It’s not you, it’s them. 3 ways we can support teenagers when they experience academic problems without taking the problems on as our own.
It’s report card season as I write this. At its best this means some celebration, praise, and relief. At its worst it may mean punishment, shame, and frustration. It’s that second group I’m most familiar with as an academic well-being coach. I’m the person parents will come to when they’ve tried the tutoring, the rewards and punishments to motivate, the whiteboard checklists, and late night, stress-fueled co-working to just get the work in and pass the class.
My background of 20+ years as an inclusion teacher and learning specialist at a variety of high schools has given me a front row seat to what gets in the way when a student doesn’t have access to the executive functioning skills they need to keep up with school work. This is often due to ADHD or other learning disability that weakens those skills, or a cultural and language difference from the mainstream school culture that causes a lot of friction and static between the school’s expected way of doing and being and the student’s way, or a mental illness that puts stress on the nervous system that makes those executive functioning skills a far reach to access, and finally it could be just a good ol’ dose of adolescence gumming up the works. Usually it’s a combo. Rarely is it you, the thoughtful adult who cares for them.
As adults in their lives, the good news is that we can lighten the cognitive load of those stressors to make it easier for teenagers to access the systems they need to improve focus, self-regulation, resilience, and motivation. The bad news is we sometimes add to it instead.
With good intentions, of course! We hate to see them suffering and want to fix it for them. We see their suffering as a result of our own failure as the adults in charge of their safety and well-being. So out of love and care, we try to fix it. So first, let me lighten your own cognitive load of feeling like any of those perceived failures on their part are your responsibility to fix. And then give you some ideas of what you can try instead.
It’s not you, it’s them.
When they are babies and toddlers, we will greet their stumbles and falls, their mumbles and messes as they learn to walk, talk, and feed themselves with excitement because we know this is what learning looks like at that age. But, when they are teenagers, those stumbles and messes are usually met with stress, disappointment, and frustration from the adults who once cheered them all when they fell.
It’s for a good reason. Stakes feel a lot higher. The margin for error seems more razor thin. We believe that their achievements and mistakes will either open or permanently close doors for their future success and happiness.
However, this is a stage just like in those very early years of rapid and fierce brain development. The only other time their brain will go through a major remodel. This second mental growth spurt allows their brain to become more efficient, but just like any renovation, it creates a lot of dust and upheaval first. The remodel starts at the back of the brain (the amygdala) and finishes by the time they are in their 20’s in the frontal lobe (the area associated with executive functioning). While it’s busy pruning what it doesn’t need anymore and growing thicker connections for what it does, all that growth on the inside really should look like messes and mistakes on the outside. Since the area responsible for capacities like self-monitoring, time management, and planning ahead is the last to be done with construction, the teenage brain leans heavily on that amygdala and guess what, that’s the part that’s largely associated with high emotions, aggression, and impulse.
Sound familiar? If you care for a teenager who is currently making lots of mis-steps, breathe. It’s supposed to look this way. As long as they aren’t physically hurting themselves or others, you have full permission to stand by and empathize when they fall. Go ahead and put some bumpers on those sharp edges, but let yourself off the hook for having to adopt their mistakes as your own failures. Biologically, the odds are it’s not you, it’s them.
In my 20+ years of experience, I have seen time and again that when we, the adult supports in a teen’s life, drop the pressure to ensure success for them, it leaves more space for the teen to pick up the responsibility for themselves. When we don’t make it about us, it gets to be about them.
Here are a few suggestions for how to transform the desire to fix and better align our actions with our true desire to support and nurture them for independence, happiness and success.
Curiosity over control
Sometimes our care comes out as control. We want to tell them how to organize and manage their time, how to write the essay that will get an A, how to keep themselves from “forgetting” to hand in the work. (Those are heavy, intentional quotes around forgetting as sometimes it’s less about forgetting and more about a way to exercise control when everyone else is trying to show so much “care” about how they perform. If you have tried the supports and structures without much success, try curiosity instead. Get authentically curious about what they care about, how they are feeling, how they want their life to work. Some of my favorite questions are:
- Do you want some more information or help with that or do you just want someone to hear you out?
- What’s is it about this situation you can change and what is out of your control?
- If you had a friend in a similar spot, what advice would you give them?
I also love Gabrielle Oettingen’s WOOP process which you can learn more about at woopmylife.com or in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking. It works so well in my weekly sessions with students to get them to be their own best problem solvers that I started using it at my own dinner table once a week with my family.
Get clear with yourself about the level of problem they can learn from living through on their own vs. the level of problem you truly believe is your responsibility to help them solve. I have seen a few parents and fellow coaches adopt the question, whose problem is this, as a personal mantra. My favorite book for exploring those lines is The Self Driven Child by Ned Johnson and William Strixrud. If you don’t have time to read the book, they have done lots of podcasts and you can find them easily by searching their names on your podcast carrier.
Co-Regulation in the form of self-care
Our emotions and mindsets really are contagious. Children of all ages can and will pick up on our own states of mind and being. Take care of your own nervous system because it’s way more powerful than the words we say. The good news is this is a whole lot more pleasurable and rewarding than lecturing, giving advice, or laying out a new system of rules and consequences at home.
Good therapy for yourself, mindfulness, time in nature, investing time in your own social network, these are all practices that help us be strong co-regulators when our teenagers hit the inevitable dysregulated state.
I use mindful stopping for myself when I’m being met with resistance or feel tempted to jump into a lecture and teach the process to my clients as well to help them gain perspective and self monitoring skills. The informal practice, developed by Jon Kabat Zinn, is quick and can happen without anyone even knowing you’re doing it – a big selling point with my teenage clients.
Renovations are dusty and messy. Stuff goes off schedule and requires frequent recalibration of routines and patience. But it’s their house, not yours. Therapy can be a great way to step away from the construction site of teenage-hood and cultivate the curiosity, clear boundaries and self-care that will help you and the teen you care about.
- Motivational Interviewing with Adolescents and Young Adults
- Why Teenagers Reject Parents’ Solutions to Their Problems
- Emotions Are Contagious
- How to Raise an Adult
Tricia Underwood is a former high school teacher and learning specialist turned academic well-being coach and writer. She founded Rare Bird Learning out of a desire to help students cultivate their capacity for more joy, purpose, motivation, and happiness as the pathway to greater success in school and beyond. If that sounds like something you’d like to have more of for the teenagers in your life, you can join her weekly newsletter here and check out her website for all the other good stuff she creates including a new book titled Happy Grades scheduled to be out by August 2022. She raises her own children including one teenager in Atlanta, GA where she does her best to practice what she teaches.
Guest Blog From Tricia Underwood, Rare Bird Learning LLC.