by Beth Jones

Fifteen years ago I began research for my Masters thesis (https://epublications.regis.edu/theses/20/)  regarding how extracurricular activities improve academic performance in teens. If I’d only known then what I would experience working with teens over the past 20 years, and then what I’m seeing today in light of the COVID situation, I think I would have expanded on what I discovered. 

The research was clear – teens who participate in extracurricular activity do better academically, are more confident, and usually have more successful adult careers and lives. But the interesting part of the research that sticks with me to this day is why that outcome is as it is. There are really two main pieces for the success of these teens – the non-parent adult influence and their peer community.

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While many teens may put on a show where they find parents and adults as being “lame”, most will admit at least one adult in their lives who they respect and who can influence their decisions. We all know that the brain is still developing during adolescence, and that the decision-making areas of the brain don’t mature until we are in our 20s. This is why many of us slap our heads at the dumb decisions we made as kids and wonder what we were thinking and, in a sense, we weren’t. However, it’s important for teens to have that respected adult to bounce their ideas off of who can help guide their choices by relating their own experiences to the teen. 

While it’s extremely important that parents remain an active part of their teens lives, it’s also important that teens have contact with non-parent adults regularly. Often these come in the form of coaches, teachers, youth group leaders, and the like. This type of interaction builds teens’ sense of optimism, which contributes to confidence in their ability to excel in a variety of areas. One place where this non-parent mentor can easily be found would be at a friend’s home. How we interact with our kids’ friends, starting at a young age, could make a difference in their lives. 

My mom was one of those parents, and I know I had some friends’ parents who were the same. Everyone knew who my mom was – she was always volunteering and was often in the schools. Our house was the “safe place” to come and hang, and my mom was often invited to be a part of our conversations. My mom was a safe confidant to many of my friends, and who I often am reminded of during my own work with teens.

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“Speaking Teen” really isn’t as hard as it looks, and honestly I think that many of us try too hard. 

Think back to when you were a kid. The cool moms weren’t always the ones who let us get away with everything, or bought us beer, or who were the “hot moms”. Often the cool moms were the ones who could be counted on to take you where you needed to go. Who you knew you could call if you were in trouble. Who you felt like you could call “mom” because she was an extension of your family. Another parent who you could talk to but didn’t have the risk of getting in trouble. That is the supportive adult who we need to be for these kids today.

So what are some tips on working with teens when you’re not their parents? Here are a few suggestions that I’ve found helpful over the past 20 years:

1. Have the tough conversations with them.

Don’t be afraid to ask those hard questions or to open yourself up to that conversation when needed. Our teens are struggling. Sometimes they need an adult who seems to care and can listen without rolling their eyes about the drama that’s going on. We know now that most of those situations are minor, but think back to when you were a kid. The conflict going on in your life was everything. Failing a test, a falling out with a friend, a break up, an unplanned pregnancy. Teens need someone who can sit and listen, empathize with them, and then give advice if asked. 

2. Don’t try to be cool.

Seriously, don’t. Teens see right through you. Don’t be the 40-year-old mom who still likes to party. Be fun and have fun with them,  but don’t try to turn yourself back into a teen. Part of the reason that teens do connect with adults as mentors is because there is a boundary. You can relate to what they are going through, but you can also acknowledge that it’s a bit different than when you were a teen. And let’s face it – adults trying to speak the teen lingo just sound idiotic. Don’t be that mom.

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3. Stay up on what’s going on in their world.

This is important. Listen to their conversations when you’re driving carpool. Pay attention when you’re at Target or watching TV. What is going on in their lives. Many teens these days have deep passions for political and environmental campaigns. Or they have clear ideas about who they are now and who they want to be in the future. That’s important to know and recognize, especially if you find yourself in a guiding role and helping them overcome an obstacle.

4. Let them be the teacher.

This is connected to the previous recommendation. Let the teens teach you something. Ask them their opinion on a topic or for an explanation of something you’re unfamiliar with. Teens love the change to teach adults. You’ll have to decide if they are open to debate and questioning of views (some are and some are pretty set in their ways – just like adults). We have to remember that teens often do have something to teach us, and we need to be open to that education.

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5. Connect with other adults in their lives.

This is key. Teens tend to share different aspects of their lives with different people. It makes sense as we do the same thing. Make sure you know who their mentors are, and if you are the mentor, make sure you connect with their parents. These connections are key especially if a teen finds herself in a state of crisis and if she withdraws. Adults can then ban together to help the teen. In my work as an athletic trainer and teacher I’ve often seen the situation where I teen is telling different adults different versions of the same story. When we were able to connect as adults and share what versions we were told, then we were able to work together to develop a solution that could help the teen. None of us are more important than the others, but we do all have our roles that we fill in a teen’s life.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the second benefit of extracurricular activities for teens is their peer community. This is a place where I feel that many of our teens are falling short these days, and especially so in the aftermath of COVID. Teens need their community. They need to be surrounded by others who also experience first-hand the struggles and triumphs that are going on. Who they learn new skills from – empathy, conflict resolution, and decision-making. 

Our teens need their social circles, and while we as adults can monitor what’s going on there, we really need to just step back and let it be. We often worry about our teens falling in with the wrong crowd, but how about when they fall into the right one? Being a part of organized activities, especially ones where behavior and school performance are connected in a way to their ability to fully participate in that activity, are especially helpful because the group encourages each other to stay out of trouble so they can all be together. If our teen loses their connection to these communities – removal from a sport (from age, ability, financial, etc.), moving to a new town or school, or similar – they can also lose their identities, and this can be a scary place for teens. 

As adults, this is where our mentoring skills can be helpful. How can we help teens reconnect with their peer groups? Can we find a new team for them to be a part of, or a new role in their own team? Do we need to reach out via text or invite them to coffee for a check in? Do we have the ability to create something where teens are welcome to come and hang, and that provides opportunity for peer-to-peer connection?  

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In these situations the best role for the adult is to be a facilitator. Be available to help if asked, but otherwise let the teens control the dynamics on their own. They desperately need this. It could be in the form of a virtual meetup right now, and then expands to a small group later. It’s allowing your teen to go about with her friends and trusting that she understands what to do to keep herself safe – because you taught her that, right? It’s giving space and allowing for silence, but making sure they know that you are available when they are ready. It’s being able to call one of their friends and ask them to come over because you teen needs support, but not from you right now. It is being able to step back and watch the chaos unfold, resisting every urge to stop the pain and fix it, but also being willing to help pick up the pieces when it’s over. It’s helping your teen develop her own circle of support and teaching her how to use it. 

Being a teen is hard. We all know this because we’ve all experienced it. We all think we’ll do a better job of handling our own teens than our parents did with us, and we probably will. But, we will also fail in some areas. However, if we can better provide support for all teens and not just our kids, then we can also help fill a hole where another teens’ parent could not.

Learn more about Beth at http://shemoveswellness.com/