Written by: Julie Baron, LCSW-C and Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C
If someone asked you to remember one adult in your life, other than your parents, who had a positive impact on you, who comes to mind? If we are lucky we can think of one or two. Perhaps a teacher, coach, religious leader, counselor or therapist? Maybe a tutor, camp counselor, school administrator, mentor, or a doctor who treated you? Teenagers rely on various helping adults in their lives to contribute to shaping their social, emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual, and overall personal development. These are critical relationships that shape character and pave the road from adolescence to adulthood. When the adolescent and the adult experience positive and supportive helping relationships, both experience a greater sense of well-being and at the same time positively shape the culture at large.
The best tool in reaching adolescents in any setting is The Relationship. Adolescents know which adults they feel they can rely upon and which adults they dismiss, or worse, distrust or despise. Sound simple? If it were that simple, we would never tell our teens, “You are not going to like all your teachers so you have to learn to deal with them,” “If you want to play you just have to do what your coach says and don’t question it,” or “You need to listen to your therapist. She is the expert.” What is wrong with these statements adults often preach to teens? They are one sided. Relationships are much more complex than that. How do we expect adolescents to effectively do their job in school, on the field, or in the therapy room if they do not experience a connection of feeling heard and understood by the adults in charge? It is not fair to hold adolescents accountable without doing the same for ourselves. Based on the research as well as adolescent and professional accounts it is clear that there are critical skill areas that helping adults must deliberately practice in order to be that endeared and remembered adult in a teen’s life: respect, authenticity, kindness, predictability, and acceptance will lead to positive change with adolescents.
Respect. Teens are excruciatingly sensitive to being treated with respect. At the same time they are quick to judge, and often misinterpret. Adults who make a difference to an adolescent communicate their inherent value in a direct manner. They are able to set limits effectively, give feedback and ask for behavior changes from young people because they do it respectfully. An 11th grader said it best, “I didn’t always like the things my tutor asked me to do, but I had respect for her because she showed respect to me. She got me to do things my teachers never did.”
Authenticity. Teens can smell a phony from a mile away. Effective adults are those who are real with kids. They use their sense of humor, they communicate their own limitations, and they are open to feedback about what they do. And at the same time they maintain a professional identity and appropriate boundaries.
Kindness. Young people respond to compassion and warmth. The adolescent social world can be cruel and sarcastic. Adults who are unwaveringly kind provide a safe harbor for teens who are typically self-conscious and uncomfortable in their own skin. They provide a place for teens to relax, be themselves, and experience support. Kindness can even effectively support limit setting.
Predictability. Unpredictability increases anxiety, and directs attention away from tasks while predictability fosters productivity and innovation. Teens are able relax, learn and grow when adults in their lives behave in a manner that is dependable.
Acceptance. When teens feel accepted they are better able to do the challenging work they face in school, on the field, or in the counselor’s office. Adults who communicate a deep acceptance of the young people in their charge are more effective at building relationships that make a difference.
Change. Studies show that teens appreciate being pushed beyond their perceived capabilities — this is where change occurs. It’s the name of the game and what we are all working towards. When we demonstrate respect, authenticity, kindness, predictability and acceptance, they are more open to change. When change occurs, we all win!
All of these traits are made up of skills that can be developed with deliberate and focused practice. Working with adolescents requires dedication, patience, commitment, and humility. It is a calling and a privilege. We owe it to the next generation to give them the tools to succeed. Let’s get to it!
For much more on how professionals can skillfully manage their relationship with teens, read What Works with Teens: A Professionals Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents toward Lasting Change by Britt Rathbone, MSSW, LCSW-C and Julie Baron, MSW, LCSW-C, Foreword by Rosalind Wiseman, New Harbinger Publications April 1, 2015.