Friday 2 December 2016

Dear David: My teenage son plays the clown to win friends

Published 25/10/2016 | 02:30

Outrageous acts carried out by teenage son is a cause of concern for his parents. Photo posed
Outrageous acts carried out by teenage son is a cause of concern for his parents. Photo posed

Advice from the clinical psychologist and parenting expert on how to deal with a teenager's constant need for peer approval and on whether or not a punishment wall in school is a good thing.

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Q. My 14-year-old boy is really struggling at the moment with the need for constant peer approval. He thinks that by doing crazy and outrageous acts, his peers will think he's really "cool" and that everyone will want to hang out with him. For example, last night he went to a friend's house and shaved all his hair off while this was videoed and posted on social media. He recognises that he just puts on a front with these "friends", and underneath he is devastated for doing it. Have you any advice to help him with the personality crisis he is having?

David replies: Mostly, you just need to hang in with him, and continue to keep your lines of communication, with him, open. I am hoping that you have learned about his hidden devastation because you managed to find an opportunity to talk to him.

Thankfully, your son isn't really in the middle of a "personality crisis", he is just in the middle of being a teenager. In the early teenage years our offspring are developmentally and psychologically motivated to "fit in" with their peers. One of their main goals, in terms of identity, is to feel "normal" and to be just like their friends.

In order to achieve that, lots of teenagers will experiment with different attitudes, different clothes, different friends and different behaviours. They will say and do many things that might seem to be out of character.

This isn't a crisis; it is just an experiment. From the way you describe things, your son actually has good insight into the fact that the "crazy and outrageous acts" he is performing do not represent the true him.

As yet, he hasn't found the inner courage to just be the "true" him, because he is probably afraid that the real him won't be acceptable to, or welcomed by, the peers that he wants to be friends with.

While I don't suggest that you appear to validate, or approve of, the "crazy and outrageous acts", it is really important for him that you don't try to humiliate or shame him for those acts, either.

Ideally you will be treading a balanced line between understanding how and why he might be motivated to do these things while still letting him know that the acts themselves are mistakes.

Mistakes that children make, by their very nature, are just one possible outcome from a trial, or experimental way of being or acting. What we need to do, then, is just to ensure that they learn from the mistakes.

That means, rather than punishing them for acting badly, we need to review and draw out the learning for them. We need to show them what impact their behaviour has on themselves, on the family, or on their friends.

To use the example of your son and his hair shaving, you need to make sure that he takes on board any reaction from his school (who may have issue with his shaved head), you need to help him notice the breadth of reaction on social media, from those who celebrate his "cool" to those who will have mocked it.

Your aim in the review of the impact of his behaviour, is not to make him feel bad, but just to make him aware that only some people will be impressed while the majority might view his behaviour as a mistake.

Chasing popularity is a particular challenge for young teenagers. By the time they hit their mid to late teens, they have often got a clearer sense of themselves and are more willing to act in accordance with their own beliefs, rather than trying to fit into what they think others expect or want of them.

Reaching this stage is easier for teenagers, though, when parents don't panic, but hold firm to their own beliefs and values, and continue to hold their sons and daughters to clear expectations regarding what is right and wrong.

This tends to give teenagers a steady and solid base to return to. Reminding them of all the positive aspects of their true character can also help them to stabilise their sense of self, rather than veering wildly to "fit in".

If you continue to show your son that you love him, that you accept him, and that you believe in him, I think he will move through this phase into a more stable sense of himself.

How do I help my son to flourish in a school where 'standing by the wall' is a punishment used?

Q. Our son has just started in our local primary school. Although positive so far, I learned that the teacher uses a colour coded behaviour management system with them. Green, apparently, means he's "doing great", yellow is a "warning", while red means "bad" and the child must stand against the wall for five minutes. I am really disturbed by this. I do not believe in humiliation and punishment as methods for managing behaviour. How can we support him to flourish in this kind of environment? What can I say to the teacher?

David replies: Before we get to the core of your concern, do focus on the positives of your child's situation. So far, it sounds like things are going really well for him at an individual level. He seems to be settling and he certainly seems to understand that there are rules and boundaries in school.

How effective, or healthy, those boundaries and rules are, is another matter entirely.

I can't imagine that any child is going to flourish if the environment, and their interaction with key adults in that environment, is humiliating and punitive. I don't believe you can support your son to flourish if that is how he is being treated. All you may be able to do is to support him to survive it, intact, without becoming subject to the humiliation and punishment.

A colour coded system to let children know whether they are meeting the teacher's approval or disapproval is not necessarily a bad thing. It is really helpful for some children to have a visual indicator that they are behaving well or not.

What is essential, however, in such a system, is that it is exceptionally clear what behaviours lead you to be in the green zone, what behaviours will bring you into the yellow zone and what are the unacceptable behaviours that mean you are in "red" territory.

As long as these behaviours are clearly explained, and the children are regularly reminded of what is OK and not OK, then they can each make a choice to act within the green, yellow or red zones (such as five-year-olds consciously choose how to behave, as opposed to instinctively reacting to their environment).

The other issue is the nature of what consequence there should be for a child who acts in a bold or troublesome way. When you talk about disagreeing with humiliating and punishing ways of managing children's behaviour, I presume you are referring to the punishment of being made stand by the wall.

I do agree with you that being made to stand by a wall is humiliating for a child.

I am a strong believer that when we have to correct children's behaviour that this is best done in private. Making a public "show" of a child, and their misbehaviour, does potentially shame them and make any transgression visible to everyone, even if some children in the class may have otherwise been unaware that there was even a problem.

Bear in mind, though, if you choose to talk to the teacher, you will be talking from a principled and theoretical standpoint, rather than from direct experience of the impact such punishment has had on your own son.

Be wary, therefore, of appearing too critical too soon, as you may not have the full detail of the behaviour management programme, or how it is actually being implemented. If you go in to the teacher "all guns blazing", then you may find that you alienate yourself from the teacher.

I think it would be far more important to build a strong, collegiate, relationship with the teacher. In that context, of looking to work with him or her, it would be fine to enquire about the programme and how it is implemented and how you, as a parent, can best support your son within that environment.

If you discover that standing by a wall is, indeed, a punishment, then it is also fine to raise your concern about the potential impact of this on your son. Ultimately, though, the teacher gets to choose how they run their classroom, and you may have little choice but to work with this.

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