By: Jonathan Pishner

One of the basic struggles for a teenager is learning how to lead a fulfilling life, and building the identity that will take them to it.

Some of that structure requires the Belonging we discussed in previous posts.  Another essential building block for the healthy human is: Mastery.

In humans of any age, we absolutely need some sense of Mastery in our lives if we want to feel happy and healthy.

Think of your own life. When you have no clue what to do, how to handle a situation, or where you’re going, how easy is it to feel powerless and hopeless?

Teenagers want to become masters, too. At something. At anything. In fact, like the sense of Belonging we talked about previously, Mastery is one of the foundational needs of teenagers. It is essential to their adjusting to the world around them and becoming an adult.

But, teens can have a hard time zeroing in on what they can master, and it’s easy for them to get discouraged. This makes the area of Mastery a very difficult obstacle for teens and their parents.

Let’s take some time, then, to look at Mastery and how you can help your teenager achieve it in the unique environment they’re growing up in today.

Why Does Mastery Matter?

If a child never gets really good at something (and something they enjoy), their self-esteem takes a hit. When their self-esteem takes a hit, that can lead to their self-motivation taking one too, and then the sense of self-reliance.

When they’re suffering in these areas, when they don’t feel good about themselves, they can become depressed or anxious. It could also become harder for them to find the confidence and motivation they’ll need later on to navigate the world as an adult.

On the other hand, when a teen does Master a skill, he more easily find the motivation to keep going, to learn more, to do even better next time.

When teenagers feel competent and worthwhile, they’re less likely to dwell on the negative, to withdraw from family and friends, to worry. These are all very good things for your teenager, and good for you. You don’t have to worry as much. You live with a happier, better behaved person in your house. And your son or daughter is learning to navigate the world and will eventually be able to do this on their own, which is what every parent wants for their child.

What Exactly IS “Mastery”?

Before we get to how you can help with this, you’ve got to know what to shoot for. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Mastery as “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject”. This is a pretty start for our purpose.

Notice an important distinction: Mastery has nothing to do with being the absolute best. This is the definition that many people think of when they think of Mastery. But for our purpose, part of Mastery is being comprehensively skilled.

Michael Jordan and LeBron James have achieved Mastery at their craft. And so has the lowest paid player on any NBA team. And many of the players on a high school team. Any one of these people are comprehensively skilled at basketball.

But skill alone isn’t enough.

For your teen to achieve a sense of Mastery, a few things are required:

  • They have to be “comprehensively skilled” in an area
  • They have to enjoy the task
  • They have to see value in the task
  • It’s usually helpful if their peers see value in the task

So notice a few things that tells us. First off, a lot of smart kids DON’T get their Mastery need met through school. This is usually because they don’t enjoy it, or because they don’t see the value in succeeding in school. So you can’t rely on pushing school as their area of Mastery.

Second, even if the first three are met, teens will often need their peers to value it as well. Let’s face it, recognition is important to most of us, teenagers even more so. This means that they will tend to drift toward wanting to Master things their peers value.

So just fulfill everything on the list above to achieve Mastery, right?

Unfortunately, not. Teenagers face a lot of barriers to being able to achieve a sense of Mastery in themselves.

First, there can be a real lack of opportunity for your teenager to find an activity or skill they can even work toward Mastery in.

Their time is limited. With school taking as much time every day as it does, plus responsibilities at home, plus needing to get enough sleep, plus time taken up by friends, they can face the same challenge we do as adults: not enough hours in the day.

Your teenager may also not have found what he or she is naturally good at, or what they are passionate about. Most teenagers who have achieved mastery at something have an innate ability to do whatever it is they are doing—and a real excitement about just doing it, over and over again, even when it’s boring, even when it’s hard, even when they hit setbacks.

Third, they’re up against their own brain development. Neurologically, they can have a hard time putting together how to accomplish a difficult task. It’s great when teens have gotten over that hump, because Mastery then becomes relatively easy. But for teens who haven’t? Mastery of any skill can become a daunting task in and of itself.

And school isn’t necessarily the answer. It’s what kids spend most of their time doing, but imagine for a moment the kid who’s bad at school. They can’t drop it like they can guitar. They have no choice but to continue doing a thing they aren’t or can’t be good at.

Not only does that not meet the idea of Mastery, it’s actively detrimental to it. Keep in mind, it’s perfectly possible to study hours a day and still get Bs, Cs, Ds, Fs. That certainly damages a child’s sense of Mastery. They can’t quit school, so this provides a new barrier to overcome.

Finally . . . the Internet. This by itself can make Mastery daunting.

The problem the world wide web presents that is new to this generation is that mastery of any skill looks different than it did a couple of decades ago.

Teenagers struggle with hopelessness when it comes to mastery anyway. And now, not only have they had little time to get good at things, but at any time they can see THE top performer in the world doing their thing. Or even worse, the top 100 performers. All of whom are better than they are.

When that happens, it’s easy to start to think you aren’t good enough, or that you’ll ever be good enough. With video editing and “best of” clips and background music, it looks like these people got out of bed one day, decided they were going to do music, martial arts, or parkour, and went out and did it.

The clips don’t show the safety equipment they used to protect themselves early on, the baby steps they took to master a move, the railing 6 inches off the ground instead of 6 feet, the stumbles and falls and misses they had to go through before they got that trick just right.

PLUS, 20 years ago, the only top performer kids might have seen on a regular basis was someone like Michael Jordan. They didn’t necessarily see the top performer in every single skill. Now that we have the internet, they can find not just one but many top performers better than they might ever be, in just about every activity they might want to take on some day.

With all this working against them, is it any wonder most teens struggle in this area?

How YOU Can Help as a Parent?

What becomes vital for parents is figuring out how to help your teenager achieve the sense of Mastery they need. Fortunately, you’ve got some tools on your side.

Your teenager does NOT need to be good at everything. They don’t even need to be good at a lot of things. They just need to be comprehensively skilled at one or two things. And it needs to be things they enjoy.

That sounds a lot easier, doesn’t it?

With a very few exceptions, it doesn’t really matter WHAT they get good at. What’s important is that they be good something, that they enjoy it, see the value, and have others see the value.

Strategy games, playing an instrument, working in the garden, maintaining the car, serving at the local food pantry, writing, being on a sports team . . . any task that involves gradually learning more complex skills over time, and will give them a sense of purpose and accomplishment applies toward a sense of Mastery.

This might require experimentation. It may take a LONG time to finding an activity they like, and they may need some encouragement from you. They will need to figure out what they are passionate about or talented at, or even just what sounds interesting enough to try.

Your role as the parent is to help identify options, so they can find something that is healthy and positive to explore.

Your second job is to not get attached to anything. Remember, if they don’t take to it, there’s always something else to try. You don’t get to decide what your child likes. So be cautious about nagging them into something.

You can’t even get attached to whether they succeed, or how fast.

Remember, your one job is to provide the opportunities.

Once they’re into the activity, take a step back. Keep in mind that it’s completely ok to see your kids struggle. Learning frustration tolerance is an essential part of Mastery. Half the reason teens struggle with Mastery is that they spend ALL DAY being told what to do by adults. Get up at this time, go to this class, eat at this time, and on, and on.

This makes your willingness to be supportive (without rescuing them) so essential.

It can be hard to watch. Think back to when they were little, and you were teaching them to tie their shoes. It took FOREVER. You knew exactly what they were doing wrong. But, it was eventually essential to let them do it themselves. If you rescue them, solve it for them, they haven’t achieved Mastery.

So let me say it again: It’s not just ok, but ESSENTIAL to let them do it on their own, or largely on their own. Don’t get in the way unless it’s absolutely necessary. Be supportive, be loving, but don’t rescue, and don’t tell them they shouldn’t be pursuing their thing. When necessary, let them fail. Let them realize what works, and what doesn’t. That’s part of Mastery.

This is the tough part: be patient while you’re helping with this. Remember, you have double their life experience. You know where to look for your sense of Mastery.

It’s going to take them awhile.

So just give them opportunities to meet this need. Be supportive and empathetic when they fail. Celebrate with them when they succeed.

Given enough opportunities, they’ll figure it out.