Most teens believe that leadership comes from adults—teachers, parents and people in positions of authority. What we believe is that anyone can become a leader with the power to influence those around them. This is especially true of teens, who tend to possess abundant energy and open minds. To learn more about being one’s best self and empowering others, we spoke with Jennifer Freed, PhD, Co-Founder and Executive Director of a highly successful teen program called Aha!, which serves more than 5,000 families annually in the state of California to create positive attitudes, build social harmony, and bridge the achievement gap for youth.
In 1999, you co-founded a teen program called AHA! that transforms schools and communities into welcoming and inclusive spaces. How did you find your calling, and what were the first steps you took to pursue your dream?
My passion found me. I came from a highly successful but dysfunctional family. When I first went to college, it was clear that I needed help to learn how to manage my emotions and build healthy relationships. I didn’t have any good role models for this in my family. I learned quickly and soon started working for social service agencies and volunteering. Once I started working with teenagers and teaching them peer counseling skills, I knew I had found my vocation in working with teens. This work has always been exciting, inspiring, and challenging, and I really love having enough experience to train other people to do what I do.
How would you explain the importance and impact of teen leadership to a skeptical teenager? Can you give concrete examples?
Between the ages of 12 and 24, the brain goes through dramatic changes. One of the most critical tasks of the brain during these years is what’s called ‘pruning,’ where you keep and build the neural connections you use most and you lose those you don’t use enough. It’s “use it or lose it,” and what you DO in those years will come to be your strongest traits and gifts as you get older, and what you ignore won’t come easily later.
If a teenager wants to take leadership in any way—whether of their own lives, being responsible and taking action on their own behalf, or on a larger scale—and relate to others in ways that yield happiness and health, they need to learn and develop specific social-emotional habits and skills NOW: managing their feelings, delaying gratification, practicing empathy, setting goals, and empowering other people. The sooner and more intensively they do this, the greater their likelihood of success over their lifetimes…not just in the outer world, but in their experience of themselves as fully realized people.
You are the author of the educational book series Become Your Best Self. Can you share some of the wisdom from those books about how teens can become the truest version of themselves?
The workbooks break it down into four categories: building character; building compassion and empathy; building relationship wisdom—how to make really good choices in relationships and how to come from a place of power and choice instead of being a victim; and developing creative self-expression. Those are the four ingredients to becoming our best selves. If we have a life, every day, that is filled with high character, deep empathy for others, good relationships, and full creative self-expression, we’re good.
Your book Peace Q offers strategies for living more peacefully with ourselves and others. Can you suggest a good daily practice to build peace inside ourselves and in our relationships?
If we have emotional granularity—which is an ability to recognize and precisely name our emotions—we are much more able to navigate our emotional life. So, I think one of the best things a teen person can do is just keep a “feelings diary” and start enlarging their feelings vocabulary, and also keep a gratitude list, describing things they’re grateful for in the day. It’s also great to have some type of practice in nature, whether it’s out on the lawn or sitting under a tree…some kind of reflection without any stimulation. Some quiet time, even if just five minutes a day. It’s easy to fall into a groove where we’re just in response to everything happening to us instead of existing in and coming from a core centered place. When we’re just reactive to circumstances, we’re rarely peaceful. To become self-aware is to become more peaceful.
Teenagers who are empathetic tend to be more purpose-driven and use the resulting insight as a tool to fulfill their higher goals. Can you describe the importance of empathy? And how can a person take care of themselves when tuning in to someone else’s difficult feelings?
Empathy is when we’re able to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes and feel what they might be feeling. Sometimes that means melding into their experience, which causes us to lose track of ourselves. That’s not helpful to them or us. Empathy means being able to attune to somebody else and acknowledge what they’re feeling and what they’re going through, but the most helpful stance we can all take is one of health and joy. There’s no benefit in going down into the dark tunnel with other people. That’s not empathy; it’s more of a hijacking of the primitive brain.
I remind myself that even when I love somebody, their pain is not mine but theirs, and the best contribution I can make is to stay healthy and happy myself. The trick is to be responsive to their pain, but not to take responsibility for it. The latter is where we get into a sticky, troubling situation. Someone can feel better when they feel loved and cared about, but it’s always going to be up to them to bring themselves up out of the difficulty. Remember: be responsive TO, not responsible FOR.
How can young people start to actively help others feel more welcome and understood in school?
With a friend, create a new habit or challenge to connect with as many people as you can in a certain lunch period. Or try to brighten people’s day as you pass them in the hall. This is pretty easy to do. It might run counter to the desire to “be cool”—and I think being cool is highly overrated.
The need to be cool usually reveals strong insecurity. People who are charismatic and effective don’t spend much time thinking about what others think of them. Consider: what has being concerned about what other people think of you ever done for you? I don’t think it really helps anyone. What I teach young women to ask themselves, and what I still ask myself all the time, is: who do I want to be? What are my standards for being an exceptional and inspiring human being? If I think about that, I don’t have much headspace to worry about what others think of me.
Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, John Mayer—none of them were the “popular” kids. If you are distinct in who you are, people will be drawn to you because you’re following your inner light. So I would challenge people to transcend the whole pressure to be cool. Be inspiring instead. If you really want to be somebody, be who you are, and you will be a magnet for authentic relationships. I think it’s very important to start informing people of that early on.
Tips and tricks:
- Being a leader means being responsible. If you want to make it in the world and be happy and healthy in relationships, you have to take charge of your own life
- Try to come from a calm and centered place instead of just reacting to what’s happening to you. This will help you be more at peace
- If you really want to ‘be somebody’ and attract authentic relationships, be who you really are
- Be less concerned about what other people think of you than on who you want to be and your own standards for being an exceptional and inspiring human being
- Someone can feel better when they feel loved and cared about, but it’s really always going to be up to them to bring themselves up out of their difficulty. Be responsive TO, but not responsible FOR
If you are interested in custom made teen program training modules, please contact Jennifer Freed directly at firstname.lastname@example.org