Predictability and consistency are powerful stabilizers. They help cultivate a sense of safety and regulate our emotional responses. When experiences occur unpredictably, we may become distressed and our emotions may become elevated.
We’ve evolved as humans to detect unpredictability as a potential threat. This is why it’s particularly important to foster an environment of predictability with teens; it helps build trust and a strong working relationship.
Consider the following descriptions of why teens respond positively to predictability, and how it can lead to improved outcomes.
- Predictability gets results.
Studies have shown that predictability and consistency foster productivity and innovation, function as protective factors contributing to resilience and serve as emotion regulators by reducing anxiety associated with uncertainty and surprise.
Consistency also plays a critical role in effective leadership. Positive, successful leaders were clear about their values and acted in accordance with them.
It’s not surprising that these same principles also apply when it comes to helping teens achieve positive outcomes.
During the research for our book , we found that the qualities critical to successful leadership in business environments matched the characteristics listed by teens that were most appealing in helping adults.
Among other qualities, teens prefer adults who consistently follow a set of principles, provided that the teens agreed that the principles were acceptable. If predictability matters for businesses where success is measured in profit, wouldn’t it be equally important in the development of young lives?
- Predictability builds resilience.
It may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but it’s true: Predictability and consistency have been identified as protective factors in developing resilience.
The teen years are characterized by constant fluctuation in the physical, emotional, social and cognitive realms. Given this overall instability, teens are living in a state of constant unrest. Additionally, many teens have had stressful life experiences that have contributed to a lack of trust in others. A sense of stability, predictability and structure in relationships with the adults in their lives helps foster resilience.
All it may take is one caring and dedicated adult who develops and maintains a consistent, supportive alliance with an adolescent to build resilience and offset the effects of life stressors and challenges.
- Predictability helps modulate mood.
Predictability has been shown to reduce anxiety, increase attention to the whole experience and affect areas of the brain responsible for pain modulation. Conversely, unpredictability leads to higher anxiety and a selective attention to negative sensory and emotional experiences.
Regardless of the nature of our work with teens, it’s imperative to provide an environment that supports them being at their emotional and attentional best.
For teens with impulse control disorders, structure and consistency are even more important. When teens don’t feel a sense of predictability, performance outcomes suffer, which further increases anxiety and stress.
Remember, as we interact with adolescents, that each one has her own story, her own set of experiences, and her own brain chemistry that shapes her attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Regardless of what horrors or joys she has lived, or what challenges she faces, a predictable and consistent approach by the adults in her life is a valuable gift.
- Your consistency will lead to theirs.
Modeling the behavior we want to see in youth is one of the fundamental rules of our work. When we as adults model consistency and predictability with skills and behaviors we want to see in the teens, we gain credibility.
Developing routine and structure are well understood to be helpful in mental health treatment, both in terms of lifestyle issues—such as sleep schedules, meal times and so on—and within the delivery of services.
Structure provides a framework for understanding the expectations around us and it allows neurological resources to be allocated to learning and goal-oriented behavior rather than emotion management.
Helping adults who model the importance of predictability and consistency will develop positive working relationships with teens and ultimately will enjoy improved outcomes in the classroom, on the field or in the therapy office.
Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C, provides mental health services to adolescents and their families in the Washington, D.C., area. He is co-author of the book “What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.”
Follow him on Twitter @WhatWorksWTeens.