When working with teens, we have to remember that there are reasons that teens act the way they do. How can we maximize the positive aspect of these major adolescent characteristics? Let’s consider a few strategies:

1. Caring relationships

Regardless of history or background, having a safe, supportive relationship with an adult is a key factor in promoting positive development in adolescents. Studies have shown that, in light of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, the presence of just one safe and supportive adult in a child’s life could mitigate the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences. One. That could be you! Don’t believe us? Watch one of our favorite videos from educator Rita Pierson on the importance of caring relationships for our children and teens (Rita Pierson's TED Talk).

2. Modeling good behavior

Adolescents are literally shaping themselves based on the examples around them. Scientific findings indicate that growing human brains are dependent on mature brains (e.g. that of adults) to jumpstart the regulation of their physical and emotional systems (Montgomery, 2013). This dyadic relationship continues through childhood and adolescence until the young person is able to independently self-regulate. If you’re able to utilize effective self-regulation and executive functioning skills, adolescents will learn from you. Seeing examples of positive, adaptive behaviors enables the learning of adolescents to intentionally practice these skills, as well.

3. Give choices, give space

Remember adolescents are learning how to be independent adults. You can foster that development by giving adolescents choices of actions or behavior, allowing them space to think through the consequences, and stepping back to let them make their own decisions and see the natural consequences of their decisions (only where safe and appropriate, of course).

4. Authoritative parenting / teaching styles

Research on parenting has found that “authoritative parenting,” characterized by high control and high warmth, is the most effective with children and adolescents. This simply means the parent (or teacher) has well-established rules and limits that are clearly communicated to the child/adolescent, but they are also clearly communicating messages of love, support, and acceptance. This style is in contrast to Authoritarian parenting (high control, low warmth), Permissive (low control, high warmth), and Neglectful (low control, low warmth), all of which lead to less than ideal outcomes for the child in question.

5. "Chase the Why"

Taken from the book of Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne-Bryson, No Drama Discipline, this strategy emphasizes a curious stance when encountering difficult behaviors with children and adolescents. Rather than immediately reacting and doling out consequences for “bad behavior” or “bad choices,” explore, and help the individual you’re working with to explore the reasons behind his/her behavior. Once we understand the reason behind a behavior, often an unmet need, we can help brainstorm alternative ways of seeking what this individual is looking for.

6. Repair harm (apologize)

So simple, and so profound. When you make a mistake with your adolescent child or student, apologize. Again, you are modeling positive social-emotional skills. If you want this young individual to be able to apologize for their wrongdoings, they have to see how it’s done, and you have to show them. So, even in the most trivial of circumstances, take a deep breath, and apologize for your role in whatever conflict, mistake, or harm that was done (e.g. yelling, being suspicious, embarrassing the person). The adolescent will likely be surprised at this show of humbleness and authenticity, and may feel comfortable talking more about their own role in the situation. No less, they begin to understand and internalize positive ways of handling difficult situations, as mentioned above. Authentic conversations like these can open the door to stronger relationships and deeper learning for everyone involved.

Above all, remember that adolescence has a purpose. Even recalling this basic fact can help shift your perspective on the daily goings-on of these individuals. Try a few of these strategies out and see how it changes your relationship with an adolescent.

Additional reading/resources:


Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Penguin

Guare R., Dawson, P., & Guare, C. (2013). Smart, but Scattered Teens. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Montgomery, A. (2013). Neurobiology Essentials for Clinicians. New York, NY: Norton.

Siegel D. & Bryson, T.P. (2014). No Drama Discipline. New York, NY: Bantam

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