How best to deal with teenage behaviour

The following quotation is attributed to Socrates (369-399 BCE): The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room.

Does this sound familiar? Is not this the criticism we as teachers and parents so glibly level about adolescent children? Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy. Unfortunately, he does not seem to qualify this statement. As a teacher of more than 40 years, involved with teaching adolescents in high school, I know there is much more to this behaviour that we, as critical adults, tend to disregard.

I have literally taught a few thousand students over my teaching career, and in my last 15 years as a head of department, I was very much involved in discipline.

There is no more satisfying occupation than working with teenagers. They are still so fresh-minded, so without the veneer imposed by society, so malleable, so interesting, so open to suggestion and ideas, so full of life and vigour, so unsophisticated, so ready to take on the world, so creative, so sincere in their behaviour, thoughts and actions, so honest. They are so open and responsive to positive acknowledgement. They take everything at face value.

But they are also super sensitive, easily influenced, inexperienced, easily hurt and so very vulnerable.  The fences are not strong yet. The boundaries to protect them from the cruel onslaughts of life are not yet in place.

To build their self- esteem takes much time, hard work and persistence; to break it down takes minimal effort.

I sometimes think that we, as adults, suffer severe amnesia regarding what we were like at their age. We tend to look back and consider ourselves the models of propriety, or we look back, and with a certain pride and even boastfulness, we recount details of how “cutely” naughty we were. We tend to forget that life is, without a doubt, much more difficult, more pressure-filled, and much more difficult to negotiate successfully than even a decade ago. And it’s becoming even more treacherous! It is easy to criticise from our ivory towers, far removed from the reality of being “cool” while inside there is a jittering mass of uncertainty, a fear of being exposed as afraid and pitiful.

Where do teens fit in?

The transition time between being a child and entering the adult world, has increased considerably from a few decades ago. There is more time for teens to ‘find themselves’, but also more time to feel at a loss , not quite knowing where to fit in, being without the rules and regulations of the adult world, but still being expected to act in an appropriate manner (as ‘children’), yet not actually knowing which world they actually fit into.

And so, the question “Am I good enough?” has a much longer time to fester.

The media is largely responsible for the above question. We are bombarded by reality shows like “Idols” where young people have to show enormous strength of character to have any success. The rich and famous portray a veneer of perfection to which these fragile youngsters believe they need to aspire and imitate in order to have any value in life. People in sport are elevated to the position of gods. Where in all this success, this wealth, this adulation does an average, ordinary youngster fit in?

The role of teachers

This is where teachers play a pivotal role. We are the lucky ones who get to know these youngsters on a different level. We are the ones who get to cultivate a relationship with them. But this can only happen when one gains their trust and acceptance. Any glimmer of Socrates’s attitude and opinion, and one has lost them. They are suspicious, able to pick up on authenticity or dishonesty, good will or self-righteousness, kindness or superiority. One needs to empty oneself of preconceived ideas and tackle this very difficult task with a genuine desire to understand and accept youngsters as complicated beings, but who are so very ready to respond positively to respect and true empathy.

They need to be treated with dignity not because they necessarily always deserve it, but because they are fellow humans who desperately need respect to feel valuable. They are young people with incredibly fragile egos trying to negotiate their way in a very difficult world fraught with so many things to make them feel inferior.  They need to develop effectively the tools to cope and accept themselves.

What is remarkable about teenagers is that they respond in such a gratifying manner to the most simple of rewards. A chocolate or even a firm handshake would work well, as long as it’s given sincerely and not bestowed without good reason.

In all the years I was privileged to be involved with teenagers, I know of very few who acted in an unacceptable manner for no reason. If one took the time to find out, one or more of the following reasons surfaced: lack of self-esteem, tragic home circumstances, inability to cope with the demands of a modern world, misunderstanding by friends, parents and teachers, not being accepted, being different in some way to their peers, depression, too much pressure to achieve from parents, putting too much pressure on themselves, disappointment, rejection, and the list continues.

Adults are often mean for no reason, or grasping, or superior, or insensitive, or manipulative. Most healthy adults have learnt to control their emotions. Our boundaries as adults are all but impenetrable. We learn to hide who we are to such an extent that we forget how hard it was to get to this position. It becomes easy for us to feign authenticity and self-confidence. We have often lost our ability to feel strongly about anything. We distrust one another. We make the right noises and have learnt to operate acceptably in society in a way that is conducive to our comfort and happiness.

But that is not true of young adults. Their emotions lie close to the surface, ready to explode at any given moment. One minute they are deliriously happy, in love and ready to face any challenge that should come their way; the next, they can feel they are ready to die because their girlfriend or boyfriend has ended the relationship or there is a blemish on their face. The idiom “to carry one’s heart on one’s sleeve” applies to them. There is a constant internal struggle to gain control of these emotions which are always threatening to overwhelm them.  The most terrible thing that can happen to teenagers is making a fool of themselves. This explains their rude, inconsiderate behaviour. Their unacceptable social behaviour gives them a sense of security, a place to hide, so to speak. But that very place in which they hide is extremely tenuous and flimsy.

This is the reason they are mostly so open to genuine concern, love and acceptance.  

A helpful suggestion

The next time you have to step over the outstretched legs of a rather unsavoury-looking, gangly teenaged boy, pants slung so low on his hips that they are in imminent danger of exposing his privates, leaning nonchalantly against whatever piece of furniture or construction is available, with a bored supercilious look that would do a camel proud, don’t immediately go into judgement mode. You have no idea what demons he may be fighting. When a teenaged girl with black lipstick, neckline plunging to her navel, sporting three dozen earrings, rudely pushes ahead of you, you have no clue what tragedy is taking place in her life.

When you have to sidle past a group of high school kids with bad hairstyles, necktie half mast, laughing rudely and raucously in a most threatening fashion, cut them some slack. It’s in all likelihood a façade in a desperate attempt to fit in with the group.

In all my years of teaching, I can count on my one hand a youngster who did not respond to an appeal to his or her better nature. When away from the “herd”, I often had to deal with a broken young person in desperate need of acceptance and of someone who will at least try to understand and not condemn. Despite all one hears on the news about youngsters having lost all respect for teachers, this is not the truth about the majority of young people. Teachers have an incalculable influence on youngsters. We often are pivotal people in their lives. We are in a position where we can change the direction of young people’s lives through an unbiased approach and by listening to their side of things.

Hiam Ginott (school teacher, child psychologist and best-selling author) said: “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate; it’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration; I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised.”

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