How you can inspire the rebellious teenager – a true story

How you can inspire the rebellious teenager – a true story

Have you ever felt like quitting on your teenage child or a young person you have been working with? Do you ever feel like you are hitting your head against a brick wall?

I certainly have had these thoughts, though my passion to encourage teenagers to reach their potential has led me to try ANYTHING to encourage them to make some positive choices.

I hope that Emma’s true story will serve as an encouragement to you and you might be motivated by some of the secrets I am sharing in this journey I undertook with her.Seventeen-year-old Emma was a young girl I mentored a few years ago. She had a volatile temper, which students knew. There were many times her peers pushed that anger button to get a reaction.  And, when she reacted, the language was vile, a fairly sure sign of a young girl who lacked self-confidence. Underneath this angry and tough exterior though, I was quick to discover, was a wonderfully caring individual who would make sacrifices for others and expect nothing in return. An example of this was the way she purchased a snack for a peer she did not know well who had left their money at home, and was attending an event at the place where Emma did casual work.

Not interested in counselling

Emma refused point blank to see a counselor, was shocking at her management of time, a great procrastinator, and did not believe in setting goals because she had convinced herself she would never achieve any of them.

I was approached by a colleague and asked if I would have a chat to her, as the situation was becoming serious. Her antisocial behavior had become disruptive and some colleagues believed she would be better off leaving the school and completing the final two years of her education elsewhere.

Seek a connection

Emma was happy to chat to me and I was comfortable for her to control the content and direction of the chat.

I asked her permission to make some notes while we introduced ourselves. She was happy with that. I also told her that our conversations would remain confidential, within school policies and procedures, and so we began a journey, best described as an amazing emotional roller-coaster.

The focus was simple. She would set some realistic, achievable performance goals for her academic subjects. I would monitor her progress, and take on the role of a non-judgmental cheerleader. The key to this process, as I kept explaining to her, was that SHE set the goals. We had to ensure they were realistic and she had to learn what it meant to be accountable for the choices she was making.

Patience and perseverance

I kept reminding her, when she slipped up, that Rome was not built in a day and she must persevere, so she heard a consistent and positive message from me.

At one of our meetings early on our journey, I shared a wonderful description someone had written of a young person, which I had come across somewhere, that spoke to their inner and outer beauty, personalizing it for her, telling her that that was the person I was seeing talking to me. I gave her a copy for her own reference. She didn’t say much that day, though I know she was appreciative and smiled her thanks. A small, yet significant step in making a connection with Emma in a non-threatening and caring way.

Stumble and fall

As the months rolled on and she stumbled and fell, got up again, failed to meet a deadline, was in more trouble – yes, there was a fairly consistent pattern of behavior – another relationship developed, this time between Emma and my personal assistant, Ruth, who was also the mum of teenage children at that time. Emma would often pop in just to say ‘hello’ to Ruth. Emma was feeling safe and secure in this particular environment of the school. 

Ruth and I sat down one day and worked out some strategies in our work with Emma. We made sure that Emma could not play one of us off against the other, which she was smart enough to do. There were days, for example, when Emma might try and avoid a lesson and pop up to our work area to have a chat to Ruth. Ruth would chat to Emma for five  minutes and then remind her that she needed to head to class. Emma mumbled and Ruth, always with a smile, told Emma that she would tell me that Emma had missed a lesson. That was not the message Emma wanted to hear, so she would quickly head off to class.

Developing a new mindset takes time

One day Emma left a class feeling angry that the teacher was picking on her, had her favorites and Emma was being blamed for something she hadn’t done, while others were not being pulled up for their behavior. Emma shot up to our work area and was ranting and raving to Ruth. I called Emma into my office, closed the glass door (important for Emma and my safety and security that people could see into my office) and told her that, rather than rant and rave in a public area, it would be better for her if she walked into my office, got everything off her chest and didn’t hurt anyone else by saying something she might later regret.

I pulled out a picture of the brain and asked her permission to share something about how her brain operated when she was that emotional. She was genuinely interested in this. My aim was to develop strategies to avoid these outbursts, such as, take a deep breathe and count SLOWLY to twenty. I encouraged her to appreciate that she was making choices and every choice had a consequence.

Later I spoke with her about her swearing. I told her that I did not really appreciate swearing at any time though, if that was how she had to express herself at that time, it was okay.

She would walk into my office, rant and rave, and I would just sit listening, using eye contact and positive body language.

One day she challenged me and asked why I wasn’t saying anything? I simply smiled and said, “I am listening to you and trying to understand how you are feeling.” Then she moved to a point where, after a silence, she would calm down and say, “Sorry, sir.” That was her apology for swearing, or for making unnecessary and damning comments about a teacher or a peer which I was encouraging her to desist from doing. Then she would smile and visibly relax and we would continue to work on strategies to improve her anger management. On a few occasions, after our discussion, she would head off to find her teacher and apologize for her behavior – Emma was developing her self-confidence and becoming a more positive and resilient person.The lion heart within was being tamed.

Similar interests

Emma had some talent in sport. I would make a point of watching some of her matches on a Saturday morning whenever I could.  I had coached the sport she was playing, so was able to offer some technical coaching tips, and congratulate her efforts when she had performed admirably at some point in a match. It was a point of common ground and often a useful conversation starter, especially when we might bump into each other in the school grounds.

Emma had a wicked sense of humor and Ruth, Emma and I had plenty of laughs, especially when Emma was all wound up, had relaxed, chilled for a little and had gathered herself into a calmer place.

Never quit

There were days when it was easy to give up with Emma. Assessments not completed, silly behavior getting her into trouble and a whole lot more, but I explained to her time and time again that school was where she must feel safe and secure. However, without consistent work, she might not be able to pursue her career interests which involved helping others.

I had done some work on sourcing the requirements for the career she was interested in and sat with her one day going through the qualifications needed on the University website (she had also done this prior to talking to me, an encouraging sign). She didn’t believe she was going to obtain the results she needed. I reassured her that, if she was prepared to work consistently, I genuinely believed she could achieve the desired results. I also contacted her teachers and asked them to keep me informed if Emma was falling behind or did not meet deadlines. Emma was aware that I had contacted the teachers. We continued to refer back to her goals, adjust them up or down as she developed a more consistent approach to her academic studies, so they remained achievable and realistic.

Talk to the potential the mentee might not see

Occasionally I would send Emma an email of encouragement, reminding her to meet the deadlines and why she needed to do this. When she aced a Test on one occasion, a special moment occurred, as my email reminded her that she could achieve her dreams with consistent effort. I wanted to put that in writing as well as verbalize it. I was speaking to the potential she was not always able to see. Sometimes she acknowledged the email, often not, though she always told me she had read it and that’s all that mattered to me. I was drip-feeding a message that was basically saying, “I believe in you!”. I hoped these positive messages would impact her developing brain and growth mindset in encouraging ways.

Emma made it through to the end of her final year at school which surprised many who thought the school might be forced to ask her to leave. She had supportive parents, although I wasn’t always comfortable that they knew how best to encourage her to reach her potential.

At the finish

On her last day at school Emma popped in to see me to thank me for all my support, for putting up with her outbursts and so on. She gave me a lovely engraved Parker pen, an expensive bottle of wine and a card. On one side of the pen was my name and on the other a heart-shaped symbol and her name ‘Emma’. She gave Ruth an identical gift. The pen remains one of my treasured possessions, a reminder that every young person is unique, has gifts and talents to be nurtured and I must NEVER quit on them. However, it was the content of the card that was even more touching. Emma thanked me sincerely for putting up with her nonsense (her words), said she had learnt so much about herself and hoped that, in the years ahead, she would be able to show, through her life, how important that support had been to her.

An element of surprise

Earlier this year Emma and I connected on a social media platform. It had been some years since she and I had last chatted. She had obtained a university degree and was loving the work she was doing. She concluded her message to me: “I think often about what you and other caring teachers did for me at the [school], which has shaped the person I have become today. My mum is always on my case telling me to write a letter to update you all. If you weren’t so patient with me I would never have been able to pursue my dream career. Thank you for everything you did!”

A mentoring tip

Many are the times when we are like the parachutist or sky rider taking a novice for a ride. We have to control the parachute and do our best to ensure that we land safely at our destination, no matter how choppy or gusty the wind or how risky the ride might be. We have to display calmness, empathy, tolerance, unconditional love and grace and speak into the future our novice cannot yet see. That is the Spirit of Mentoring.

About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be using their God-given talents. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in New Zealand and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Facebook or contact him through his Mentoring Matters website  Robin’s free Mentoring Minutes daily podcasts (each podcast between 2 and 4 minutes), containing hundreds of tips for anyone working with young people, are available hereAbout 45 blogs have been converted to short video clips, all of which are linked to encouraging youth to reach their potential. These are available on YouTube