One of the challenges we confront when working with teens is their almost supernatural social sensitivity coupled with poor to non-existent communication skills and self-awareness. They can sense when the adults around them are sincere, truthful, talking the talk and walking the walk; they read faces, and are adept at picking up tone and inflection in the voice.
However, they often lack self-awareness, are prone to extreme shifts in emotions, and struggle, or refuse, to communicate. That’s where actions come in. The acting out, rebellious, argumentative, defiant, lazy, resistant, and distant behaviors and conduct we perceive in kids is often clear communication that something deeper is off and begs to be addressed.
As parents and educators working with teens, we certainly need to first address inappropriate and unacceptable behavior with appropriate consequences. But, the job is not done there. If we only apply a consequence, we’ve missed an opportunity to meet the teens needs more fully.
Beyond the relatively straightforward response (punishment, reward, lack of reward, etc.) we need to ask: Why? Spend sometime – not in the heat of the moment – contemplating what the teen is possible communicating through actions. For example, many school aged kids are constantly broadcasting about the state of the family and home life via their actions. Beyond the irritation the teacher feels at having to spend so much time with the student, he/she needs to know that the child’s acting out behavior, especially when consistent, is indication of a deeper issue. Trust your instincts, if you sense something deeper than fighting over a toy/place/class job, etc., most likely there is.
Handle the behavior with an appropriate and consistent consequence/response. But then spend the time pondering what else could be going on for the kid: poor nutrition, lack of sleep, dehydrated, developmental delay, family issues (divorce, lack of schedule/structure, etc.), poor social skills, etc. Simply asking the questions is a long way towards fully meeting a child’s needs.