(Most of the Time)
Positive, caring communication is a powerful ally in an adolescent’s confused world. As challenging as it can be for those of us living and working with adolescents, it can make all the difference between your adolescent feeling optimistic and thriving, or feeling disengaged.
Every adolescent will make a dumb decision at some point during their bumpy ride to adulthood – sometimes the mistake will be serious. What really matters is how we as parents or people who work with adolescents support them to overcome a negative experience.
We need to help them recognise:
- It was not an OK thing to do – taking ownership for a poor choice.
- They are sorry it happened – apologising to all who have been hurt.
- Repair the wrong and make it right – restitution and restoration.
- Forgiveness – for self and others.
- Acknowledge the valuable learning experience – growth and awareness.
…and leave it at that.
This must be the end of that story and adults must let it go because unfinished business from adolescence can cause emotional angst for the rest of a person’s life. If you help adolescents “learn” from their experiences you will be giving them a bigger gift than if you simply punish and shame them. This helps them to avoid becoming “victims” and supports them to develop a resilient mindset.
The role of significant adults, family and non-family, is vital.
Capable adults who act as ‘lighthouses’ are critical because they offer support to reduce the crippling effects of alienation and disconnectedness.
The basics adolescents need to be healthy are:
- Loving human connectedness.
- Good nutrition.
- Plenty of sleep.
- Meaningful involvement and physical activity.
- Laughter and lightness.
- Deep connectedness with nature.
What else can you do to help adolescents manage their chaotic ride to adulthood?
You can start by helping with how they see themselves, others and the world.
In our achievement driven world, we must be careful that adolescents don’t come to believe that they are only worthwhile when they reach clear goals like passing exams or reaching a parental expectation. This can set up thinking that can lead them to having problems later in life.
Rather, have them accept:
- Everyone matters.
- Your true value and worth is never attached to your goals.
- Everyone is contributing to how others grow and learn.
- Growing and learning is what life is about, especially the unexpected.
- We can never control our lives, however we can guide our life.
- There is no such thing as:
- The wrong way to go in life – so avoid having regrets
- You have missed something – again have no regrets
- You ‘should’ve’, ‘could’ve’ – these words mean you are judging, rather than accepting that where you are is perfect for now.
- You have no worth or value – everyone has value
- (Acknowledgement to Greg Neville, Melbourne)
These last four patterns of thinking can help create the type of mental foundation that supports depression. Think carefully about someone you know who has depression, and see if any of the above thought patterns is present.
Parents can help an adolescent’s mind follow more optimistic pathways when they struggle with their world.
Here are two simple formulae (FEAR and E +R = O) to help them learn that they can influence the outcomes of an event or experience by changing their response.
Even adults frighten themselves with their imagination at times and so we all need to remember this simple anagram: FEAR.
- F antasized
- E xperience
- A ppearing
- R eal
Complete this statement when you are afraid of anything, especially change: ‘I am afraid to…’
Now change the statement to: ‘I would really like to … and I scare myself by imagining…’
Use your imagination to grow, not to limit yourself.
The second formula is: E + R = O. It is the Event plus my Response that creates the Outcome.
Ask yourself: ‘What am I doing to deal with this situation or change it in a productive manner?’
Take for example someone saying something inappropriate to an adolescent.
- The adolescent can choose to think: “that is their stuff – and their problem!” and in addition, ignore the comment.
- Or they can choose to agree with the comment and then allow themself to feel hurt or wounded. There is always a choice to be made.
No one can MAKE you feel anything without your agreement.
Think about ways you can respond to a challenging moment rather than the ways that others are not responding to your needs. We need to teach our adolescents that they are the ones controlling their own thoughts and feelings, not others. Dr Martin Seligman in his book, The Optimistic Child (2007) explains that optimism is not just positive thinking, it’s more about the way you think about causes.
Dr Seligman says there are three main dimensions that individuals use to explain any good or bad event that happens to them. These are Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalisation.
Individuals who are more at risk of depression and disengagement often believe the causes of bad events that happen are permanent. What they say is not always the reality:
If your adolescent tends to think of things like ‘always’ or ‘never’ that can be a sign that they have adopted a pessimistic style of viewing the world, or adolescence has given them a temporary pair of dark glasses.
We can help them by pausing their thinking with questions, it interrupts their mind from looping a familiar negative story. Try asking, as Byron Katie does in her “The Work” process: •
- ‘Is that really true?’
- ‘How do you know that is true?’
When I am working with adolescents with negative maladaptive thinking loops, I teach them a technique for cancelling negative words and thoughts, and also give their parents’ permission to spot negative words. This works best when adolescents can do the same for their parents and if it’s done in a light-hearted way. If an adolescent comes home from school complaining that they have had the ‘worst day of their life’, we ask, ‘How do you know that is true?’ Or we say, ‘Cancel, Cancel!’, and then maybe acknowledge, ‘Today was a little bit bad.’ When we add quantitative measures like ‘a little’, ‘a bit’ or ‘a tad’ and limit it to just one day, the unconscious mind downplays the emotional intensity that follows the statement.
This is also why I suggest that we use the term ‘Now that’s interesting!’ instead of ‘Oh My God!’ when anything goes wrong. The words are less explosive as a message to the nervous system.
We can also teach adolescents easy ways to break their negative thinking patterns by using a trigger, or circuit breaker. This can be a phrase, a word or even a physical gesture.
Circuit breakers for negative self-talk might be to say:
- I am enough exactly as I am.
- I am, I can, I will.
- Everybody matters – no matter what.
- I am so much more than this experience.
The second dimension that Seligman says individuals use to explain the good and bad events of their life is pervasiveness. If you believe a cause is pervasive, you tend to project its effect across many different situations in your life.
For example, if an adolescent failed an essay they may think thoughts like, ‘I’m useless and dumb’, ‘I am crap at everything’, ‘Nothing ever goes right for me’, and ‘I will always end up doing badly anyway.’ This is the pattern of the ‘catastrophiser’.
A more optimistic adolescent will still feel bad when they fail an essay and yet come to the conclusion that it was just the essay on the day that failed, not every thing else in their life—or maybe they needed to spend more time on the next essay.
The third dimension is the ‘personal’ where individuals decide ‘Who is at fault?’ When bad things happen individuals can blame themselves (internal) or they can blame other people or circumstances (external).
Adolescents are brilliant at blaming others for things that go wrong especially siblings and parents! Accepting responsibility for your own choices and actions is the sign of an emotionally mature person, which is something adolescents are still working on achieving. Too much of either way of thinking is unhealthy—always blaming the self, or always blaming others.
Parents need to be mindful when using an explanatory style of communication with children, particularly adolescents, that it avoids doing the permanent, the pervasive and personal.
10 tips when correcting your adolescent’s behaviour to help avoid developing pessimistic thinking
- Be accurate with blame – guide them to decide where their blame lies, if there is any.
- Use optimistic explanatory style – avoid any hint of permanent (always, never) and stick to just one incident, on one day.
- Avoid any criticism that hints they are flawed in other ways. Avoid global statements like, ‘All teachers are bad’, ‘Alcohol sucks’ or ‘Every time you come home you leave your stuff everywhere’; stick to specifics like, ‘Mr Jones can be unreasonable’, or ‘You enjoy parts of school’, or ‘Sometimes I get annoyed when you find it hard to take your things to your room and you leave them on the kitchen floor.’
- Their thinking patterns are seeking further validation – avoid minimalising their communication.
- Avoid adding to their catastrophising, making fun of their view of the world or correcting how they see the world – just interrupt their story with as much love as possible.
- Avoid making judgements on events and happenings – things are not necessarily good or bad, they just ‘are.’ This is when we place a judgement on an event and our thoughts then create a perception that then creates emotions; remember, ‘This too will pass’
- Learn to say sorry when there has been a genuine error on an individual’s part – model this as adults.
- Avoid using non-literal words like ‘don’t’ – consider the effect when someone says, ‘Don’t think of a blue elephant.’
- Conclude any communication with your adolescent with the question, ‘What can you learn from what this experience?’
- Reassure them that no matter what, you will love them – the good, the bad and the ugly.
It is helpful to guide both children and adolescents to focus on what they can learn from each happening or experience, rather than waste time judging it. If someone is mean to them, they can learn how that feels and so they can learn to be more empathetic and understanding. Also focus more on what you want, rather than what you don’t want!
Giving Feedback to Adolescents
There is an art to giving feedback to adolescents that allows them to embrace feedback enthusiastically and avoid being crippled emotionally. The adolescent psyche is so sensitive to criticism that often the amygdala sets up an emotional hijacking so quickly that they freeze their auditory channel and they never hear a word of anything that sounds like criticism. We need to be able to give them feedback at times to help them grow in their ability to make better choices and to overcome failure or less than optimal results.
A good way to do this is to use what we call a feedback sandwich where you put a great affirming message (top and bottom) around a piece of constructive criticism. For example, a parent might say to their son who’s not been completing his homework projects: “John I have been observing lately how much effort you are making to improve your school grades. You still need to focus on using your time at night more efficiently and bring your homework diary home more often. However, it’s been a terrific turn, and I am really happy for you to see this change. Well done”. This gives the adolescent mind a chance to hear it without shutting down into survival mode.
Finally just a few suggestions for optimistic circuit breakers that can help diffuse a huge disappointment or setback. These work for anyone – with or without an adolescent unfinished brain.
- That’s a ‘bugger’ moment!
- Someone else needed it more than me
- Tomorrow is another day.
- This won’t go down in history as my finest hour!
- I must have needed to learn this lesson now.
- What a gift this will be in a few days.
- Thank goodness I have clean undies on.
- When all else fails, there’s always chocolate.
- This too will pass.
Adults need to be creative in how they help adolescents broaden their perspective and loosen the grip of their story.
Remember what worked for you when you were on the bumpy road to adulthood, and offer unconditional positive regard and consideration.
We hate to have adolescents waste the precious years of their youth, and yet we all know lots of adults who are wasting the precious years of their life being grumpy, unhappy and full of blame.
Cultivating optimistic communication with your adolescent may just change your life.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Maggie Dent’s 2010 book, Saving Our Adolescents: Supporting Today’s Adolescents through the Bumpy Ride to Adulthood.