In looking back over our posts through 2023, it seemed worthy of a summary. We covered lots of important and relevant topics including Contributing to the Happiness of Teens, Teens and Artificial Intelligence, The Teen Mental Health Crisis, Really Listening to Teens, How to Talk to Teens About Marijuana, Helping College Students Find a Therapist at College, Finding Humanity in Immense Tragedy and Difference in Perspectives, and so much more…
If you are a newer subscriber, or a loyal long time reader, please enjoy a refresh of important topics and helpful strategies for building supportive relationships with teens in our archives at www.whatworkswithteens.com.
The post this month (below) was shared last week in a New Years message, though in case you missed it, here it is again.
Best wishes for a 2024 filled with connection and meaningful relationships, especially with the teens in our lives!
Julie Baron, LCSW-C
Helping Teens Achieve (Their) Goals in 2024
Entering a new year naturally elicits both reflection and contemplation of what is to come. Humans are inclined toward self-determination and thus mapping out ways to feel in control of improving their lives by seeking growth and change. Anyone who loves, cares about, and/or works with teens, wants to see them grow, mature and evolve toward a promising future. In doing so, ask yourself whether you have ever created or imposed goals upon a teen in your life, implicitly or explicitly? How has that turned out?
Be honest. How many parents, educators, coaches, counselors or other helping adults imagine or assert the need for their teens to change behaviors (doing better in school, taking better care of themselves, being more responsible at home, etc…)? It is understandable that adults possess wisdom and foresight, which adolescents are still developing, and may therefore have very good ideas about what changes will help teens reach important goals. These wise goals conjured up by well-meaning adults may be unspoken expectations or explicitly and directly expressed to said teen. While these worthy achievements could very well be useful to teens, ask yourself, “Whose goals are these really?”
When adults impose goals upon teens, whether or not that teen has the very same goal, they are unlikely to recognize it as their own and therefore commit to the steps needed for change. It can be immensely frustrating for caring adults to think they know what a teen must do to achieve, yet watch them not do it, or worse, do the exact opposite. The helplessness born from this frustration, instinctively elicits a compensatory need for control, pushing adults to further attempt to control teens’ behaviors. Feeling helpless (or guilty if you think you are not doing enough) is awful, though controlling another human (teen or otherwise) is a myth and only leads to more frustration and conflict. This can be a tempting trap, yet one that usually becomes a circular feedback loop between throwing hands up and totally backing off or over-managing and power struggling.
There has to be a better way. Fortunately, there is. Full disclosure, it will take concerted effort and new goals on the adults’ part (easier said than done). Here are some important things to remember when guiding teens to create, own, and execute their goals in 2024.
1) Any goal a teen will actually achieve must come from them and thus be theirs. It may be useful for parents and helping adults to offer honest feedback as well as guide discussions to help teens identify their own goals and what is in it for them. Teens are more apt to work hard if they see a payoff. Once a teen has verbalized their goals, it makes it easier to have conversations to guide them when they have veered off course. If in the future, a teen’s goal has changed, help them articulate why and what they are aiming for instead. Be open to your teens’ goals being different from your own.
2) Expect that teens will veer off course. Change is not linear and therefore setbacks are part of the process. Remembering this can help to temper emotions. When the adult is more upset, frustrated, angry, or disappointed than the teen when things go wrong, it is a sign that their investment is greater than the teen, to whom that goal belongs. As soon as we take ownership, they will be more likely to de-invest. It can be helpful to think of your efforts vs. your teen’s efforts in achieving the goal as a ratio. If you own 80%, it is only possible for them to own 20%. If a teen does need help to achieve their goal, consult them on what they may need from you and offer only that. Support and assistance are acceptable as long as teens ask for or endorse that help.
3) Tolerate your own difficult emotions. Witnessing teens we care about struggle, miss the mark, or contend with consequences for their actions or inactions as they struggle toward goals, can be heart wrenching, scary, and worrisome. When we can tolerate these emotions, we communicate to our teens that we believe in their ability to cope with challenge, learn from mistakes, and correct course. All are essential skill sets for continued growth, maturity and independence.
4) Know what you can control. When there are circumstances where goals for change may be imperative for basic health, safety, or basic functioning, parents and helping adults indeed have an obligation to intervene. Though the only person who controls change in a teen is that teen, caring adults can control their own open and honest communication to express concern as well as expectations. They can also control contingencies (ideally natural consequences) in response to concerning behaviors, such as limiting privileges and access to resources like spending money, access to cars, or taking them places. It is important to describe these contingencies as a result of the teen’s choices, rather than a response to the adult’s anger or frustrations. Ideally, behavioral expectations and contingency planning is most useful when discussed with teens in advance, incorporate the teens’ perspectives, and clear consequences are outlined ahead for both desired and undesired behaviors. Collaborating with teens on a common understanding of what defines progress or lack thereof, can make it less conflictual and more routine to check in on progress. Tone here is also important. This is not about punishment, getting caught, or anything that may feel shameful. Rather it is an effort to work with teens to empower them in their own lives.
When parents and other supportive adults help teens define, own and execute their own goals, a partnership ensues rather than propensity for a power struggle. It becomes the relationship that a teen can rely on when they may need guidance or a push. We want teens to feel we are on their team and working with them in achieving goals. When teens reach those goals, and know it was their effort and commitment, even with adults as supporters, the feeling of accomplishment is truly their reward. Here’s to positive change in 2024!
~Julie Baron, LCSW-C