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Teenagers & Change: The Battle Within

Two weeks ago I met a man who had retired his duty as teen mentor after less than one year on the job. He claimed that it was too much of a battle without enough proof that the time he spent with these teens really made any difference. He felt discouraged by what he perceived to be a lack of positive change in the lives of these young people and frustrated that despite his best efforts, many of these youth continued on in destructive ways.

As he spoke, I couldn’t help but reflect back on my own experiences as a youth mentor and major supporter of our biggest youth mentor: The Parent.

Most often parents come to me at war with their teen. They strongly desire their teen to change and it is always helpful to recognize that this change rarely occurs easily or spontaneously. Rather, a psychologist by the name of Prochaska has identified these six distinct stages of change that outline this complex and multi-step process: Pre-Contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance, and Termination.

I have found that understanding these stages in depth is paramount to staying out of the battle field with teens and still promoting change in their lives. Teenagers, like all people, rarely change behaviors without having the impetus to do so. This impetus most commonly comes in the form of physical, mental, or emotional pain. This is the crux of the reason why promoting change in teens is so difficult. The behavior of theirs deemed destructive, harmful, or undesirable has not yet had the opportunity to wreak enough havoc on their life to where they can make the connection.

In fact, many teens will remain in the Pre-contemplation stage, with no understanding that a problem with their behavior exists. But under good circumstances a teen is able to recognize how their behavior could be considered undesirable and they can then start to contemplate a change.

Promoting the shift from Pre-Contemplation to Contemplation is where I spend the majority of my efforts with youth and parents. Specifically, my work with parents centers on setting boundaries around undesirable behaviors and promoting patience and understanding during this sometimes lengthy process of change. When parents set clear boundaries around undesirable behaviors, the enforcement of these boundaries often promotes the shift by creating that impetus of pain.

Kids without boundaries, lack of enforced boundaries, or lack of accountability in their actions are all allowed to continue in destructive patterns without feeling the ‘pain’ of their decisions. Likewise, when parents resist the urge to rescue their children, they allow them to experience the true consequences of their actions. Most importantly, parents must combine this ‘experimental learning’ with the clear, heartfelt message that they care no matter what. This provides kids with the firm and loving discipline that kids need to make educated decisions about their own lives.

Teenagers eventually learn, like we all do, what works in life and what doesn’t. While our job as parents is to safe-guard them from decisions that can cause lasting physical harm (seatbelts, drunk-driving, adolescent drug use) we must champion our children’s own innate ability to make decisions for themselves. However normal, adult frustration during this process lacks any real benefit to both parent and child. As tempting as it is for a fully-formed adult to push kids through a short-cut to youth development, our teens strongly remind us that they have a pace all their own. As we respect that pace and communicate our absolute belief in their potential, teenagers learn that the only battle they have to win is the one raging within themselves.

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