Adolescents rely on a variety of relationships outside family to pave their entry to independence and the larger world. Helping adults charged with guiding adolescents through their development come in many varieties.
Whether you are a teacher, mentor, tutor, trainer, coach, doctor, dentist/orthodontist, probation officer, camp counselor or after-school care provider, adolescents have something to learn from their time with you. In each of these roles, the common denominator influencing adolescents to embrace assistance is how they feel about the helping adult.
Attention to the relationship with adolescents can make or break a successful outcome. Adults who choose to work with adolescents do so knowing the tremendous satisfaction that shaping the life of a young person can bring. Adolescents can also bring challenges to the work.
The words of adolescents themselves support the relationship as a primary factor contributing to effective work with teens (just ask one), as do extensive research studies.
Teachers see greater performance from students, therapists and counselors see greater engagement in the change process, coaches see greater heartfelt and skillful play from their athletes, youth workers and mentors experience greater cooperation from the youth they serve, and physicians inspire treatment compliance from patients. All by putting effort into the value of the relationship with the adolescents they serve.
If we are to be effective with teens, we have to sell what we have to offer and value their self-determination. With greater connection to adolescents and a more secure working relationship, teens absorb more of what we have to offer and achieve greater outcomes. Research also shows a powerful reciprocal benefit. Helping adults who value their working relationships report greater job satisfaction, translating to lower stress, a greater sense of well-being and an overall more enjoyable experience in their work.
Professionals working with adolescents can use the relationship effectively in their work by deliberately exhibiting specific skills that demonstrate respect, authenticity, kindness, predictability and acceptance. Research in each of these areas provides evidence that communicating these qualities strengthens the working relationship and improves outcomes toward achieving growth and learning goals.
Respect: Teens are excruciatingly sensitive to being treated with respect. At the same time they are quick to judge and often misinterpret. Adults who make a difference to an adolescent communicate their inherent value in a direct manner. They are able to set limits effectively, give feedback and hold the bar high because they do it respectfully.
Authenticity: Teens can smell a phony from a mile away. Effective adults are those who are real. They use their sense of humor, communicate their own limitations and are honest and genuine. At the same time they maintain a professional identity and appropriate boundaries. They successfully model “being yourself,” the elusive and complex goal that adolescents are working to achieve.
Kindness: Young people respond to compassion and warmth. The adolescent social world can be cruel and sarcastic. Adults who are unwaveringly kind in reinforcing positive behaviors and in setting appropriate limits provide a safe harbor for teens who are typically self-conscious and uncomfortable in their own skin.
Predictability: Unpredictability increases anxiety and directs attention away from tasks while predictability fosters productivity and innovation. Teens experience less stress, enabling learning and growth when adults in their lives behave in a manner that is dependable.
Acceptance: When teens feel accepted they are better able to do the challenging work they face in school, on the field or in the counselor’s office. Adults who communicate a deep acceptance of the young people in their charge are more effective at building relationships that make a difference. Effective helping adults communicate and model that every human being is flawed, which makes us relatable and real.
Change: Studies show that teens appreciate being pushed beyond their perceived capabilities — this is where change occurs. When we demonstrate respect, authenticity, kindness, predictability and acceptance, adolescents are more open to change. When change occurs, we all win.
Adults who work with adolescents are in a unique position to display these underlying relationship skills, which can be learned, cultivated and fine-tuned through deliberate practice. Attending to our working relationships with teens gets results. It also does something much more expansive. It shapes a culture of caring, competence, connection and a generation who will know how to treat others, peacefully solve problems and radically change the world — one relationship at a time.
Britt H. Rathbone is a clinical social worker and adolescent mental health expert. He oversees an adolescent-focused mental health practice and is the co-author of “What Works with Teens” and “Dialectical Behavior Therapy for At-Risk Adolescents: A Practitioner’s Guide to Treating Challenging Behavior Problems.” Julie B. Baron, LCSW-C, is a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating adolescents and their families at Rathbone and Associates in Rockville, Md. She is the co-author of “What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.”