Developing Respect in the Adult-Teen Relationship

Last week we presented a round-up of research that illustrated how important respect is to teens, and suggested that adolescents learn respect by receiving respect. But developing the ability to both experience respect for the adolescents we work with and display that respect in effective ways does not always come easily. While there are teens we naturally develop fondness for, there are also many who we find irritating, triggering, or even repulsive. Working on ways to cultivate a respectful attitude toward the adolescents who are naturally tougher to like will often lead to genuine displays of respect.

Adolescents are proficient at eliciting frustration, anger, and upset. It is in these emotional moments that preserving dignity, theirs and ours, is most challenging and critical. Dignity is self-respect, the recognition that we are worthy. To foster it in teens, we must always engulf our responses in the protective arms of respect, no matter what mistakes are made, what marks are missed, or what willfulness is exhibited. When the adolescents entrusted to our care feel that no matter what they say or do, they are worthy of respect, we stand a better chance of reaching them in a meaningful way.

When adults demonstrate respect to adolescents, we communicate that they have value. An example of how dignity is either maintained or destroyed, expressed repeatedly by adolescents we interviewed, is the notion that some adults “play favorites.” Ask yourself honestly if you ever do this. While it is natural to be drawn to some adolescents over others for our own personal reasons, the way we express those feelings can make a monumental difference in the experience of adolescents who are still developing their sense of self-worth.

Teenagers know when adults are treating them as if they matter less than others. When this happens, their dignity is being jeopardized. Even those who report feeling favored express enormous conflict or discomfort from being “chosen” over their peers. It’s easy to pick up signals that an adult is playing favorites, whether this is demonstrated through expectations, rewards, or just tone of voice. It can be helpful in our efforts to cultivate dignity to remember that, generally speaking, adolescents are doing the best they can with what they have and under their current circumstances. As we accept thisreality, we also help them do better, recognize their own talents and gifts, and improve their efforts toward achieving their goals.

There are many ways to develop and show respect for adolescents. Ultimately, our goals are to:

  1. experience and express respect for the challenges inherent in adolescent development;

  2. make efforts to decipher the functions of various behaviors so we can respect the value in it for a teen, however misdirected;  

  3. understand whatever deficits may inhibit expected behaviors;

  4. recognize and respect that teens’ motivations may not match ours; and

  5. find unique strengths that may be hidden behind the tasks we're focused on.

The first thing we need to accept is that there will be times in all adolescents’ lives when they will be disrespectful. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to accept that it will occur. Anticipating and accepting occasional disrespectful behavior as a developmental norm, a way for teens to meet their needs, and an act of empowerment will help us depersonalize what can feel like a painful sting. As humans, we are wired to defend ourselves when we feel that sting. But our adult defenses can come across to an adolescent as demeaning, or as a power play, or as a threat. When adolescents sense those things, they do what evolution has taught them—they flee (withdraw, avoid, or passively do not comply) or they fight (tell you off, make disrespectful faces or gestures, disrupt the task at hand, or make threats). Either way, the result is like a dog chasing its tail—a circular power struggle that leads nowhere productive. If you can maintain an unflinching awareness of the challenges inherent in being an adolescent with a still-developing brain, immature emotion management skills, and unevenly developed problem-solving skills, you will find it easier to respond respectfully, no matter how triggering the behavior may be.

A critical step for building empathy, and ultimately respect, is seeking an understanding of why a particular adolescent behaves the way she does.  Understanding why disrespectful behavior occurs is about seeing what purpose that behavior serves for the adolescent, which in turn allows us to develop empathy, respond effectively, and model the respectful behavior adolescents need to experience firsthand in order to learn. When we respond with understanding (or attempts at understanding, even if we’re not quite there), the adolescent begins to see value in our efforts after all.

Review the events that occur before and after the behavior. This is best done collaboratively with the adolescent, for several reasons: it shows a desire to learn; it communicates that we don’t always know the answers but that there is a way to figure them out; and, above all, it is the respectful thing to do.

When you look at the adolescent’s behavior with wonder, rather than with judgment, the reasons become clearer, the escalating power struggle is eliminated, and a working relationship that has an impact develops.

Another question to consider when becoming exasperated with teens’ disrespectful behavior is whether they have the skills to behave in the ways we want. We sometimes mistakenly assume that the ability exists and they are choosing not to use it. Many an adolescent will elect to look “bad” rather than appear “stupid,” and if we respond only to the “bad” behaviors we may be missing the mark.

Most of us make assumptions based on appearances and in doing so adolescents often fool us. Their physically mature bodies and voices belie their immaturity and uneven social, emotional, and cognitive development. Because their disrespectful behavior can escalate our own emotions, making it more difficult for us to think clearly and respond effectively, we often inadvertently make things worse. Keeping in mind that adolescents are usually not as sophisticated as they appear and that their behavior tends to be impulsive and unskilled allows us to put that behavior in perspective, and tease out the lack of skills so we can teach them the behaviors necessary for success.

For more about What Works with Teens, check out Britt Rathbone, MSSW, LCSW-C, and Julie Baron, MSW, LCSW-C’s new book.

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