Let’s start with a riddle:
- If you see one, it is safe to assume there are dozens you cannot see.
- They can subsist on garbage yet grow to amazing heights and weights.
- The minute you outsmart them, they find four more ways around you.
The answer: Mice? Vermin? Pestilence?….TEENAGERS!!!
There is some form of instinctual survival skills that causes adults to cross the street, or hallways in the mall, when a gaggle of teenagers looms closer. I have spent more than 20 years as the Jane Goodall of teenagers. I have been accepted in their tribe. I have learned to adapt to their unusual language patterns and ever-changing forms of communication. I have studied their behavior in the hopes of sharing this vital information with others.
Your Teenage to Adult Translation Guide
Every once in a while, I feel validated when a prestigious, well-researched journal documents their years of research only to conclude something my work in the trenches has already learned. Recently, there was an article in an academic publication that revealed the key strategies for working with teenagers in a therapeutic setting. I am admittedly “borrowing” the organization of the article (Holliman, Ryan P. and Foster, Ryan. (2016). Emodying and Communicating Authenticity in Adolescent Counseling. Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling, 2:1. 61-76). These experts list 7 strategies for creating an authentic relationship with an adolescent client. I’m going to shorten the list and give you my usual, humorous, everyday insights to help you manage the teenagers in your life. Warning: most of the experts cited in this blog will be directly from the real voices of my favorite fictional geeks.
- Personal confidence: It is a teenagers job to win at “gotcha”. They look for inconsistency between what you say and what you do as justification for not trusting you. Your job as a counselor, or even a parent, teacher, or any role model for a teenager, is to demonstrate the strength in being yourself. Nobody explains this better than Mr. Stand By Me, Wesley Crusher actor and nerd king, Wil Wheaton.
- Modifying language and speech: You can easily make the mistake of zigging or zagging. This is not the time to throw out slang you’ve heard on TV. (Zig.) Please don’t answer the question, “What did you do last night?” with, “Netflix and chill.” You haven’t created a bond with your client; you have either revealed an intimate detail about your private life or your desperation to be liked and accepted. This is also not the time to demonstrate your expert vocabulary or practice your parenting tone. (Zag.) Conversation is the start of communication. An effective counselor is using these conversations to model healthy word choice. Start building your client’s emotional IQ by working together to properly identify emotions. This is an exceptional way of feeding into the natural tendency of teens to correct all of us ignorant, out of touch people who were birthed as adults.
- Dissipating tension: Teenagers are similar to dogs and babies; they can smell fear. Maybe because they are fueled by trying to make sure nobody else detects their own fear. It is helpful to remember that teenagers are still children. Engaging their bodies will loosen their lips. I often play cards (which may or may not resemble Vegas tables) in my first session. The ease of the activity helps build what person-centered therapists call congruence, an overly academic way to explain that a therapist should be a person, not a caricature. Whether it’s board games, card games, or drawing, the activity that releases the tension is also the best to return to when therapeutic gains are released. Remember: the best salve for growing pains is childhood fun.
- Investment in the process: Teenagers grant access to their thoughts and their feelings to very few people. Even then, the time you have access is limited.
Therefore, the role of a counselor is to plant a seed. Create a relationship that serves as a fond memory for a healthy, trusting relationship with healthy boundaries. Make it easy for the next coach, life or sports, to continue the work you begin.
Spark Note Summary
Being authentic simply means being yourself. What is not so simple is embracing that self. When counseling, parenting, or mentoring a teenager, it is essential to have worked out your adolescent issues FIRST. We want our teenagers to LOVE who they are, not SHAME who they are. Especially if they grow up to be sci-fi fanatics who use sarcasm and wit to educate others about some lessons learned.