Teenagers are amazing, miraculous creatures. And they can also be difficult, defiant, and downright painful to deal with. Part of this is because the adolescent brain is going through a natural pruning process. They are transitioning from being completely dependent on their parents to finding their own sense of self as an individual adult. This is a MAJOR shift, and making it involves many growing pains – for them, and for all of their relationships.
It can be a huge challenge for parents and teachers when there are things we want and need teenagers to do, and they simply will not do them. It is very common for teenagers to resist completing homework or cleaning up after themselves, to engage in risky or reckless behaviour, and to be rude to their family and classmates.
It’s easy to feel completely helpless (and even enraged) by the behaviour of teenagers. If this sounds like you sometimes (or even all the time!) don’t worry, you’re not alone!!
But I have good news: It won’t last forever!
That is probably the most important thing to remember…The difficult behaviour you see in teenagers is mostly a PHASE, and will pass with time.
While that piece of information itself can be incredibly reassuring and helpful in dynamics with teenagers, it alone does not necessarily help things change in the moment when you really need them to.
So here are some simple strategies you can use to promote behaviour change in teenagers that are consistently doing things that you find unhelpful or difficult:
Focus on understanding them and their emotions, rather than telling them what to do. If you have this as your ultimate aim in all of your conversations, there is a much greater possibility that you will end up on the same page. You can use language like: “I really want to understand what you are going through, and see if we can find a way to work together to solve this.”
Whatever we give attention to grows. So if we are only focusing on what they are doing wrong and what we want them to do differently, this issue will remain on the forefront of their mind and will keep playing out for longer. But if we notice and focus on anything they are doing that is moving in a helpful direction (no matter how small!) this will encourage more of the same from them in the future. For example, if you really want a teenager to do the dishes and they are refusing, point out how much you appreciate the fact that tonight they took their plate to the kitchen rather than focusing on the fact that they didn’t do anything else. Point out the wins, and the wins will grow!
Negative behaviour patterns come from reactions to difficult emotions. For instance, if a teen feels sad they might express this with anger and aggression, or if they are worried about not being good enough, they might procrastinate with their work. We want to help teenagers understand what they are truly feeling, and find a different way of expressing that feeling. For example, we can say: “I wonder what made you say that to your sister. You must have been feeling upset or sad or worried in some way…what were you feeling in that moment? Is there another way you can express those feelings that helps you get your needs met and doesn’t hurt anyone else?”
Separate their behaviour from who they are – for example you can say things like: “I know you are a really caring person and that you are really trying, but it’s not ok to hurt other people”. This helps them see a possibility that they can do things in a different, more constructive way.
Role model taking accountability for your own unhelpful reactions – even if it’s for something small, this goes an incredibly long way. For example, you can say: “Yesterday I snapped at you because you were complaining about your dinner. I was frustrated because I felt unappreciated, but it wasn’t right to take it out on you, and I’m sorry.”
Behaviour change is one of the hardest things any of us can do, and it is also one of the most beneficial.
If we can help teens self-reflect and support them in making positive changes by believing in their ability to do so, they will surprise us with the depth of their wisdom, strength, and compassion.
Teenagers are capable of so much more than our world gives them credit for. Sometimes all they need is to be reminded that we are on their side and they will rise to the challenge of finding a path to their own empowerment!
Looking for more resources?
Mental health videos for parents, teachers, and teens can be found my Youtube Channel.
Check out my Middle and High School Mental Health Curriculum and Teacher Training for engaging and dynamic resources for students, parents, teachers, and schools.