A colleague recently told me she stopped working with teenagers – “I am just burned out”, she sighed. What a tragedy!
Working with adolescents is a new experience every day and their raw emotion and intensity can bring stress to your interactions with them. They count on us to remain steady and encouraging but how to do this when they activate us emotionally? How do we make sure we stay strong, motivated and hopeful?
- Meet adolescents where they are. Many power struggles occur when we lose sight of the starting blocks. We may assume a teenager is being belligerent when we have actually lost them. Back up, take stock of where the adolescent is in the stages of change and respond accordingly.
- Make sure their goals are addressed. if we are more invested in their outcomes than they are we may feel defeated. It’s easy to get influenced by program or employment pressures, and at the same time success is correlated with congruence around goals. Better to work on (appropriate) goals that matter to teens and have success than to fail at goals that have been imposed.
- Recognize and accept what you can and can’t change. We develop and work towards specific outcomes in our work, and at the same time each adolescent brings their own motivation, energy and history in what we do. Keep your expectations high, and at the same time keep an eye on factors that impact performance progress. Be patient and understanding when adolescents fail to measure up to your hopes; revise your expectations and take another shot.
- Maintain respect for the function of behavior. All behavior makes sense when it is understood in the context in which it occurs. It may not be particularly effective for adolescents to be noncompliant and at the same time there are reasons for it. When we take the time to understand the factors that influence their behavior, we develop and convey more empathy, and then we can teach and treat effectively.
- Stay active with learning. Every challenging adolescent is an opportunity to develop more skill. When you run into a road block with one of your teens, consider looking at the professional literature, talking to colleagues, obtaining supervision, and seeking a new technique or intervention to add to your skill set and increase your level of expertise. We frequently tell teenagers that challenges and failures are opportunities to learn and grow. The same holds true for us.
- Stay engaged in meaningful personal activities. It’s important to maintain balance with our work and other activities in our lives. Offsetting challenges at work with meaningful behaviors elsewhere will provide a cushion when you are particularly stressed by the adolescents in your care.
Teenagers rely on us to support them and guide them through the challenging social, academic, and psychological terrain of adolescent development. Keeping these tips in mind will allow you to positively impact many lives, feel rewarded in your work, and have a long and prosperous career working with youth.