Wednesday, July 21, 2010

10 Of My Secrets To Working With Troubled Teens

In case you're new here, or didn't know, I work with adolescent girls with mental health and substance abuse issues. Yes, it's hard (to answer your unasked question.) Some days are downright exhausting. But I love it. Why? Because I make connections with girls who have had extremely difficult lives. It gets me through each day knowing that I'm one of the few positive influences in their lives. And hopefully, some days, I make a difference. :) But getting teenagers to like you (and therefore listen to you) can be tricky. So here are some tips for those who work with (or live with) teens.

1. Show no fear. I'm not kidding. If you are dealing with your average variety of teenager, this may not be an issue. But many kids who grew up on the streets, in poverty, or in abusive homes, have learned how to be intimidating. And they are like bees, they can smell fear. So even if you are terrified on the inside, find a way to put your game face on. Because a child cannot trust an adult who is afraid of them. Could you?

2. Do not take things personally. They are giant balls of hormones, they can't help themselves. Mood swings just come with the territory. If they feel like they're hurting your feelings all the time, they will feel guilty. And their emotional maturity level does not process guilt well, so it generally just turns into an even worse attitude. Just remind yourself it's not you, it's them.

3. Pick your battles. Stick to your guns when it comes to important stuff that involves their health, safety, and growth as a human being. The fact that they never remember to replace the toilet paper or they always pop their gum may not be worth an enormous power struggle.

4. Use humor. I find sarcasm works especially well, due to the generally cynical nature of teens. This one perfectly follows #2 and #3, and here's why - if they do something that annoys/offends/upsets you, but it's in the category of "not worth the battle" - make a joke! Humor can take them out of their funk and make you both feel better. You can even make fun of them! (As long as you are actually kidding, and they know it.) I do it all the time. :P

5. Be empathic. Remember when you were a teenager and you thought no one in the world had ever or would ever feel the way you did? A little understanding goes a long way. Especially when you're trying to get them to do something, and they are frustrated and defiant. Try saying "You feel ____ because ____." Let that soak in. Maybe talk about it a bit. There's a good chance they'll be more receptive when they feel heard.

6. Be consistent. Do what you said you were going to do. Follow through. It sounds simple, but it can actually be challenging. Do it anyway. It's important.

7. Communicate. Be honest. Teenagers sometimes seem like aliens, but they are human. Tell them how you are feeling, without blaming. "I feel ___ when you ___." These sentences sound dorky in theory but they are helpful when you really just want to yell and accuse. (As we all do sometimes.)

8. Accept them where they're at. They may go through as many phases as pairs of shoes, but this is all a part of the adolescent process. One of the greatest things you can do for them is just go with it. Accept it without judgement.

9. Give them space. A) When they are upset, let them know that you are there to listen when they're ready to talk, and then walk away. Check in periodically to make sure they know you're around, but don't hover. B) When you want something from them, tell them once. Give them a time frame to do whatever it is, and a simple, related consequence if it doesn't get done. Then leave them alone. One reminder right before the time is up could be in order. But don't nag.

10. Be you. While they're trying to figure out who they are, it helps to see adults who are comfortable in their own skin. When I first started working with teens, I tried to be cool, so they would like me. They saw right through it. Now, when I go to work every day, I'm just me. Silly, nerdy, uncool. They wouldn't admit it to my face, (or to yours) but I can tell that they respect me for being who I am. And it's a firsthand lesson on how freeing it is not to try to be someone you're not.

I hope that wasn't too preachy. I'm glad I made this list so I can look back at it and remind myself on hard days. And perhaps I will add more later... hope it was helpful to someone!

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Natalie said...

I work with high school juniors and I agree with your post! I think these points are key when interacting with teens! :)
I have an award for you on my blog :)

Ann On and On... said...

It sounds like you are in the right job doing a lot of good for many young girls. (Thanks!) I appreciate your list. I can think of many people to share this with....

Colleen said...

Thank you ladies! Your words are so appreciated. :)

Thanks so much for the blog award Natalie!!

Crayon Wrangler said...

I am raising three daughters and I am printing off this (seriously, the printer is doing it right now) and keeping it for the teenage years. Wonderful advice! Thank you so much for this link. I am sending it off to my friends with daughters!
Happy blogging!

Carol said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog ~ love to have visitors ~ You are "on the money" with how you work with adolescents ~ Former life I was Psychotherapist & part time college psych prof ~ so I am very familiar with what you write! Kudos and love to you for working with this population ~ Not everyone is able to work with that age group ~ Hugs & namaste, Carol

Joy said...

Excellent list! Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I have a sister I am dealing with. She has a lot of issues with substance abuse so thank you for sharing these tips. I am doing my best to take care of her and we have come a long way but either way it is hard!

Ronnica said...

Great tips. I don't work with troubled teens, but with usually-not-troubled children. But I do hope to be a middle school teacher one day, so I know that I'll deal with some children who have seen more hardship and hurt than I have.