When it comes to helping our teens achieve success in their academic, social, and future professional lives, it has been proven that relationships with significant adults matter, and that as adults, it’s on us to develop a positive working alliance with youth. But how are we to truly know if our relationship is on track? And if it’s not, what do we need to do to improve it?
The best answer is to continuously evaluate the status of the relationship.
In many disciplines, the difference between someone who does her job well and someone who is exceptional is her willingness to seek feedback and make adjustments accordingly (Miller, Hubble, & Duncan, 2007; Gawande, 2011).
The most direct and natural way to elicit feedback from youth is to ask them direct questions—like “How am I doing here?” “Am I meeting your needs?” or “What can I do more of or less of to be more effective with you?”—and to communicate an openness and willingness to hear spontaneous feedback along the way.
In addition to providing us with the information we need to improve the relationship, asking for feedback also exposes our own vulnerability, which is an asset to the helping relationship. It also allows for collaboration, for solving problems together with the adolescent, greatly enhancing cooperation and commitment and creating a unique opportunity to demonstrate and teach problem-solving skills within the relationship itself.
These questions should flow naturally out of interactions with the adolescent, and they’re most effective when asked matter-of-factly, as opposed to the grave tone adults often adopt when taking on serious matters. If the relationship appears to be impaired, gently asking if the adolescent shares the perception puts the issue out in the open to be addressed.
Sometimes, young people will wave off this type of question with a breezy “everything is fine,” but either way, the seed has been planted. The teenager now knows that the adult is committed to the relationship and is willing to ask the tough questions, take responsibility for his contribution to the problem, and work hard to make improvements.
The inherent power imbalance between adult and adolescent makes obtaining accurate feedback challenging. If you think this may be an issue, you can also use anonymous feedback surveys.
This way, the teen can state his opinion honestly without fear of reprisal.
When asking for direct feedback, whether through an anonymous survey, a questionnaire in a one-on- one interaction, or a direct conversation, always take great care not to respond to the results in an impulsive, reactive, or defensive manner. If you experience yourself becoming emotionally triggered by feedback results, simply thank the adolescent for her thoughts, then set the results aside for a few hours so you can review them privately and reflect on their meaning. The emotionality will surely settle down with time, and you will be able to absorb the relevant information and use it in a more productive way.
The final step of the feedback process is to provide the adolescent with a summary of what you have learned and state your commitment to improve. It may be helpful to follow up on areas that can use some fine-tuning with additional questions about how you might do better.
Asking for and willingly receiving feedback is an essential tool for growth in any endeavor. Modeling the courage to ask for an evaluation, and then acting on the feedback in a non-defensive and productive manner is a powerful tool for developing an alliance and for making changes necessary for the relationship to grow.
For more about what works with teens, check out Britt Rathbone, MSSW, LCSW-C, and Julie Baron, MSW, LCSW-C’s new book, What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.
Gawande, A. (2011, October 3). Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you? The New Yorker. Retreived from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/10/03/personal -best
Miller, S., Hubble, M., & Duncan, B. (2007). Supershrinks: What’s the secret of their success? Psychotherapy Networker, 31(6), 26–35, 56–57.