Changing an Adolescent (changing behavior pt 8)


Story Time!

At the young age of 10, I was competing in one of the most cut-throat tournaments ever held in my 4th-grade class. The game?


As I was working my way up the ladder towards victory, two truths occurred to me. #1. My teachers were absolutely insane. It seemed they were making us compete simply for their entertainment. #2. For some reason, all the kids in my class thought I was smart. They would often sabotage themselves or just give up when I played against them. I actually believed it was due to the fact that I was one of the only people in the class that wore glasses. So… Glasses = smart. Sure, I guess.

I finally shrugged my way into the semifinals where I was matched against Brad Z. See, Brad was actually smart. I knew this. In fact, pretty quickly in our game, he had me on the ropes. When I noticed what was happening, I started to tear up. With a trembling voice, I whispered to Brad, “Oh no, I don’t want to lose.” And I didn’t! Everyone up to this point thought that I was a winner. Heck, up to this point I thought I was a winner.

Out of compassion, and due to my tears, Brad reset one of his game pieces when our teacher had her back turned. I took advantage, I elevated 3 of my pieces to king status and destroyed him. We were both a bit speechless about what just happen.

Before Brad was able to mutter an objection, my teacher quickly put me in the last showdown and I lost that round pretty badly.  

The end.

This is a real story, and Brad, if you are reading this, I’m sorry. This Checkers competition was a battle I went through. I was learning to believe in my potential and my ability to succeed, while also struggling to fit into the expectations of being a winner.

This captures some of the burdens that children (or adolescents) have to carry constantly.

Grouping the 1st grader and preteen is ambitious and may seem like a bad idea, BUT the following two themes are important and will become defining battles. They set the stage for how these children will develop for the rest of their lives.


This is the battle:

Realizing the limitless potential of their individual future

Struggling with the emotional assaults dealt by their social world


In other words, they are balancing between the potential of their future self, and their struggle within their social world. Our young people have to learn to deal appropriately with both ends of life at this stage.

If you, the parents, can become aware of the battle you will be ready to support them and get them to where they are meant to go.

So where do you begin?

4 Steps to Change…

Let’s review.


4 Steps to Change Review

Change can be encapsulated in 4 steps:

Step 1: Slow down and pay attention

Step 2: Learn the story

Step 3: Learn the triggers

Step 4: Create lasting habits


Note that the majority of the steps to changing behavior has nothing to do with action. Changing behavior has more to do with awareness and learning. In the following steps, the action (Step 4) only comes after understanding the context and triggers. Essentially, we are working to become more dependent on what we see as opposed to being reactive to how we feel.


Slow Down

First, let’s slow down and smell the roses. Most adults would agree, in retrospect, that this stage of life is probably the sweetest and most enjoyable.

This phase of life is iconic. Whenever we think about growing up, we think about being a 7-year-old playing with neighborhood friends or cousins. Memories of these times are often immortalized in our minds as the most carefree, stress-free, joyful times we have ever experienced!

At the same time, this was the stage of life where we came face-to-face with life’s antagonists. Many of us got our first bully at this age. Some dealt with the anxiety of self-image. Or, some may have experienced the difficulties of a challenging family life.

Although most of life at this stage should have been pretty sweet, the minor and seemingly insignificant issues can be the ones that register in our memory and can eventually define who we became.

This is the exact battle that children at this age have to negotiate and fight.

As parents, we have to slow down and pay attention to the small or big battles our kids are fighting. Here is a list of items to do to get engaged and to pay attention.


Parent’s to do list:

Engage the school. Do not sit on the sidelines and allow teachers and peers to raise them. Get to know the teachers and get involved with the school.

Engage your child’s social group. Get to know your child’s friends and social group.

Learn your child’s coping strategies. What are the go-to activities that your child does to feel safe and stable? This may be a cue to you that your child is self-soothing for a reason.

Learn to talk to your child. Do not settle for yes and no answers. Find ways to engage in meaningful dialogue. Learn what makes your child tick.


Learn the story

There are the two sides of the story that your children are living out: 1. The potential for their individual future and 2. Assault by social pressures.

The potential for individual future:

This stage of life is the cradle of potential.

Practice for dreaming about the future starts here. When a child is allowed to be a child, they gain the freedom to nurture a carefree context that allows them to be taken away with imagination and adventure.

Here are a few important milestones that set the pace for your child’s confidence in their potential.

Future Profession. Here our children take the best of what they can do, or what engages their interests, and project that activity into what they aspire to achieve in life.

Parents should: encourage the dream; help them align their goals with who they are, not only what they are able to do or accomplish; try to discern the limitations they apply to their ability to dream. Help them remove those boundaries. Do not judge their dream but help them shape it through experience and study.

Foundations for faith. The belief systems that your children establish now will have a significant impact on how they will treat that faith for the rest of their lives.

Parents should: Alert your children more to the wisdom, value, and principles of your faith rather than religious activity. Remember that your relationship with your child is a cornerstone of how they will interpret their relationship with God. If you are perceived as overbearing and unreliable, then that perception translates to their relationship with God long before they can develop their own relationship with Him.

Value development. Your child will begin organizing their own list of priorities.  Values are established in this phases of life more than at any other time. They will begin to rate the importance of family, faith, money, academics, cleanliness etc.

As a parent, you should be clear about how you prioritize your life. Know what you value and deal with the negative issues that limit you.You can never ignore your convictions, even if you fail to acknowledge them today, you will see them in your children tomorrow. In other words, your children will map their values after you. There is no escaping it, they will both intrinsically and experientially become whoever you are.

Your children will never accept your values if they cannot accept your behavior. Often, people are more impacted by how they are made to feel as opposed to being impacted by the detail of the words used. The old saying, “Do what I say, not what I do.” is not accurate.  Instead, it is more like, “What you do speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you’re saying” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Assault by social pressures:

This is also a period of great losses. Our children are beginning to lose grasp of the carefree world they knew as toddlers. Before they even realize it, they are confronting the fact they are no longer alone in the world. They will need to engage their social world to thrive in the next stage of life. For this reason, most of their struggle will be trying to integrate the outside world into themselves.

Here are some critical issues they will have to work through:

My parents are not enough.

Parents are not perfect.  Disappointments must come. Our kids will be disappointed by us, their parents. Often, these disappointments happen because they realize their parents are not capable of understanding or rescuing them from the cascading challenges of staying in pace with their new social requirements.

For example, when you deny them the new sneakers or earrings, you are affirming the fact that you do not understand them or understand what they are going through. It was never about the shoes, it was always about being in pace with a social world that expects it from them. The struggle here is not only having to go through this hardship but in addition, it is the terror of having to do it on their own.

The more I know the smaller I feel.

As our children travel further into becoming young adults, they are forced to care more about their peer group’s experiences. It is no longer about how the world looks from their lens but they now peek into the lens of their best friends and core social group. This is probably why the average age of exposure to pornography is 12 years old. There is a detrimental blow dealt with the innocence of our children. They become more aware of the world they live in and their own sense of significant can easily be lost.

The more our children lose their innocence, is the more they give up their confidence. I believe that true confidence is based on an individual’s innocence. It is not forced effort to believe the best of oneself. Instead, confidence is the ability to walk into a room and it never registers in your mind that your differences make you inadequate in some way. In its most pure form, confidence wasn’t meant to be something you have to apply to your activity, it is when you feel secure and safe in your own skin. So when our kids lose their innocence they lose their confidence and can end up struggling with their self-esteem. For example, girl’s self-esteem tends to peek around 9 years old, and thereafter, there is often a downward spiral in insecurity and body image issues.

The internet begins to play an important part in the lives of adolescents. Their cell phone becomes a gateway to enhance their curiosity and social identity. It has the potential to give them the needed insight to compete in an ever-expanding world. However, the intimidating and impossible standards of social media can be the poison that cripples their self-worth. I will address the significance of the internet on the post that covers changing your teenager. Stay tuned.

I have to trade-in adventure for achievement.

Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development labels this period of life (ages five to twelve) as the fight between industry vs. inferiority. He says that a child’s objective at this stage of development is to learn to feel confident about his/her ability to accomplish goals. If they can demonstrate specific competencies that are valued by society, they win the game and become industrious.

But at what cost?

They lose their curiosity and look for opportunities for conformity

Their sight becomes limited to what is normal in their local context. This makes them uncompetitive or incompetent in a world that is become more global by the day.

They set themselves up for disappointment when they face the inevitable truth that there will always be someone better than them.

We can probably blame this on the current education system that values achieving collective academic quotas over individual expression. As parents, we can also share the blame because we often equate academic achievement to lifetime happiness. Though there is a relationship between good grades and later achievement, we also have to contribute to the development of the whole child. This means that we have to help them engage life not as an academic exercise but as a lifetime adventure.

Let’s move on to learn how to be aware of the cues that will allow us to help our children during this time.

Learn the trigger

As parents, we have to be careful not to equate our child’s desire for more independence as a cue to no longer support them. We have to extend more independence but we also have to be aware of when they need us to give them support and information.

For a growing adolescent the toughest part isn’t necessarily talking about their challenges, instead, the challenge is cueing their parents to know that they need to talk.

For the most part, adolescents are spending their intellectual energy fitting into their social group or trying to prove their competence. Therefore, the act of reaching out for support from their parents is equal to reverting back to a more vulnerable and child-like stage. For some children, this switch is not easy.

To help us become more aware, we are going to look for several core motivators that are significant at this stage of life. If we pay attention to how they show up in our adolescents it will give us the cues to intervene and support them

Do you approve of me?

The need for approval shows up pretty early in this stage of development. It starts with the first teacher that grades a picture they drew of an elephant. The teacher can say, “Wow, that is a great elephant,” OR “That is not a very good elephant, you are not a good artist”. The first response will register as approval,  translating into a sense of competence, which then communicates to them that they matter. The second response, however, will register as disapproval. This translates to them as having substandard abilities and creates an internal view that they are inferior.

Often, our kids will come to us to be reinforced in their sense of significance. We have to be aware of this: What are they offering?  

Look for the things they offer to you, that they hope that you will receive it. This could be a project they are working on, a game they are playing, an opinion they have to share, a story to tell.

Do I belong?

With the increasing influence of their social world, there will be a strengthening of their desire to belong. In infancy and during toddlerhood, belonging was tied to an intrinsic sense of self. It was directly tied to a toddler’s view of how the world works. As they become school aged, belonging becomes something more concrete. It is more tangible. Out of a class of 30 children, they pick their favorite 5 friends to belong to. Now, a hard truth every human being has to learn is the fact that being connected to other humans isn’t the easiest and most straightforward thing. This lesson starts at this stage of life and continues on for most of their lives.

So with them learning how to integrate and how to “fit in” the groups they belong to, they will need help from us reinforce their sense of belonging. We have to look for the following: The Push, The Pull and The Carefree

The Push – times your child try to push you away with his or her words, behaviors or attitudes. Pay attention, they are begging you to come closer and help them organize their sense of belonging

The Pull – when your child regresses to behavior that seems younger than their chronological age. They do this to gain your attention and draw you in. Do not get frustrated but ask yourself what about their sense of belonging need reinforcing?

The Carefree – the moments when your child is living in absolute bliss and comfort. They feel free in the expression of their words, thoughts, and even body. This is a key time to bring attention to how they feel and how that space highlights their belonging.  

What is so special about me?

During toddler life, your child was the object of everyone’s attention. They had a license to be as selfish as they wanted to be. In the eyes of their parents, they were the acclaimed artist, star singers, and Grammy nominated actors/actresses. Then, they go to school as 7-year-olds and realize that they have to compete in a system that will sort them from the “most” to the “least”. Their effort is now focused on gaining their piece of the pie, figuring out what about them now is as great as they used to be as a toddler.

To help them in this struggle we have to go with the flow. This means going along with them as they develop a new interest in different subjects and activities. As they grow, those interest will change abruptly. At the same time, let them stick to one or two l interests in order to develop character and discipline. Keep this in mind –  passion is temporary and not sustainable, but strong character withstands all things. Ultimately, the expressions that will define their uniqueness are the things that they stick with for a long time. The development that they will derive from their commitment to these long-term activities will be beneficial to them in the future.


Create a new reality

And so how do we create a new reality for our children? How do we cause long-lasting change and set them on a path towards being the best versions of themselves?

There are a couple of items I need to emphasize first.

Two teachers

You child’s internal capacity to strive or struggle is informed by two different teachers:

What their genetics teach.

What their environment teaches.

All children come pre-packaged with specific qualities that will help them have more grit and/or be more compassionate and/or be more sensitive, etc. This means, there are precipitating factors that you have little to no control over, for how your child deals with their challenges.

At the same time because a child is also informed by their environment, you, the parent, have an influence on the direction of your child’s ability to thrive. If you respond in ways that are appropriate and supportive you will contribute to keeping them on track.

What’s the point?

Hold on very lightly to the pressure to develop perfect children. They are human beings that will eventually have to walk their own road to self-actualization.

At the same time –

You have the best opportunity to create the best environment to put your children on a road towards self-actualization. You are responsible for that.

Forming an environment for healthy children

Engineer their world.

As a parent, you have the right to socialize your child in whichever way that you see fit. This is a good time to be deliberate about the world that you want your child exposed to. I recommend that a parent exposes their child to as much diversity as possible. This will create opportunities for your child to discuss the differences they are observing. What is critical about this is that it gives you, the parent, the opportunity to be one of the first voices to inform their understanding of the differences between them.

DO NOT be too quick to save them.

Earlier in this article, I made a  mention of some of the struggles that your adolescents may be going through. One of the important things to realize as a parent is that they must go through it. Quite frankly, they need that bully (yes, the one that you could probably break like a twig). They need to go through the challenges of learning to strive in this period of life. They need to lose every now and then. The skills they learn to survive here will allow them to strive as a teenager, then they will be able to go off to college on their own and get their own apartment and so on. This is not easy. However, you do have to be careful that you do not solve their problems where they need to struggle to figure out their own solutions.

Give your emotional support to the struggle but invest your effort into the potential.

You have to be present to offer the emotional support needed when you observe one of the motivational triggers I mentioned above. One of the most therapeutic things you can offer your child is the present, to “be with” them in the pain. You may not be able to resolve it and sometimes it is best if you do not try to resolve it, but the most meaningful thing you can do is say, “I am sorry you are going through this.” This acknowledgment helps them realize that they are not crazy and unreasonable. It sets the stage to allow them to reset and try again tomorrow.

At the same time, invest your effort and activity to building the aspects of their life that nurtures their potential. I mentioned three aspects of their potential above their future profession, their faith, and their values.  

Change the meaning of success and failure.

Angela Duckworth is a social scientist that has found a common factor that existed in the most successful people at their crafts. Amazingly, talent and skill had nothing to do with what caused some people to excel and others to stay stagnant. She identifies the key ingredient to success as “Grit”. This is the perseverance to keep working at one thing to fulfill a long-term goal. This bears the point that success and failure are not on two opposite sides of a spectrum. It isn’t true that if you are failing then you are not succeeding. We have to allow our children to see that heading towards success includes learning from the failures.

Failure and success are neutral. They meaning nothing in themselves. We are the ones who assign them a negative or positive value. Failure in itself is not causing for sadness, and success alone isn’t a reason to celebrate. Instead, it is the journey of walking through both successes and failures that have any value at all. True victory is being able to say, “I’ve been there, I’ve experienced that and I am more mature today because of it.”

Teach them about the beauty of the whole.

The natural inclination of a parent observing a child struggle with social demands is to pull them further away from those struggles. So when a child is struggling to compete with the new social demands, a parent might cancel all extracurricular activities or allow their child to stay home from school for a couple of days. Though this route can be tempting at times it can also stagnate your child’s development. Isolation isn’t the answer.  For this reason, I suggest a parent work to teach their child the beauty of the whole. Help them see how they are complete because they are a part of a bigger picture. Though they know people that are better than them in some area, and they are better at others, together they are all stronger than any one of them alone. This can be done by joining a group of parents and children that share your values. A parent can also enlist their child in altruistic activities where they get to join others to serve people in need. That mindset of togetherness cancels out the competitive nature that surrounds this developmental phase. 

Give them the stage to decide.

Now is the best time to give your child a voice. Ask them frequently what they think. Instead of giving them consequences for bad behavior, let them decide what the consequences should be. Give them choices often.

If you want your child to survive the teenage stage of development they have to be able to think for themselves. So now is the best time to start practicing.

Crossing the bridge [your turn]

“You can never ignore your convictions. If you fail to acknowledge them today, you will see them in your children tomorrow.

If you haven’t addressed your own issues yet, you are quickly running out of time.

Here are two paths you should be walking.

Path 1 → Actually work on your maturity. Engage a process to address your own hangups and insecurities. Parents often have memories of bullies that tormented them when they were kids. Or, as parents,  we deal with the lasting insecurities of feeling inferior because someone told us that we were not good enough.

So here is your task: Write a letter to that person that damaged your identity. (I’m not going to ask you to send that letter). In that letter I want you to address 3 things:

Accept and admit that what that person did to hurt you

Make a decision to forgive independent of their apology

Write how you will raise your child to strive where you struggled

Path 2 → Accept the fact that you are growing and show your child how you have grown. Have moments where you can be genuine with your child about where you have struggled and how you are growing. Try your best to make these conversations ones where you are giving support through honesty with your child. Try not to make these conversations end in a way where your child feels responsible to give you therapeutic support.

Stay strong and stay growing.


What’s next?

Previously, we have completed a post on changing an infant and changing the toddler. Time to move on to changing the teenager.  Stay posted to learn how to change the teenager.


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