How to Teach a Teenager



I had a parent of a 10th grader talk to me about how his son is not doing well in a particular class. His son is afraid to speak with the teacher because he is embarrassed about not doing well. Like many students (and their parents) he is reluctant to show the rest of the world his lack of knowledge.


The father did tell me something about himself that was inspiring. He told me that when he found out he didn’t know something or wasn’t very good at something it was an opportunity for him to learn. He actually got excited when he found out he didn't know something. He valued and enjoyed learning new things. Sadly, he told me, he was not able to instill his joy to his child and was lamenting about how to do so.


The good news was he was able to accept his own not knowing and hold it as an opportunity and not a deficit. But, how to instill that in his teenager? He had a late start, but I suggested to him that whenever he noticed that he or his child did not know something to make sure to proclaim his delight. Demonstrate to his child how to turn that deficit into opportunity. And, while he was at it, see if he could pass that along to the rest of the world.


So many of us think we need to know what we have yet to learn. We don't like showing others our lack of knowledge and ability. We also don't like admitting to ourselves that we are not as accomplished as we would like to be. Yet, this father had come to terms with his own lack of knowledge and had even been able to recast it as an opportunity. His personal joy in his ability was matched by his disappointment in not being able to transfer that ability to his child.


His disappointment is shared by many parents. As adept as some parents are at infusing their child with some of their own talents/interests/abilities and values, most parents also know the pain of seeing their child be hesitant or falter in an area where they don’t. I can’t take away this pain because it is real and needs to be honored. Our children are no more perfect than we are. We want them to be all things, have wonderful lives and be better than we are. And, in some ways they are and perhaps in others ways they are not.


One thing parents often neglect to take into account is they are looking at their child from their adult point of view. Your child is still evolving and I imagine there are behaviors ascribed to your teen years which no longer are part of your repertoire. Your child will continue to mature. Their teenage behavior, like yours, will adapt itself through time. Risky behavior diminishes and social skills increase.


Yes, time will change us all. Our teenagers grow up, become more responsible and some of the worries we had about them dissipate while others remain. As our children grow our influence diminishes and I have had many a parent come into my office with a heavy sigh of exasperation at their inability to affect change with their teen. How do I get them to be more responsible? Spend less time gaming and on social media? How do I get them to study more? Be more (or less) social? There is no shortage of ways we would like our children to improve.


Fortunately, I do have a few suggestions about how to teach your teenager new behaviors. Unfortunately they all revolve around you.


Let’s get the easy ones out of the way. Easy for me to say, harder for you to do. Be the model. If you want your children to act a certain way or do a certain thing make sure you are doing your own version of that. Children have great antennae for hypocrisy. Parents often don’t do as they say, children see through that, and know that the behavior they are being asked to uphold is not really that important, because if it were you would be doing it. Walk the walk. Or focus on something else as your efforts to get them to be one way while you are another has a very low chance of working. If you are checking your text messages while eating with your child, consider holding off and showing them it is possible for you to do what you are asking them to do.


Whatever it is you wish your child would do more of you need to shift your focus away from what they are not doing and look at what they are doing. If you want them to study more, do not continue to point out all times they are not studying. Instead find those occasions when they are studying and in 30 seconds or less say something akin to: “It really is nice to see you studying.” Then walk away.


Emphasize the behaviors you want and de-emphasize the behaviors you don’t want. You may recall, if you had a child that wet the bed or sucked their thumb past what you thought was the appropriate age, your doctor probably told you to make it a non-issue. Focusing on the undesired behavior, only made it worse. The fundamental rules still apply. Ignore the unwanted behaviors to the best of your ability and reward the ones of which you approve. Even though it may not seem so at times, your children still want your approval and do not want to disappoint you. But, if you keep pointing out your disappointments they will get discouraged and accept your negative attention as at least some form of attention which is better than no attention.


And, here is the last thing you can do to help your teen modify their behavior. You can sit down with them, and without raising your voice or demeaning them, explain to them why this matters to you. If you can explain something in terms that they can understand you have a chance of them buying in. Try to show them why this desired behavior is in their best interest and how it will help them.


If they need to change their behavior just to please you or live up to your expectations there is not going to be much incentive for them. They have probably already learned that you see their shortcomings more than their accomplishments. Your being a hard person to please will going to leave them wanting to please someone else. Namely themselves. Which is, ultimately, more important to them and, maybe even you.

#parenting #teenagers #reinforcement

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