending less time on it allows more face-to-face interactions with friends and family. These ties are essential to meaningful relationships. Model the right behavior with your teen.

Working on these 35 behavioral skills will give teens a big hand up as they move into adulthood. If you’d like more guidance and advice, here are 21 life lessons every teenager should know:

To see how other teens have made progress in these areas through travel programs, see the seven ways that Rustic Pathways’ alumni say their trips have helped them and view the learning outcomes of these programs. To reserve a limited spot for travel next year, view our current program page for more information.


About the Author

Scott Ingram

Scott is the Director of Admissions at Rustic Pathways. He has spent the last 15 years in the student travel and experiential education world. Before helping families find the perfect Rustic Pathways program, he led gap year programs that took students around the world and spent three years teaching English in Japan.