“Island of Competence” is a term coined by Dr. Robert Brooks and is a term I love. What this is (and this applies to adults too), is a term for those things in life that make us feel valuable and make us feel good about ourselves. These are the things that give us a sense of accomplishment and that make us feel important despite all the things that can make us feel the opposite of this. Our Islands of Competence are our strengths. Teenagers need these islands in their lives so that they can feel connected, important and like they have something to contribute to the world. Without this, they are swimming around in a sea of feeling like a failure, like they don’t belong, like they are not wanted and like they are not valuable. Floating in this sea of negativity and loneliness for too long can have many potential negative consequences for teenagers (depression, anger, falling in with a negative crowd, engaging in at-risk behaviors or self-destruction). If your teenager is experiencing any of these, you may want to seek professional help but also, really try to help them find their Islands of Competence. Teens would much rather be involved in things that they can be proud of and which make them feel good about themselves than in negative things – they may just need some help, support and encouragement so that they are able to see what positive things they can offer the world.
So, as a parent, how can you help your teen find their Island of Competence?
1. Make a real effort to frame things in the positive when possible. If your teenager is having difficulties in school that need to be addressed, make sure the discussion also includes the positive things they are doing because perhaps those things can be used to help resolve the negative things.
2. Be open. Be open to topics or interests your teenager brings up, even if they seem bazaar or unusual to you. Try to keep an open mind and have your teen educate you about them. Be interested and see if these interests can be channeled into a positive activity, hobby, etc.
3. Reinforce the positive. We get more of what we focus on so focusing on the positive things your teen is doing or the positive things they are expressing interest in will get you more of those things. “Catch them being good” and don’t let the frustrating or negative things they are doing completely overshadow any positive things. This will open their eyes to their own positive qualities as well.
4. Help your teen reach outside their comfort zone. Teens may sometimes have interests that are not “typical” teenage interests so they will talk themselves out of them because of their fear of what others may say or think. Help them to not do this. Help them to pursue their interests and feel safe doing this so that they are able to give new things a try.
5. Help them see their talents. Take notice of all the little things your teen does well and tell them about these things as they come up. Encourage other adults in their life to do the same.
6. Help your teenager brainstorm ways of connecting with others around their strengths. Whether it is sports, drawing, writing, singing, dancing, reading, debating, swimming, mentoring younger children, talking to or keeping the elderly company, caring for animals, science, bike riding, cooking, taking pictures, hiking, playing a musical instrument, volunteering, or so many other things…help them see how these things make them special, valuable and how they can been used to connect with others. Sometimes this takes brainstorming on the part of parents also but it is well worth it to see your teenagers find their own Islands of Competence.
Go to the How To Parent A Teen website for more tips and support specific to Parenting Teens.