PEACE in Action

Using Multi-Track Diplomacy to Deal With Ethnic Conflict

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SPOTLIGHT on Peacemakers
Dealing with Teens — It's All About Feelings

"My English teacher really has it in for me! I hate him. No matter what I do it's wrong!"

"My parents are so pigheaded! They just don't understand me!"

These are examples of the stories I've heard through my years of hanging out with teens. What makes the teen think a teacher hates him or that the parents are incapable of understanding even the simplest of their needs? Most adults don't pay as much attention to feelings as teens do. This is the most important point for parents, teachers and youth leaders to understand. Most teen's brains simply aren't hard wired into the frontal lobe where planning and rationalizations occur. Teens are still using the amygdala, a small portion of the brain associated with gut instincts and emotions. There are hundreds of articles about this type of `teen brain.'

So what's a parent to do? Deal with the feelings. My teacher hates me, feels bad. My boy/girlfriend cheated on me, feels bad. My parents don't understand me, feels bad. Acknowledge that they are feeling like crap right now. I usually say, "Man, that really sucks!" Act as if you're in the emotion with them. Believe me, it's the fastest way to get them out of the `feeling bad' space. They finally have a sympathetic adult ear that is willing to wallow in their self-pity -- for all of one minute, maybe two.

Then start what I call Columboing. Remember the cop show Columbo with Peter Faulk -- the bumbling detective with the old beat up car and crumpled trench coat? The bad guys always thought they had one over on him until he came back with another question. "There's something I don't understand," he would say. "Could you explain how x led to y?"

With the teen, you ask them to tell you the `teacher hates me' story. You know this teacher hates you because he or she did what exactly? Who else was there? What did you say or do? What happened next? Let me get this straight, the first thing that happened was…and so and so was there. At that time you felt what?

With my teenage children, I met them where they were. Mom and Dad are already the stupidest people on the planet. Play the part. My favorite line was, "Explain it to me like I'm the densest moron in the world." With the teens at church, it's a totally different relationship. I'm one of them. Though sometimes I'll still use the `densest person' line.

Invite the teen to recall a time when they were feeling good with a teacher, any teacher. Give them time to get into the `feel good' state with teachers or parents or members of the opposite sex. Have them surround themselves with this feel good emotion about themselves. Then extend it to the offending party.

Now we can move on to my favorite part. What kind of relationship do you want to have with teachers/parents/peers? What is the perfect outcome for this particular situation?

Again the Columboing begins. Who else would be there? What would they be doing? What would the teacher or parent do? What would you do? How would that feel?

In the spiritual arena, you have an open door to talk about how love can alter any relationship. Jesus and many others have said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Of course, the first part of the equation is to love yourself or respect yourself or listen to yourself -- we can only give to others what we have. Sometimes, I'm able to get the teen to understand that their teacher/parent/peers are suffering from poor self-esteem -- hence, he/she is incapable of building up anyone else's esteem until they have built up their own. Often the teen then is able to shake off the offense and choose to see things from a brighter point of view. Another approach -- if this one teacher is difficult, the teen has several others that aren't. It's just one class.

Remember to keep focused on the feeling nature and returning that nature to a balance. If you are currently in relationships with teens that are problematic and you begin using this idea, don't expect them to warm up to you right away. If you are consistent for months at a time, refusing to fall back into the should's and don'ts and what we're thinking, your teen will come to trust your efforts as genuine. If you are a teacher, this may mean a new batch of kids. If you are a parent, start early -- when they first come home with "I hate so and so." Boil the offending person in oil, scourge them with the worst plagues or tie them to a post and whip them. Be ridiculous and your pre-teen will soon be back to feeling good and willing to let you help him solve the problem.

What if you're a parent and you already have a less than perfect relationship with your teen? Know that the teen isn't going to trust any dramatic change on your part. You have to be consistent. Save any condemnations you may have for your journal or for your therapist. Hold a picture of your teens and visualize them as successful adults, as your friends. Set reasonable limits and consequences for inappropriate action. It is not a reasonable consequence to ground a kid for not taking out the trash or cleaning their room. It is reasonable to ground a kid who was caught skipping classes, experimenting with drugs, or breaking curfew. Your place is to be a benevolent dictator. Allow some room for the teen to make his/her own decisions -- with a close eye on the risk factor.

I had a good relationship with my teenagers, which enabled me to have a great relationship with other teens. Regardless of how good your relationship is with your teen, they will never tell you everything that's going on in their lives. Make sure that there are other adults that you trust in your teen's life that he/she can turn to in times of need. Most importantly, don't violate the trust your teen has with the other adult, whether it's a guidance counselor, next-door neighbor, or youth leader. The important thing is for your teen to have someone to help them through the long passage to adulthood.

Rhodeena Gonzales has been involved with youth ministries in the Methodist Church and Unity Movement for thirty years, working primarily with pre-teens and teenagers. She has co-authored Sunday School curricula for pre-teens.

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