In this post Tim Jarvis follows up on his previous blog ‘5 TOP tips on working with teenagers.’
It sometimes feels that teens live in different world. We know that the teen years are when young people are most likely to experiment, whether sexually or with substances, or with both and possibly at the same time. We know that risk taking is an important feature of adolescence but it does mean they can end up in lots of trouble. Daniel J. Siegel in his book ‘Brainstorm’ talks about the phenomenon of hyper rationality. This trait of many teens will lead them to overestimate the positives and downplay the negatives when assessing a potentially risky situation. For a teen there is usually far more to gain by taking a risk than there is to lose. It’s quite refreshing really but it can also get them in trouble.
For me, at my age, risk taking is not an issue. The only substance I am likely to abuse is caffeine and if you hear that I am sleeping around it’s safe to take that literally, as I am likely to be dozing off in a variety of places other than just my own bed. Risk taking is only just one feature of adolescence though that marks the experience as so different from other life stages. However despite the gap between adults and adolescents they really do need us. It may seem that our boys aspire to be like Floyd Mayweather or Connor McGregor and our girls like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé but in reality the truth is much closer to home.
A survey of 13-17 year olds by Barna Research asked teens who their role models were. The most commonly mentioned role model is a family member, 37% of teens named a relation other than their parents. After family it was teachers and coaches (11%), friends (9%) and pastors and other religious leaders they know personally (6%). It’s is fairly obvious that teens admire those with whom they have a personal connection.
“Teens may pay attention to the Lady Gagas of the world, but who they really admire, who they really want to be like – are those they’re around every day.” Dr Jeff Myers. Given this is the case how do we enhance and maintain this personal connection and bridge the generational divide so that we can effectively mentor and guide the young people in our lives?
- Waste Time
A teenager will need to see that you have the time and the inclination to be with them. When I first started counselling a boy appeared at my office door to talk. I was busy with something on my lap top (I don’t remember what) and asked him to pop back later. He never did (I do remember that). As adults we need to be both available and invitational. Teenagers have to know that we want to talk with them and that we have time to do so. They will pick up on our micro actions that reveal if we are too busy or stressed and then stay away. Plan to waste some time around teenagers and see what happens. I bet they start talking to you.
- Give everyone an ‘A’
OK, let’s make this very clear. Teenagers need boundaries and they need to be clear, firm and enforced but when a teen is in trouble don’t shame them, or let them know you’re disappointed, they know that already. Rather let them know that from you, they already have an ‘A’, that your regard for them is unconditional. In their world of continual evaluation and assessment they need to know that your interaction with them is not about judgement but helping them grow and develop. For this to happen they have to believe you like them and from this starting point you can help them reflect.
- Be wrong (some of the time)
There is nothing worse than being in a relationship with someone who is always right. For adolescents this annoyance will be amplified. It simply doesn’t allow them the space to work out their identity. “Parents who have taken up all the space of moral rightness should not be surprised when their sons find their only space by living in immorality” say John & Paula Sandford. Our children need to assert their independence from us in the teen years, we have to give them room to do this otherwise we force them into behaviours and relationships that may not be good for them. We also have to be wrong because sometimes we are wrong. If a great white can detect even tiny amounts of blood in the water up to 5 km distant, an adolescent can sniff out hypocrisy entire continents away.
- You don’t have to finish the project
I think new parents have the idea that they will perfectly raise their children in order to gift them to world when they come of age. The reality is that from a certain point (probably when the child starts walking and talking) the parenting process is one of gradual disappointment as our offspring seem hell bent on frustrating that aim. We may cling to the delusion that we are in control of our children during the primary years but at some point after 13 years of age, the fruit of our loins will shatter that myth (and probably enjoy doing it). The good news? How your children turn out is not actually your responsibility. When your teen turns 18 the chances are there will be quite a few things that they still need to work on (My family tell me this is the case for me and I am over 40) and that’s OK. For teachers and others working with teens not your own, you will have an opportunity for vital and important interactions maybe over several years. You will make a contribution to the development of that person but you probably won’t get to see the finished project. Don’t be disheartened by that, we’re all works in progress.
- Get a life
Seriously, you need to. If we are going to be seen as relevant by teenagers we need to be taking some risks, trying new things, staying alive emotionally and connecting with other. These qualities, says Dan Siegel, are the essence of adolescence and as such we can learn from the young people in our lives. Teens are not going to want to learn about life from us unless they see we actually have one. It will also be good for us. A few weeks ago my wife and I went to a poetry evening at the local coffee shop, which among other things involved listening to and reciting poetry. Given that neither of us has won the Nobel Prize for Literature (or any other Nobel Prize) just yet it pushed us out of our comfort zone. My eldest son seemed genuinely surprised and then impressed (this does not happen often) when we told him. This led me to reflect that this activity met all of the above criteria. For this reason I think we should go again, well that and the fact that they serve free coffee.
On that note I am taking myself away from my lap top to go and get a life. No doubt it will exhaust me so I will prepare myself by abusing a popular substance and then follow it up with copious amounts of sleeping around.