Substance abuse, risky behavior, lying, cheating, skipping school, promiscuous sex, self-injury; the list goes on and on.
A challenging task for those of us who work with teens is addressing behaviors that are unhealthy and by all accounts need to stop. The typical youth service provider provides facts, warns about risks, begs, cajoles, pleads, and sometimes even punishes. And…the behavior doesn’t change! Why?
Telling young people to stop dangerous behavior is barking up the wrong tree. Kids are not oblivious. They know the dangerous behavior carries risks and they do it anyway. There are 3 reasons these behaviors are so stubborn: the behavior meets a need or solves a problem, there is a skills deficit, and/or the teen lacks motivation.
To help teens change these dangerous behaviors we need to focus on 3 important things:
1. Teach teenagers skills for getting their needs met another way – one that is less dangerous and more effective in the long term. Youth workers often assume that young people have skills to behave more effectively. In fact, distressing behaviors are a clear signal that the necessary skills are not fully developed. For example, many young people engage in behaviors to be accepted by a peer group, or to distract themselves from psychological pain, or for excitement. Unless we take the time to fully assess the function of the dangerous behavior, we are blindly and randomly throwing our problem-solving darts and missing the target. This leads to frustration, increasingly authoritative interventions, and sadly — burnout. It’s important to take the time to fully assess what problem is being solved with the risky behavior and then directly teach teenagers how to solve that problem in a different way. This takes time and requires a trusting relationship. No short cuts here.
2. Identify a reason to stop. Search for things that matter to teenagers that are incongruous with the behavior that we want to see stop. The data on behavior change is clear, behavior changes when something important and meaningful requires it.
3. Identify something to pursue. Powerful, worthwhile, and compelling goals are crucial for behavior change. What does the teenager want? What will life look like when their problems are solved? Go big or go home on this task. It doesn’t matter how realistic the goal is, we just need a meaningful and engaging goal to work towards. Goals change throughout life. The process of working towards goals helps clarify what is really wanted. Focus your efforts with teens on what they want and then help them engage in skillful behaviors that move them towards those goals. This behavior will often crowd out the dangerous behaviors in the long run.
Rewrite the paradigm on behavior change. Focus on the behaviors we want to see — rather than the behaviors we want to stop — and put your attention there. Explore the function of behavior, replace with skillful behavior, and stay focused on exciting goals. You’ll be surprised at how effective it is at facilitating change with young people.
~Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C