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Social-Emotional Skills Might Be Your Teenager’s Secret Weapon

As a college composition instructor, I see many academically driven students whose hard work equates to strong essays and good grades. I also see students who are a little more free-spirited and are struggling academically as they begin college, but who sometimes outperform their peers in another area: social-emotional IQ. Social-emotional IQ is a person’s ability to understand both their own feelings and those of others, crucial skills for thriving in all kinds of school and work environments.

In my classes, students with well-developed social-emotional IQs demonstrate immense empathy with their classmates by asking them questions about their experiences and having an open mind.

While academic high achievers tend to receive more praise in our culture, social-emotional skills are another strong predictor for a student’s future success.

And it’s not one or the other: High achievement and high social-emotional IQ are both present in some kids, and social-emotional IQ can even help with academics. In fact, students with strong social-emotional skills have better grades and standardized test scores, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association. Carolyn MacCann, Ph.D., lead author of the study, said, “It’s not enough to be smart and hardworking. Students must also be able to understand and manage their emotions to succeed at school.”

A Skill for School and Beyond

Beyond emotional management, interpersonal skills are also key. Being able to build relationships and communicate effectively is crucial for teenagers today, says Lynda Potts, a licensed school social worker at George Crockett Academy in Detroit, where she also founded the girls’ group I Am Not In This Alone (I Am N.I.T.A.).

It’s not always easy to develop these skills, but success in building social-emotional IQ pays off both now and in the future. “With a strong social-emotional IQ, your child learns how to maintain friendships, solve conflicts, and process challenging situations, all through their own independent work,” says Haley Sztykiel, a Michigan-based licensed social worker who focuses on children and teenagers. Exercising these skills allows teens to build confidence, leading them “to pursue more challenging obstacles and continue to be driven towards success,” she says.

And once your teen enters the workforce, employers will be looking at skills like work ethic, experiences, problem-solving skills, and conflict management, says Sztykiel. When an employee can work well with others, despite conflicting opinions or disagreements, the entire work environment flourishes—and employers appreciate that.

How to Help Our Teens Develop Their Social Emotional IQ

To keep an eye on your teen’s social-emotional skills, you can ask your child’s teachers and coaches how they’re interacting with their peers or how they solve problems—and not just how they’re doing academically. At home, take note of how your child manages and regulates their own emotional ups and downs.

Also, remember to chat directly with your teen. “Try to avoid solely asking questions about school,” Sztykiel said, “and ask more about their friend group or if there’s anything else they want to talk about.” Take the risk of asking the deep questions. If your child does come to you with a problem, try to help them come up with solutions while ultimately leaving it to them to choose what they’re going to do. That way, they can own their decisions and actions—something they’ll have to do more independently once they get to college and the workforce.

If you suspect your child’s social-emotional skills are lagging, it’s important to reach out. If children struggle with math, parents usually don’t hesitate to hire a tutor. “So, the same goes for social and emotional skills,” says Sztykiel. “If your teen is struggling with friendships, solving conflicts, or self-esteem, then it’s a good idea to work with a therapist or school counselor, or enroll them in a social skills group” through their school counselor. That way, a child has an opportunity to practice those important skills—just like they would math.

Angela-Anagnost Repke is a writer and writing instructor dedicated to raising two empathetic children. She hopes that her graduate degrees in English and counseling help her do just that. Since the pandemic, Angela and her family have been rejuvenated by nature and moved to northern Michigan to allow the waves of Lake Michigan to calm their spirits. She has published articles in Good Housekeeping, Good Morning America, Parents, Romper, and many more. She’s currently at work on her nonfiction parenting book,Wild Things by Nature: How an Unscientific Parent Can Give Nature to Their Wild Things.”

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