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When fighting to get what you believe is best for a teen, be it yours or a teen you work with, you understandably pull-out all the stops to advocate for them, to argue the case. With increasing awareness of the importance of involving teenagers in the processes that concern them, such as meetings where action plans are discussed, this advocating often occurs in front of them.
However, when approaching these meetings, both the facilitators and the participants need to be extremely mindful of what they say in front of the teen, particular when the issue under discussion surrounds their behavior. In my experience, such meetings can be the best strategic thing that can happen to a teen. Not because a wonderful intervention plan is put in place, but because they are furnished with an a la carte menu of excuses to further justify and perpetuate their behavior.
As someone who has attended such meetings and also had to deal with the continuance of that behavior, you would be amazed how often complete paraphrases crop up in their justifications that were used by a well-meaning professional or parent in those meetings. For example:
Parent in meeting:
“Johnny’s never done what he’s supposed to do. He just can’t follow instructions and he seems to be getting into trouble for it all the time. I’m not sure this is fair. I think he might have ADHD or something”.
Johnny, a week later, after being hauled into the principal’s office for wildly throwing textbooks at other students:
Johnny: “It’s not fair. Miss O’Hara asked me to pass out the books and that was what I was doing. ”
Principal: “But she asked you to hand them out, not throw them at your classmates. You nearly broke Lucy’s nose.”
Johnny: “But I’m no good at following instructions. This is so unfair. I can’t help it if I’ve got ADHD and can’t control myself”.
Justification for behavior served up, responsibility taking non-existent.
So how do you tread the line between involving and advocating for a teen in decision-making processes concerning them, and dishing up counter-productive excuses? Is it even possible?
In a word, ‘yes’. If you follow these simple steps you will definitely minimise the excuse-generating consequences of the meeting and maximise the benefits of the teen being involved.
1. Assume that everything you say is being mentally recorded by the teen.
Even if you think the teen under discussion hates you and would not listen to a word you say, do not be fooled. If what they are saying serves their misbehavior cause they will listen with an intensity that you would not have believed possible.
So many professionals and parents talk as if their teen is not actually in the room as their body language suggests their mind is elsewhere. Even if they are sitting there, with a ‘what a total waste of time, so bored, I’m not listening’ look on their face, trust me, they are listening and listening hard.
2. Involving the teen does not mean they have to be present for the entirety of the meeting.
In my experience meetings are either a) too inclusive i.e. all with the teen or b) too exclusive, i.e. none with the teen. As with so much, the middle way usually works best for all concerned.
The reality is that parents and professionals need to be able to talk freely about a teen and if the teen is present throughout they will either not say what needs to be said, therefore damaging their role as an advocate, or they will say things in front of them that are not appropriate for them to hear. This will only add to rather than help to resolve the behavioral problems.
Often having a ‘pre-meeting’ without the teen can enable the free flow of concerns and issues between professionals and parents. The teen can then be brought in so that their view of their behavior can be considered, along with their thoughts on any proposed plans and any ideas that they might have as to what could help.
As a parent, if such a divided meeting is not proposed, ask the professionals to do it this way and explain why – you want to be able to express yourself freely, but you also want your child to feel involved, to own their behavior and to own any proposed action/intervention.
3. When the teen is present, talk in a very forward looking, optimistic manner.
Within a meeting there will be the necessary autopsy of past unacceptable behaviors and hopefully an effort to try and understand why these behaviors have manifested e.g. medically diagnosed behavioral disorder, past trauma (physical or emotional), difficulties at home.  Consequently it is inevitable that potential future excuse ammunition will be raised in front of the teen. However, the way in which these issues are framed is of vital importance.
For example, if  Madison’s behavior has gone off the rails due to her parent’s difficult divorce, rather than just saying, “Madison seems very confused and angry at the moment and is lashing out at everyone”, you can change the whole negative focus around by adding “but with the opportunity to talk it through with someone  I really think she can process these emotions and get back to her usual self. What do you think Madison?”
The expectation is then that the situation will improve, and that then becomes the take-home part of the statement for the teen, rather than the reason for the negative behavior. By then asking for the teen’s opinion, you are helping them to contemplate being in a more positive place which will help to motivate them to make the change. It also places an expectation of improvement in their mind and consequently disabuses them of any notion that they can just bumble along because they have the best excuse in the world not to try.
Following these three simple steps can make a world of difference in how the meeting is viewed by the teen, which at the end of the day is the most important perspective. Improvements and change only come about when a teen sees the need to act, and is sufficiently motivated to do so. If you provide them with excuses then nothing will change for the better. If you seek to involve them and constructively advocate for them then change becomes a real possibility.
Sam Ross, popularly known as the ‘Teenage Whisperer’ is an expert in connecting with and helping the most challenging, disengaged and troubled teens to turn their lives around. She has worked in both educational and youth justice settings, both with young people and their parents or carers. Really understanding teens is the beginning, middle and end of her work and she helps professionals and parents achieve this through her website, providing advice, insight and resources: You can also connect with her on Twitter: @Teen_Whisperer or Facebook: where she regularly tweets/posts about all sorts of issues affecting teens.
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