If you work with teens, you know that their behavior can sometimes appear puzzling. The uniqueness of adolescence, and all its associated behaviors, presents special challenges for those tasked with helping guide them into adulthood.
A significant and often overlooked factor impacting teen behavior is temperament—the unique, biologically based personality style of an individual. Temperament tends to remain stable over time and parents often observe that particular personality traits that were evident in the early years continue to be present during adolescence and remain stable throughout life.
Since temperament is not amenable to change, the adage “accept what we can not change” holds true.
So why is temperament an important factor to consider for adults who work with teens? Research shows that particular temperament traits are associated with poorer quality adult-youth relationships and poor outcomes (Rudasill, Reio, Stipanovic, & Taylor, 2010).
As helping adults, when we understand that temperament may be contributing to challenges in the relationships with the youth we serve, we are better equipped to use specific skills to offset potential negative outcomes.
When it comes to the temperament of the teens we serve, here are a few things to consider.
Mood Intensity and Intensity of Response
Some teens experience and express their moods more intensely than others. This behavior can be off-putting and overwhelming at times for those around them. But it’s helpful to keep in mind, and to remind teens when possible, that the strength they may use to express anger and frustration can also be leveraged to change the world in positive ways.
It’s also helpful to remind yourself that adolescents don’t typically try to overwhelm us with their emotion-driven expressions; they are simply learning how to manage the biologically-based mood intensity that is part of their makeup.
What skills can we use? Mood intensity often triggers reciprocal mood intensity and if the mood is anger, frustration, anxiety or depression, this escalating intensity can interfere with adult-teen relationships.
The skill to use here is validation. Patiently and calmly acknowledge that the mood makes sense, don’t directly require a different mood and let the mood run its course. When used effectively, validation leads to mood intensity dropping within minutes, allowing effective problem solving to occur.
Some teens are more physically active than others. These teens may have trouble sitting still, pick up items in our offices or classrooms without asking, open the drawers to our desks or wander about the room as we talk to them. Asking a teen with a temperamentally high activity level to sit still and listen is an exercise in futility These behaviors can certainly test our patience.
What skills can we use? An effective approach is to adjust our expectations in the service of accepting young people for who they are. Feeling accepted has a calming influence and allows for more effective cognition.
Explore ways to use their high activity level to accomplish learning goals, rather than trying futilely to turn them into something they’re not. Consider asking these teens to help distribute materials, allow them to sit in the swivel chair, perhaps provide something to fidget with that isn’t distracting.
There are countless ways to employ the energy and activity that these teens bring to an interaction to enhance the experience in the classroom, therapy room, or other setting.
Adaptability to Change
Some young people love new experiences, while others do better with predictability, familiarity, and sameness and take more time adapting to new routines and experiences.
A student who has difficulty adapting to change may argue with a teacher who suddenly reorganizes the classroom or with a counselor who suggests they try a different elective course than the one they’ve chosen consecutively for the last few semesters.
It’s not unusual for teens to be labeled oppositional simply because they have a hard time making a switch cognitively and behaviorally to an unexpected change.
What skills can we use? Understanding that this is a temperament trait helps us be more compassionate. Besides being patient and accepting that it just may take more time for some teens to get on board with new ideas and routines, orienting young people to upcoming changes helps prepare them and helps counter the resistance to change that they may present.
Experiment with spending a little more time orienting certain teens to upcoming changes and see if it results in more cooperation and less stress and challenge in the long run.
We all have various tolerances for sensory input and can become overwhelmed when we are overstimulated. Teens are no different. Some teens will find it uncomfortable to be in a loud cafeteria or at a raucous sports event.
Others may find the flickering of overhead lights unbearable or will be averse to certain textures, odors and tastes.
Teens who have lower sensory thresholds may be more irritable, which can make interaction more challenging for both parties. It can be hard to recognize these sensitivities, especially when teens themselves may not be aware that their sensory thresholds are lower or different than those of others. They are often unaware of the impact on their mood.
What skills can we use? A bit of gentle inquiry, understanding and validation help teens understand themselves so they can advocate more effectively for their needs. We may ultimately need to adapt the environment for these teens – reducing use of certain lights, providing an alternative to the cafeteria, or relaxing a dress code to allow for a softer fabric.
While the possibilities go on and on, flexibility and willingness to look for acceptable solutions is required.
Every teen is unique and responds to unique interventions. Awareness of the temperament traits of the teens we work with can help us understand many of their challenging behaviors and make sense of seemingly self-destructive behaviors.
Understanding why teens act the way they do is an important part of building a healthy, authentic relationship and in turn guiding them toward behaviors that are effective in helping them achieve their goals.
For more about what goes into building authentic relationships with teens, check out our book “What Works With Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.”
Rudasill, K. M., Reio, T. G., Jr., Stipanovic, N., & Taylor, J. E. (2010). A longitudinal study of student-teacher relationship quality, difficult temperament, and risky behavior from childhood to early adolescence. Journal of School Psychology, 48(5), 389–412.