Ahh, the good ole’ adolescents! This blog has been long overdue for me and I am really excited to write about the ways I think adults can be better at supporting the voice and autonomy of adolescents. You might be thinking, why would I propose such a thing!? Well, let me explain. Aside from working with adolescents in my private practice, I am also a contracted therapist at a middle school. This has allowed me to be a guest in the adolescent world and during my stay I have learned a lot from their perspectives.
As their guest, I noticed that in some shape or form adolescents commonly believe that adults don’t understand, assume negative things about them, and do not provide them with an opportunity to explain. I wanted to bring awareness to these concerns because they were voiced frequently. I felt a responsibility to bring some insight to the adolescent world in order to spark change. These concerns are a great topic of exploration because they can be learning experiences for us adults. For the remainder of the blog, I am going to discuss my take on why adolescents may come to these conclusions and how as adults we can be better.
Let’s begin with the idea that adults do not understand. You might be thinking, “But I do understand! I have been there before!”. If you are thinking this, well frankly I think that is where the problem begins. One of the philosophies I have carried as a therapist is to never assume anything about a client. If I assume that I know, not only does this reduce my curiosity but it also places me in a place where I cannot learn any further. As adults, I think we can be better at practicing our curiosity with adolescents. I say this because we can assume a lot about what they go through since we have lived through it before. But the thing is, we know the adolescent stage through our perception only. While similar events happen to all adolescents, there are unique events as well as cultural, gender, and generational factors that shape one’s experience. Everyone experiences adolescence differently and I would challenge adults to learn more about the perspective of adolescents.
One of the best things I practice in my work with adolescents is that I allow them to teach me. I think more adults should make an effort to learn from adolescents rather than give them lessons all the time. I suspect adolescents feel like adults do not understand because of the way we show our expertise. I’m thinking of the times adults minimize the problems of adolescents. I do believe that when adults do this, it comes out of a helping nature. We understand that what happens in adolescence is not the end of the world. But guess what!? Adolescents do not have that understanding yet. They only know what they have lived and developmentally, they have not learned how to manage intense emotions. So when adults say things like “Get over it” or “There are people with worse problems” we place ourselves in a position of not fully understanding. Such statements can show a lack of empathy towards what the adolescent feels and what is important to them.
Moving on to the second most common concern that I noticed. Adolescents often speak about adults assuming negative things about them. You might be thinking, “Yeah, with good reason!”. And yes, while this can be true, what happens when it is not? What about the times adolescents are telling the truth but an adult doesn’t believe them? This is a crappy feeling for them and it makes them want to act out even more out of frustration. I understand how sometimes adolescents do not help their case. They truly can make it tough for adults to trust them. But I also think it’s hard out here for a teen and I think adults forget that. In my opinion, there are a lot of factors that influence adults to assume negatively about adolescents. I particularly would like to focus on factors that we might be unaware of.
Let’s think about the stereotypes and labels tied to an adolescent. When we think of the word adolescent, we think of words like impulsive, angry, mean, troublemaker, and emotional. These words not only place a premeditated belief in our minds but it also influences many to treat adolescents accordingly. As a result, adolescents becomes boxed in. Labels are dangerous because they have the power to heavily influence an adolescent. It also increases the chances for assumptions. And again, while some of the labels might hold some truth, adolescents are much more than these words. Adolescents can also be lovely, kind, generous, thoughtful, and reasonable. Language becomes very important when describing adolescents and I encourage adults to be mindful of their words. If you think about it, language creates our reality. If we often believe someone is up to no good, then we will not only begin expecting for them to act in such a way but we also start looking for our evidence.
Another way adults can work on assumptions is by seeing adolescents in a better light. John Gottman has a term called “Negative Sentiment Override” in his work with couples which basically means that a partner sees their relationship in a negative lens due to the way problems are internalized. I think adults have a lot of negative sentiment override with adolescents, especially when there are behavior concerns involved. I would encourage adults to work on this negative lens. Adolescents are not perfect and can be frustrating. But, so can adults. Give an adolescent the space to explain where they came from rather than assume negatively.
This brings me to the third most common concern. Adolescents also often voiced feeling as though adults hardly provided them with the opportunity to explain. In their perception, they are more likely to be met with some sort of punishment or accusation first. This made me think of the times adults are not perfect and express their worry, frustration, fear, sadness, anger, and need to protect in a way that doesn’t allow an adolescent to have a voice. I like to think that most adults mean well in such situations, so I kept thinking to myself what may contribute to this feeling.
Here is what I came up with. The adult and adolescent relationship is a hierarchical one. As adults, we are on top of the hierarchy which means the adult and adolescent relationship is also one of a power struggle. In my opinion, adults need to start being more mindful of the power they have over adolescents based on this hierarchical system our society lives by. I do want to make it clear that when I make this point, I am not saying that adults should never use their hierarchical position. It will be needed during times of discipline, protection, and guidance. What I am saying is that our position of authority should not make an adolescent feel like they cannot explain or have a voice because that can make them feel really small.
I would encourage adults to steer away from phrases like “because I said so”, “because I am the adult”, or “you do what I say when I say it”. Such statements ingrain the belief that an adult is superior over a child in a negative manner. It gives the message that they are not worth an explanation or conversation. Taking the time to have a conversation uplifts the adolescent into a place of worth and is crucial to any adult and adolescent relationship.
While this blog only covered the areas of concerns that were brought to my attention, I am hoping this inspires adults to reflect on their actions and whether or not they require adjustments. As a family therapist, I’ve been a witness to the frustration of both sides. I know what misunderstandings and miscommunication can do to the relationship of an adult and adolescent. But more importantly, I hope this goal initiates conversations that help bridge adults and adolescents closer to a place where they can feel as though they are part of the same team.
As mentioned earlier, I believe this is a great topic of conversation. Please let me know your thoughts! Feel free to comment below or send me an email at [email protected]