How Are We Programmed to See Teens?

I work with many adults who want to know more about teenagers—how they think, what they like, how to engage them.  I used to think that I could address this by simply giving solutions and ideas. Yet, I began to notice a pattern.  I would give the solutions, parents would take diligent notes and then when parents got home the solutions didn’t fit with them.  They would email me and ask me for more specific answers for their kind of kid.

I realized that this was not about the solutions, but rather, I had to de-program parents before they were even receptive to hear them!

What I mean is we are programmed to see kids a certain way.  How often have you seen movies portraying a rebellious or moody teen who breaks the rules and rolls their eyes at everything their parents say? Or songs sung by teens (usually written by adults) who are angsty at their parents?

This is actually programming us wrong.  We live up to these expectations and project them onto our kids. We are programmed to think in these terms that do not serve us! These stereotypes that we see over and over again on TV, movies and even blogs make it very difficult for adults to recognize the unique differences in our kids or the adolescents we are working with.

I stumbled upon my programming while working with clients.  I would come in with a set in my head about the kind of misbehaving teen I would encounter.  This blinded me to what was actually going on so that I could not implement the right solutions.

I had to learn to open my mind differently and switch the programming.  I want to offer you something different.

1) First and foremost you are your own best expert.

Just as we are programmed to fit our teens into certain stereotypes, I also believe that we are programmed to believe we have to listen to the experts.  As an expert, I have a bias here, but I do not want to encourage this belief.  I will offer solutions, but first and foremost, you are your own best parenting expert.  Every child is different, we are programmed to believe they are the same, with the same issues, and that every grade/drug/bullying problem is essentially the same.  I do not believe this and want to make sure that we stop that programming immediately.

2) Programmed stereotypes are also about programmed responses

Not only do we think about teens in terms of certain generalizations, we also have programmed responses to a child’s actions.  This can be yelling back, punishing, grounding or screaming.  I have noticed while working with families that parents will sometimes respond to a trigger without thinking, because ‘that is how my mom did it,’ or ‘that’s how everyone does it.’ I challenge parents I work with to think about their responses as much as their stereotypes.

*We must make a distinction between specific responses and automated responses.

What are your examples of times when you had specific responses versus automated blow-ups or shut downs? How do we make specific directed responses instead of automated or programmed responses?

3) Automated response to dispel: Expecting the worst

My grandmother used to tell a Yiddish joke:

If you dunk your glasses in poo, the roses will be brown.  It was a different take on the “Rose colored lenses theory.” She told me this to try to explain to me that if I look at things through a dirty, pessimistic lense it will be that way.  I think this is the first type of programming we are given about teens:

The teen years will be awful.

If parents are bracing themselves and expecting the worst, it makes it much more difficult for the teen years to be a positive time of growth and learning.  It also pointed out a very important point about why parents go to lectures and read blogs and still feel lost when they are at home:

*Even if you learn new solutions, if you do not get rid of the poo-colored programming, your home life will still be brown.

We can get rid of the old programming.

4) Automated response to dispel: Teens are too mysterious

Many parenting experts have this as an automated response:

“Teens will be teens.”

This hints at the first type of programming that we get from those around us: Teens cannot be figured out. I argue that if you listen and watch, they can be figured out. Teens are not a black box of mystery.  They can be figured out, they just work on a different programming system.

5) Automated response to dispel: They are more emotional

How many times have you heard “teens are so dramatic/emotional/moody”? While it is true hormones are higher during these years, we have to dispel the idea that they are ‘more emotional’ in a negative sense.  Teenagers act in their primary state. A primary state is the raw emotion itself.  When they are happy they are very happy, when they are depressed—oh boy are they down.  This makes them seem more emotional.  This is not exactly the case.  We are just comparing them to what we do and how we operate.  We operate in meta-states.

While teens operate in their primary emotions (being upset, for example), adults operate in meta-states, (they get a little upset and then step out of it and wonder why they are upset, how they got upset, how awful it is to be upset, and how guilty they feel that they are upset).  This is helpful for parents to realize when dealing with a teenager who is not responding to a meta-state during an upset.

*Teens operate in primary states, so when they are in that primary state, a parent tries to bring them out of it into a meta-state.  This is not natural for a teen and they push back, causing the parent to think the teen is being unreasonable/moody/overly dramatic.

They are just feeling the emotion, they need time for the emotion to run it’s course before meta-stating it with you or by themselves.

6) Automated response to dispel: Actions are not a thing, they are a process

A teen’s anger is not a thing, it is a sum of parts. Adults often objectify a teen’s mood or upset as a thing.  We talk about a teen’s depression or lack of motivation as if it is a single thing to be cured.  I have come to learn while working with my teen clients that I must view these as processes.  Their lack of motivation is a sum of mean teachers, disappointing grades, a really good TV show and nagging.

When looking at solutions we must embrace the process-approach so we can identify the parts or the problem, not just the problem as a whole.  This also helps us solve the problem so it seems more manageable and not get frustrated when we feel like we tried one thing (getting a better teacher) and it didn’t work (there is still lack of motivation to do the homework).  Knowing it is a process helps us understand that we have to keep trying things to fix what is going on.  Teens are recipes not rocks and it usually takes many tries, taste testing, re-do’s and botched cakes to get it right. (This is not unlike how we, as adults fix our problems, it just does not seem to translate to youth).

7) How we de-program:

This is not an easy solution.  Once we recognize the programming we have on teenagers, we can choose to make specific responses instead of automated ones.  Mostly, this involves gathering a lot of information:

-Verbal cues: How does your teen sound when they are happy? When they are stressed? What kinds of words do they use…or not use?

-Body cues: Do they have a fidget or a tick when they are feeling unloved or stressed? Does your daughter dress differently with certain groups of friends?

Gathering information is one of the most important things adults can do.  It helps us learn that they are individuals, and that we can respond properly to give them the support they need.

8) How to respond:

Once we have gathered the information we can work on forming the appropriate, specific response. You must ask yourself:

*What is the real emotional need here?

For example, when a teen is complaining about how you are being unfair with always having to do chores, it might be a emotional need to have more alone time, to get to have more choice in the house or that they feel there is unfair distribution with chores and siblings.

Once you have found the emotional response, then respond with the emotional need. For example, I know you hate doing the dishes, I do not want you to feel like you are getting more chores than everyone else.  Would it make it better if we had a family meeting to go over everyone’s chores and maybe we can rotate?

*Respond out of design not by default

9) Learn it now:

Do not wait until a crisis to build up these skills. Many people start therapy when they are already in the crisis.  Build up your skill finesse of gathering information, deprogramming and responding by approaching the emotional need before it is too late.

If you have stuck with this long article all the way until the end, I would like to end by saying:

*Being confident is being ok with confusion.

Nothing is linear, we can give you techniques, but you must listen to hear their responses.  It takes time and practice, but being a confident parent or teacher is being ok with a little back and forth and confusion on the learning process.  The more you put in, the more you will get back.

4 Responses to “How Are We Programmed to See Teens?”

  1. John R. Morella, Ph.D
    May 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Hi Vanessa,

    This article mirrors exactly the premise of my teen book, ‘Give Teens a Break!”
    I tried to send you a copy, but “too many books, too little time.” you lamented.

    I will be taking a blogging course and get back to your great work with teens.

  2. liz
    May 7, 2010 at 9:42 am #

    Great set of ideas. I think everyone (teens included) should try and be more open minded and not go for the automatic response – but it is a hard thing to do. I almost feel like I would need a poster in front of me when I am mad at my kids saying “What is it that is really bothering you?”

  3. Vanessa Van Petten
    May 7, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    thanks Liz!

    John we do get swamped with books. If you want to see how we target parent traffic specifically for higher book and sponsor sales, check out some of our programs!


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