Tag Archives: interdependence

Some thoughts on self-advocacy for adolescents

Image description: colony of tiny white fungi growing together on a decomposing log

I’ve written about the idea of Independence versus Interdependence here before and I just wanted to expand on that a little bit. I was having a conversation the other day with a school administrator who lamented the fact that many parents intervene with school officials on behalf of their students. This administrator was dismayed that these students aren’t learning how to “solve their own problems” and worries that they will leave their homes for college or their own household without having learned some of the skills they need to navigate systems effectively.

I understand this worry, and I also inquired whether it’s possible that what this person is seeing is only those issues that are escalated to a certain point within the school system. Meaning that, maybe there are multiple instances of students solving their own conflicts and disagreements with teachers and coaches and other school staff that aren’t visible simply because they’ve been solved.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we don’t typically set up our schools to feel like places that foster partnerships between educators and students. There is a basic power differential, and for some students who are marginalized and don’t fit the paradigm of the students our systems are designed for, that power differential is a chasm. That can mean that it takes a great deal more effort and courage for these students to navigate difficulties with educators than it does for their white, neurotypical, traditional-student peers. If students start out feeling as though they are not on equal footing with their teacher/coach/counselor, self-advocacy is more difficult. And if that adult is accustomed to using their power as a way to get their way, self-advocacy can feel like an exercise in futility. And yet, many students still manage to find ways to articulate their needs.

But what if they try and get nowhere? I have personally had experiences with my own children where I have seen them make multiple attempts to get their needs met or make their concerns heard and nothing happens. In that case, it is imperative that I, someone with power and leverage that is equal to that of the other adult they’re negotiating with, get involved to help my child. I like to think of it as something we adults do all the time when we need help. We don’t expect employees who are experiencing discrimination at work to work out issues with their employer without an advocate. It is pretty rare that couples get divorced without some sort of mediator or attorney involved to help them resolve the biggest issues. So why do we expect our kids to be able to successfully resolve issues with educators entirely on their own?

I am pleased to say that when I explained this to that school official, they were able to see things a little differently. It is my hope that, going forward, they will encourage students to find an adult who can help them advocate for themselves after an attempt to solve the problem on their own goes awry. Rather than teaching our kids that they’re on their own (especially in the face of a power differential), we can teach them that they deserve to be heard and that there are people out there who will make themselves available to advocate on their behalf so that they don’t have to settle for being powerless when they’re struggling.

Important Elements of Developmental Relationships with Teens

I’ve combined information from three different sources for this post – The Search Institute , a study on developmental relationships, and a presentation by Education Northwest I was lucky enough to attend.

Last time, I wrote about the importance of parent/teen or teacher/teen relationships being evolutionary. Now that you know the why, here are some things to consider about what that kind of a relationship looks like.

According to The Search Institute, there are five types of relationships teens need in order to thrive. Many of these can be provided by the same people, and often these people are not the teen’s parents. These crucial elements are:

  1. Caring – who, in this teen’s life, is dependable, warm, offers encouragement, listens to the teen and helps build their confidence?
  2. Growth – who sees this teen’s potential, holds them accountable for their choices, and helps them reflect on their mistakes and define areas for improvement?
  3. Support – who guides them through systems they encounter, empowers them to find their own path, advocates for them and helps them stay on track?
  4. Shares Power – who respects this teen, includes them in important decisions, collaborates with them and gives them opportunities to lead?
  5. Expands Possibilities – who inspires this teen to dream, exposes them to new ideas, and connects them to other people who can inform and assist them?

For any of these to feel authentic, the teen must feel as though the adult truly cares for them and they must care for that adult as well. Over time, there must also be a gradual increase in the amount of responsibility, challenge, and power the teen is allowed as their confidence builds.

So, where do you begin? Ask teens if they feel as though they have relationships with people in each of these five categories. Are there areas where they simply can’t identify anyone? Can you, as their parent or teacher, help them find someone who might fill that niche?

*It is important as a parent to make sure you aren’t offended if your child doesn’t choose you as their go-to person for some of these areas. It is a vital part of their development to be able to form attachments to people other than you as they grow up and become more interdependent.

Here is a pdf of a questionnaire you can give your teen that will help them think about where they might want to shore up some of their adult relationships. developmental-relationship-questionnaire


Parent/Teacher Teen Relationships: Widening the Web

photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

They look like little adults.

They act like little adults (sometimes).

They demand to be treated like adults.

They aren’t little adults. They are teens, and it can be really confusing to decide how to interact with them from an adult perspective. We don’t want to coddle them because it’s important for them to begin solving their own problems and taking responsibility for themselves. But the truth is, they don’t have the benefit of life experience or the neurodevelopmental maturity to handle complicated situations yet, so what’s a parent or teacher to do?

There is a lot of talk about independence when it comes to teens, but I’d like to challenge that concept, if I may. None of us is truly independent. Can you replace your home’s water heater on your own if it fails? Can you purchase a car without a loan from the bank or credit union? If someone close to you is struggling with a difficult life event, do you reach out in support or let them deal with it alone? I’d like to think that what we really want for ourselves and our teens is to become interdependent instead – to know that over time we have built a web of trusted people and systems that we can rely on when we need help and to whom we can offer our unique talents as well.

So what does that have to do with adult-teen relationships? It requires us, as adults, to become very strategic with regard to how we interact with teens. It means that we take the view that our relationship is a dynamic and evolving one that allows for gradual changes in the balance of power. Over time, as our students and children show us that they are more competent and confident, we can allow them to have more say in how we interact with them and how they interact with others. We can ratchet down the tangible supports and help them determine when they need to ask for help.

It also requires us to acknowledge that a healthy web of relationships includes a variety of people who support, challenge, network and care for our kids. If teens don’t have a group of adults – be they teachers, parents, mentors, extended family, a boss at work – who provide these important pieces of the web, they will look to their peers to fill the gaps.  While peers play a vital role in our teens’ lives, they don’t have the life experience or emotional stability that most adults do, so it is incumbent upon us to check in from time to time and see where our students may need shoring up.

It can be incredibly difficult to engage in this kind of relationship with teens, since they are driven to push away from adults who have historically acted as parents or were in a position of power, but it is important that we stay connected and help them determine which of the other people around them can be trusted to help them become the people they strive to be. There is a great deal of research that demonstrates the significance of teen-adult relationships with regard to healthy social-emotional development and if parents and educators can find ways to have evolutionary, progressive relationships with teens, we can have an incredible impact on their ability to navigate the world with confidence and support.

Next Time: Tips on how to build a developmental relationship with a teen