If you work with teens, you probably already know that the quality of your relationship with them is an important and potent predictor of success across a range of settings. But for many of us, engaging with adolescents is not always instinctive. Even if we have great instincts, challenging adolescent dynamics can derail the relationship when we are not deliberately focused on key relationship skills.
Data gathered through focus groups, surveys and interviews with hundreds of teens and helping adults tells us that teens want us to help them. Helping professionals who work with teens also shared that they seek additional guidance in how to effectively connect with the youth they serve.
The following present just a few ideas taken from what was gathered from the research my colleague Britt Rathbone, LCSW, and I conducted prior to writing our book for helping professionals who work for teens.
These tips will provide you with a few useful guidelines for authentic engagement, and help you leverage the relationship into an effective vehicle for modeling healthy behavior and reaching goals effectively with the youth you serve.
- Be authentic about your boundaries.
Gaging boundaries can be tricky. They can be idiosyncratic, shift based on the situation and relationship role and be unclear even to seasoned professionals. So it’s no surprise that for those of us who work with teenagers, situations that challenge our personal boundaries are quite common.
In order to be authentic in our interactions with others, we must first take an honest look at ourselves. One way to do this is to closely examine any areas in which we are blindly accepting ideas about what we should or should not say or do.
Boundaries must come from a genuine place and be relevant to the work and goals we are striving toward with that adolescent, not for any self-serving purpose. Of course, there are codes of conduct and ethical considerations to take into account.
The trick is in doing and saying what feels “right” in the situation and feels effective toward reaching stated goals while expressing what is consistent with your own thoughts, values, perspectives and limits. These considerations will allow for the expression of authenticity.
Teens might challenge our limits by asking personal questions. While we want to encourage their authentic engagement, we need to balance offering too much information with maintaining our ability to set effective limits.
When we feel that answering a personal question is not in the interest of our work, we can maintain engagement by inquiring about the teens’ intent that prompted the question or validate their interest without offering details with which we may not feel comfortable.
The consequences of not setting boundaries when necessary can lead to resentment and anger in our work with teens. Take the time you need to think through and clarify your boundaries and then state them clearly and directly. Remember that you’re not only establishing boundaries for this relationship, you’re modeling the life skill of setting boundaries, and setting a healthy example of how they can do so in their own lives.
- Normalize imperfection.
Making mistakes is a normal part of growing up, and in fact, it is a normal part of being human. The less we fear failure, the more willing we are to try new things and the more likely we are to succeed in the areas of our lives that matter most to us.
For teens, who are under the influences of constant pressure to fit in and heightened self-consciousness, it’s so important to have models who deal with fallibility in a sensible and straightforward manner. Add to the equation that young people are particularly adept at seeing your flaws and it becomes clear that the only sensible choice is to own your own imperfection.
When you mess up, misstep, or misspeak, own it. In the unlikely event that teens don’t immediately call attention to your mistake, you can still take advantage of the moment to teach them what it looks like to take responsibility, hold yourself accountable, and communicate honestly.
Trying to save face or skim over a mistake you’ve made is to risk your credibility if and when the truth emerges.
- Allow a safe space for disagreements, and model how they should be done.
Disagreement is not something that most of us look forward to and it is a basic part of life. We live in a society that functions on the shared unspoken agreement that we agree to disagree with one another about important topics and we can still come together as a people to stand strong and united.
And yet, between both news networks and social media, our political climate has increasingly allowed space for hostility and bullying between those with differing viewpoints. It’s no wonder that teens are confused about how to respectfully disagree, or hold an opposing view while still accepting another as a fellow human being.
As an adult who works with teens, you have the potential to influence the way the next generation disagrees. Model recognition of opposing viewpoints and verbalize acceptance that both views have validity. Encourage teens to look at all sides of an issue whenever possible, even with individuals or situations in which it may be particularly difficult to muster an ounce of empathy.
And when disagreements come up within your own interactions, respond authentically. This means respectfully sharing the truth about your point of view while also allowing space to acknowledge theirs, or gracefully bow out of the discussion by explaining that it’s a touchy subject for you. There is always a way to turn a disagreement into a learning experience.
Julie Baron is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Rockville, MD specializing in treating adolescents and their families. She is the co-author of What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.
Teen in therapy photo available from Shutterstock