It’s no secret that the teenage years can be filled with challenging behaviour that leads to real unhappiness at home and school. What can one do, as a parent or teacher, to encourage positive behaviour and resilience in our teens? Educational psychologist NATALIE BORMAN, who works with troubled teens, let JEAN ALFELD in on her tactics…

                                                                                                   Cartoon: Minette Bell

THE COMMON CAUSE of poor behaviour in teenagers is low self-esteem, which essentially is how we feel and think about ourselves. Self-esteem develops from birth and can be influenced by a huge variety of factors from individual personality to physical, emotional and social stressors, plus major or minor events and experiences. Low self-esteem commonly leads to aggressive and defensive behaviours (as the teen is protecting his/her vulnerable self), incorrect perceptions, poor judgement and choices, and linking with others who are ‘failing’. Poor self-esteem can also lead to withdrawal and the internalisation of pain, sometimes even depression, and often results in barriers to learning since a teen with little belief in him/herself is fearful of taking risks and being criticised or judged.

A parent or teacher can help to build positive self-esteem through genuine validation: focusing when engaging with the teen, looking him/her in the eye, acknowledging successes and failures, recognising feelings and always respecting the teen as an individual. It’s particularly important not to humiliate by discussing problem behaviours in front of others or saying things in anger and to hurt.

One golden rule is to keep conversations to the current issue, rather than generalising. For example, it’s better to say: ‘You need to tidy your room before dinner, please, Jake. We’ve agreed that you keep your room tidy out of respect for your brother since he has to share with you’, rather than: ‘I‘m sick and tired of you, Jake, and your disgusting room. You never tidy it. You only think about yourself. You’re a selfish slob!’

What kind of home environment brings out positive behaviour? Homes need clear, consistent rules and boundaries that have been discussed and negotiated with all involved. These allow children to thrive because they feel safe, things are predictable and there’s no confusion. When it’s ‘our rules’, children buy into the system far more.

Conflict, however, often appears when kids hit the teen years: parents now need to realise that their children are growing up and it’s OK to renegotiate. A common cause of conflict is teens coming home late. Rather than being authoritarian and unreasonable, parents should treat their teenagers with respect and discuss realistic, new, appropriate home times. It also helps if homes have values and expectations that are openly discussed and understood as a family. If greeting others is important, this must be made clear and consistently expected from all. Using technology in company is also something that causes major rows, yet this is easier to discuss when family values about respect are clear and can be referenced.

Active listening is an extremely useful tool in dealing with teens and conflict. It requires setting aside all power battles, anger and preconceptions to have a constructive two-way conversation that involves true listening and respect for what the teen’s communicating. Active listening is possible when there’s a respectful, trusting relationship and the environment is comfortable, open and flexible, not authoritarian. Phrases that promote active listening involve a tentative approach: ‘I’m wondering if/how… What do you think about your behaviour? Am I right in hearing that…? It sounds like you’re feeling… Was it like…? So what happened when…?’  When you keep the language informal and non-invasive, teens are more likely to speak honestly and without defensiveness, and provide the information needed to understand and resolve the issue fully.

The use of restorative questions, such as ‘Please tell me’ and ‘Help me to understand’ also show a teen that you genuinely want their input and desire to restore the relationship and move forward together. Listen with your heart, it tells you more about the story. During active listening, teens feel heard and an agreed solution can usually be found. It also generally helps them get to their own realisations and decisions. This empowers them, promoting self-esteem and resilience.

How can one deal with serious problems and offences? The most important first step is to recognise there’s a major problem. Often families go into denial, blaming others or simply hoping things will somehow improve or disappear. Recognition and ownership lead to the path of healing. The next step is to get information and help, whether at school, through a professional, or from a support group. Speaking to people who can be trusted lightens the load and gives perspective. It’s critical to WALK THE PATH WITH YOUR TEEN, constantly assuring them that together you’ll overcome the challenges. Patience, courage and prayer are also useful tools. Tough love is the last resort and only appropriate when everything possible has been done and the problem remains too big, the teen is old enough to take responsibility and the family is being destroyed by persistent, unacceptable behaviour. An example of this may be substance abuse.

Bouncing back after trauma can be tough for teens and families, yet we should always believe and trust in their resilience and strength. Parents can play a vital role in healing by being supportive and understanding, while giving the child space, and ensuring that professional help is arranged when needed.

Educational psychologist and former teacher NATALIE BORMAN comes from a divorced family background, witnessed much conflict and emotional and physical abuse, and struggled with learning difficulties at school. She believes she’s learnt enormously from her own challenges and failures. Natalie is married with three adult children, and lives in Crawford.

How to GROW your teen’s self-esteem: Natalie’s lowdown

  • Acknowledge problems/issues
  • Be careful of judging (even implicitly through body language, tone, vocabulary)
  • Point out what the child does well before giving negative input
  • Don’t punish by taking away activities that validate your teen, eg sport, and encourage extra-murals/activities that build self-esteem. Encourage balance
  • Affirm (even small) successes and acknowledge and accept failures as learning opportunities
  • Recognise competence in different things (eg cooking, gardening) and expose your teen to positive role-models (parents, you need to be healthy role models yourselves!)
  • Engage in conversation and practise active listening. Acknowledge ideas and opinions
  • Promote responsibility, decision-making and independence
  • Spend time with each child and share your own stories and failures
  • Stay involved (not intrusive) and connected, build a relationship with the teen, do fun things together, refrain from nagging!
  • Be realistic and reasonable. Give consequences that are doable: don’t say, ‘You’re never going to get your cell phone back’ when you need your teen to have a phone!
  • Seek professional help when needed
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