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How We Work With Teens at Arowhon



May 7, 2009, 10:39 AM

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It takes a certain kind of counsellor to work with teens. One might think that those suited to that task would be the cool, socially powerful staff whom the teens would look up to. That tends not to work – because the really cool ones don’t necessarily have a strong moral compass or the ability to tolerate being occasionally disliked. Without those two emotional strengths, we’re lost working with adolescents – They’ll drive a truck over us and not look back.

Humans have a natural, in-born tendency to want to be liked. Most counsellors need their campers to like them. Working with the little kids, that part is easy: If you give them caring attention, they adore you. Little kids haven’t (for the most part) entered their rebellious phase yet, so they’re willing to accept authority. Which means they don’t put the relationship on the line when you say no to them.

Not so with teens. Rebellion is their middle name, and sometimes they play the high cards – meaning that when we lay down the law, or say no to them, they put the relationship on the line. They almost always forgive us for this imagined betrayal fairly promptly – but there is no creature on the planet with more extreme emotions than a teenager, so any possible future truce is not on their radar when they’re mad at you for setting a limit.

Hence the necessity for counsellors who can tolerate being disliked, and who have the personal strength to set limits and say no, understanding that when a teen gets hostile, it isn’t about the counsellor. It’s a knee-jerk impersonal teen response. We also teach these staff that it’s probably an inevitable response.

Teens are hard-wired, each and every one of them, to oscillate wildly between two selves, the adult self (who they are becoming) and the baby self (who they have been).This oscillation is as inevitable a part of their development as puberty, and it isn’t pretty.

The adult self is the one they most often trot out away from home. The adult self goes to a friend’s house for dinner, says please and thank you and offers to wash the dishes. When you hear about that you wonder: Is that my kid?

Your confusion is understandable, because the baby self is the one you know better, the self more likely to appear when your teen is with you. In fact there’s an inevitable bounceback: After working hard at being the adult self away from home, when a teen comes back to you the baby self often reappears with a vengeance. Where the adult self is calm, cooperative, helpful, thoughtful and rational, the baby self is selfish, lazy and cannot be reasoned with. When you bring this oscillation to camp, it’s their beloved counsellors who sometimes get the grief.

The toughest aspect of this violent shifting between baby and adult self is that only one thing is predictable: Set a limit or say no a teen, and the baby self is in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t matter what the limit is (curfews, getting to activities on time or chores) or what you say no to (sneaking out, wearing makeup or being cliqueish), the baby self has the same reaction: The teen version of a two-year old having a tantrum. Say no to a teen and they sulk, they yell, they whine. They repeat, ad nauseum, all the irrational reasons why you’re wrong.

You politely explain politely the reasons for your decision. The baby self pushes back. You explain again. The baby self repeats the pushback. You explain again. Your teen pushes back again. The fourth time, your patience is fraying and you start to get mad. Which is fuel to the baby self’s fire. Now you’re in a fight and you’re both saying things you may regret later.
This was a 100% preventable fight.

The first tool of prevention, we tell staff, is to engrave indelibly in their brain the truth that every time you set a limit for a teen, or say no, the baby self will rear its ugly head, will fight you on it ad nauseum, and can’t let go. After the second time of explaining yourself and defending your decision, if you stay in that conversation, you will get mad, which will not do your relationship any good.

Instead, we say: After you’ve been around the block twice on the subject, leave the cabin. It sounds awful, but is about 10 times better than yelling at your beloved camper, which is the only place it’s going if you stay put. On the way out the door, you might say: “We’re done here.” You then need to ignore the teen’s anguished wailing, and keep walking.

Remind yourself that you have just committed a great act of love, that this isn’t about you, and that without you there to fight with, the baby self will run out of gas pretty soon. And likely comply.

The hardest thing here is to accept that when you try to convince a teen why you’re laying down the law, no matter how many times or how logically you say it, the teen still won’t get it. The baby self can’t get it, because the baby self isn’t listening. They don’t. They can’t. Not until they’re about 21.

When we make an argument for a limit or a prohibition, we think we’re stringing together words that make pretty good sense. But the teen is like the dog in the park. The dog sets up a racket, and the owner says: “Tootsie, quiet down, you don’t need to bark at that nice dog.” Tootsie hears: “Blah blah blah blah.”
Teens are like Tootsie – everything you say in a conflict situation sounds like blah blah blah. You might as well be, as my mother used to say, talking to the wall. So we don’t do it. We say it once, say it twice, then we get out of there before the conflict escalates – because if it does, we will squander emotional capital. Which is precious. The nugget of gold in all this is the counsellor’s relationship with the teen –and that’s what we want to preserve and nurture. Yelling at the teen isn’t going to get us there.

Where screaming erodes love, laying down the law has no deleterious affects on the relationship. It takes a grown-up to stay calm under these circumstances. Camp counselling is not for the faint of heart. Counselling teens well requires an iron will and enormous self control.


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