What I Learn From Teens

What I Learn From Teens

I'm in love with Y.E.T. I get to watch people as young as 12 take on positive communication skills and like their world more.

Some of you reading know what I'm talking about -- you sent your kid to Youth Effectiveness Training because your relationships got easier after you took Parent Effectiveness Training. Some know little because your son or daughter signed up entirely on their own. Others are just curious -- maybe you're deciding whether to bring Y.E.T. to your school.

Let me share what I gain, relay some messages I've rounded up from my participants, and make a plea.

Self-disclosure Pays Off 

The first session calls for ice-breakers. In one, participants sift through cards to introduce themselves to the entire group. In another -- after we acknowledge that some were most definitely cajoled into attending -- they tell a partner their goal for taking the course.

A few want to learn to manage their explosive temper. Several long to get better at confrontation. One's goal was "to become a better child."

This spins a virtuous circle as others open up. Far from pressuring to be "cool," the kids give each other permission to be real and get to work.

When people trust others with information about themselves, they take a risk worth taking.

A Time-out Leads to Feeling More In Control 

When did you last decide to disconnect from screens, make new friends (or get to know old ones better) and reflect? 

Within the first hour of the course, teens consider: 

How do I feel when my needs aren't met?

What do I do about it?

What do I want to do about it?

We learn that, when we pay attention to what really is going on inside us, the urge to blame or retaliate fades. I gently call out teens when they say things like, "She made me annoyed." or "He ruined my day." Y.E.T. is about owning our emotional responses.

After lots of shots at role-plays, action plans, charades to convey feelings and plain old discussion, many feel more in the driver's seat, thrilled that relationships don't have to be so hard. 

Teens Really Want Smooth Relationships

Duh, Catherine!

But I was struck by the truthfulness and effort they show to get them.

One girl wasn't sure where it came from but she knew her go-to strategy for resolving conflict was not helpful -- how would silence convey what she was upset about? Another shared that when she is angry she lashes out so that the other person is as unhappy as she. She also owned up to some hypocrisy -- she demands others' full attention but surfs the web when they speak to her. 

The kids plunge into the long list of feelings, pulling out discombobulated, apathetic, displeased, helpless, fragile, self-conscious, insecure, panicked, torn and lost. They experience how some words feel just right and how an honest I-Message outweighs any "victory" they gain from a blameful You-Message.

Many start using the skills right away, with parents, siblings and friends. One even regularly diffuses classroom tension by Active Listening his teacher!

The kids have a practice tip for parents: Try sending Confrontive I-Messages electronically. We come across as less angry and they keep their cool better with time to type. That's just one example of how Y.E.T. kids want to do their part so the confrontation bears the right kind of fruit. 

Kids Have Faith in the Good

Teens, like adults, like to hear that, really, all behavior is just to meet needs. (Thomas Gordon disputes the notion of "misbehavior.")

We may disagree with what someone says or does and assert ourselves when it interferes with our needs. But we can let go of assumptions and hug the idea that people are doing something FOR themselves, rather than doing something TO us (taking advantage, manipulating or simply being mean).

One teen commented, "Oh, when I actually got that my friend just needed self-esteem I felt more understanding because I have the same need."

I'm glad for these young people, spared the zero-sum mentality I lugged around for decades.

Kids Want Parents to Trust Them Too

Teens know that it's hard to look past what their sibling or buddy does to see their underlying need but they are game -- they want to be graced with that benefit of the doubt when the tables are turned.

So naturally, they want to say to moms and dads:

  • Don't assume the worst.
  • Trust us. (They are not online to send us to an early grave; maybe they need to connect, clarify a homework question or decompress.)
  • We are human and make mistakes. (Can you support us when we mess up because we already feel terrible!)
  • Respect privacy and please don't force communication. (Kids crave patient signaling that we will be there when they are ready to open up. 

Now this is no piece of cake! Shifting from anxious problem-solver to a "You got this" mom has meant serious work for me. (See my last point below.)

Teens Want to be Warmly Connected to Us

When they practice confrontation and problem-solving, participants see how accurately describing behavior leads to calmer interactions. 

That behavior signifies something more than a label or phase works in everyone's favor. Kids Active Listen their parents, which feels much nicer than a grumbled "cranky middle aged jerk" or "You must be PMSing!" 

And now something that always hurt hurts a little more: parents writing them off as "moody teenagers." Like "terrible twos," "hormonal," "middle child," "typical boy" or "attention seeking," the pidgeon holing blinds us to their needs and experience. 

Beyond forgetting labels, they want us to be better listeners and to resolve conflict the Y.E.T. way (aka Method III Problem Solving). Blowing our top is upsetting no matter how nonchalant they appear; using power breeds resentment.

I think we all want what Gordon describes: "an authentic relationship -- two real persons, willing to be known in our realness to each other." (Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 137).

If kids, however, don't feel we accept their true selves, they will seek close connection elsewhere. Friendships are important, no doubt. But offering ourselves as a secure base is imperative.

If mattering to peers is what matters most, there will be frustration around every corner: calls not returned, being overlooked or ignored, being replaced by another, being slighted or put down. A child can never rest securely in the sense that he is accepted or thought special by his peers. Furthermore, peer relationships rarely can withstand a child’s true psychological weight. The child must edit herself constantly, being careful not to reveal differences or disagree too vehemently. Anger and resentment must be swallowed if closeness is to be preserved. There is no secure home base, no shield from stress, no forgiving love, no commitment to rely on, no sense of being intimately known in the peer relationship . . .
Until children become capable of independent self-appraisal, our duty is to give them such powerful affirmation that they will not be driven to look elsewhere. Such affirmations go much deeper than positive phrases of love and praise — they must emanate from our very being and penetrate to the child’s core, allowing her to know that she is loved, welcomed, enjoyed, celebrated for her very existence, regardless of whatever “good” or “bad” she may be presenting us with in any given moment.
— Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate, Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, pages 131, 251

Tough stuff. We never knew parenting might ask for a tenacious reversal of patterns. Or humility -- "I'm sorry, let me try again." Or developing strategies besides badgering or complaining that they're not talking.

Kids Need Support 

These teens work hard.

 When the same skills are taught in P.E.T., parents struggle. True, adults are more set in their ways; on the other hand, a fully formed prefrontal cortex shows up at age 25.

When the same skills are taught in P.E.T., parents struggle. True, adults are more set in their ways; on the other hand, a fully formed prefrontal cortex shows up at age 25.

Some are lucky -- they take the course with friends who will whisper, "Hey, send an I-Message!" or check, "Do you want me to Active Listen or do you want my advice?"

Others -- buoyed only by an 18 hour respite where they got to glimpse another reality -- reenter a world defined by winners and losers, full of blame and shame and "I get the last word."

I want to perch myself on their shoulders where I can cheer them: "Keep it up! Who owns the problem here? Ok, what skill do you want to use?" I would Active Listen them always if I could.

But besides being impossible, that's not even ideal. The best way to help kids maintain these healthy social skills is to make it a family affair.

  • When parents hit pause to choose an approach, we model self-regulation.
  • Instead of barging in as referee, deciding who fouled whom, we can Active Listen each angry sibling; that compassion is what lets them consider the other's perspective and move toward resolution.
  • When we say our needs matter no more than theirs, that's keeping the Y.E.T. flame alive in a huge way.

Swimming alone upstream means a Y.E.T. kid can get lost. And tired. Jump in and create a buddy system. Together, the skills get easier quicker and you'll find yourselves spending more time in waters that are fresh and calm. 

Learn more:

P.E.T. -- Hong Kong's Gordon Parenting website, Gordon Training International website page, three kids' perspective (guess who?)

Y.E.T. -- GTI website page, Facebook page

Credits: Brene Brown quote (http://www.azquotes.com/picture-quotes/quote-vulnerability-is-not-weakness-and-that-myth-is-profoundly-dangerous-vulnerability-is-brene-brown-82-47-98.jpg).