The relationships we have with the adolescents with whom we work the foundation upon which all of our professional skills rest. In turn, our skills strengthen the relationship. The two combined provide the glue that foster adolescents to growth and change.
But relationship building can be really hard work. You’re likely to be skilled in a range of professional techniques for working with young people or their specific conditions or problems, and yet, the relationship is the critical underpinning for these interventions to work.
Practice building and maintaining positive and effective working relationships with the following tips.
Stay Rooted in Your Values
All work with teens requires that we have a strong sense of self and of what really matters to us. Pushing against the adults in their lives is one of the ways that teens establish their autonomy. When this inevitably occurs, we need to be rooted in who we are and what we find meaningful.
Modeling behaviors rooted in our values not only sets an important example for teens, it allows us to be more effective in our approach and communications. When we stand firm in who we are, we stand a far better chance of being effective with teenagers and remaining relatively unscathed ourselves.
One powerful way to stay rooted is to commit to practicing mindfulness which leads to mindful awareness in our lives. As helping professionals, it’s very common for us to be emotionally triggered as we continuously come face-to-face with the challenges of our clients.
Mindfulness and mindful awareness is a great way to minimize the natural urges to respond to such stimuli in reactionary, ineffective ways.
If you grew up with an angry family member, for instance, a teen who expresses anger through aggressive speech and body language may trigger feelings of fear and activate your fight-or-flight response. By helping you stay grounded in the present moment, mindful awareness can help you see what is in front of you without judgment allowing you to respond appropriately.
Cultivating mindful awareness is possible through regular mindfulness practice. Even practicing for a short time each day can yield benefits. Consider committing to a daily formal mindfulness practice for just one month and experience the benefits for yourself!
Think back to a time when you were a teenager and an adult made an inaccurate negative assumption about you. Maybe it was a coach, who assumed you were slacking when you were actually at home taking care of a younger sibling while your mom was at work and your father was gone.
Or perhaps it was a counselor who always talked at you and never bothered to stop and really listen to your point of view.
Or a school principal who seemed to spend all of his energy trying to catch you breaking the rules instead of seeking ways to support you.
We’ve all been there, in one way or another; feeling like others are misunderstanding our intentions or jumping to conclusions based on inaccurate perceptions. It can be demoralizing and destabilizing.
Now, consider a teen you’ve worked with. Can you recall a time when you’ve judged them perhaps unfairly or made an assumption that didn’t turn out to be true? If it’s someone with whom you are currently working, consider any assumptions you’ve made and ask yourself how fair and factual these thoughts really are.
As youth workers, we all have judgmental thoughts about the teens we serve. The key is to step back from these assumptions. We know the value of building and maintaining healthy connections with teens—judgments serve to disconnect us. Empathy builds connections.
Use your own past experiences with being judged inaccurately to empathize with how it truly feels to be misunderstood.
Take a Breather
Taking a moment to pause and breathe in a moment of anger or threat activation can significantly diffuse and de-escalate a stressful situation. How often have you told a triggered teen to take a time out, walk away or take a deep breath?
When the brain is flooded with anger and the threat is not life or death, it’s almost impossible to be aware of all the information that’s necessary to respond effectively. What our brains need most in these moments is time and oxygen. So when you’re triggered . . . take your own advice: There’s no rush to respond. Breathe.
Not only will taking time to breathe help your brain settle down so you can respond more effectively, you’ll also be setting a vivid example for the teens you work with about how to manage intense emotions and how to communicate effectively even when strong feelings are present.
Be Deliberate in Your Skills Practice
The amount of time it takes to obtain skills and perform them with mastery has been the subject of much research and inquiry. Some believe that ~10,000 hours of practice makes an expert. Others believe that less time can yield expertise with a simpler skill, while larger numbers of hours are required for mastering more complex skills.
All can agree, however, that skills are acquired through ongoing and deliberate practice over a period of time. Identify the areas you get stuck with teens and then think of the relationship building skill you want to improve. Then practice, practice, practice! Consider developing a way to track your efforts or improvement over time. Deliberate and focused practice is what gets results.
While staying rooted, being mindful, practicing empathy and breathing will all serve you well as you build your relationship skills, you’re sure to see progress if you commit to your practice. The teens you work with will notice and will thank you!
For more about learning skills to work authentically with teens, check out “What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change” here