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Giving Feedback to Teens

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Research has consistently shown that the therapeutic relationship is one of the most significant factors when it comes to creating real and lasting change in our clients. Helping professionals who work with teens have a unique challenge in relating to and engaging authentically with adolescents. They aren’t kids anymore, and they’re not quite adults yet either. Because we cannot fully know what it feels like to be a teenager in today’s world, communication is paramount to building a productive working relationship.

One way to foster strong communication with teens is to offer constructive feedback in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the relationship. This can be a tricky task, but when done effectively, feedback is a relationship enhancer that leads to positive outcomes.

Here are some strategies that I’ve found helpful for facilitating feedback while maintaining a focus on an authentic relationship.

Anchor your feedback around a positive personal trait or characteristic. 

This may sound counter to much of what you may have heard in the past about providing feedback about performance in a way that is objective and decidedly not personal. But consider this: When we address a trait like determination, sensitivity, or sense of humor, we express interest in and acknowledge the teen in a deeper way. This approach can reinforce something that’s working well, or focus on redirecting something that’s getting in the way of the teen achieving her goals.

It may help to describe the idea that traits and characteristics are a two-sided coin. There’s always an upside and a downside. For example, productive persistence is another version of disruptive stubbornness; and intense emotions resulting in warmth and empathy for others can also result in emotional pain. Helping teens to understand how particular characteristics drive their behavior can also help them see how such behaviors may serve them well in some situations and not so well in others. Encouraging young people to accept themselves and pointing out their qualities and how they allows them to hear the feedback without defensiveness and can offset feedback’s sting so it is more useful and likely to result in a change in behavior.

Link feedback to the goals of the young person.

As helping adults, we should always think about the purpose and function of the feedback we’re giving, rather than responding with irritation or impatience. This means both being clear within ourselves before we open our mouths, and also stating clearly to the teen what the purpose of the feedback is in relation to what matters to them.

Help teens see which of their behaviors advance them toward their goals and which ones stand in the way makes feedback useful and effective. Consider starting with a statement or question acknowledging what’s important to the teen before helping her explore whether her approach has moved her close to what is important or further away.

Remember that feedback often takes time to integrate. 

Feedback should be a collaborative process. Ideally, the process of giving and receiving feedback is a dialogue that encourages a spirit of self-exploration and personal inquiry into what’s important to the teens you work with. If possible, it should be a prompt to help her come to conclusions about how she might think about adjusting her behavior to move closer to what matters. This approach may take more time than simply telling an adolescent what needs to change, but it will be time well spent.

If at all possible, instead of telling a teen what needs to change, try instead asking questions that lead her to her own conclusions. As her what she notices about the way people respond to certain behaviors and if this is what she is seeking. Consider asking her to pay attention to the less direct natural feedback all around her. This will encourage her to take ownership of her behavior with greater understanding of her goals, her boundaries, and herself as a whole.

When it comes to potentially embarrassing or awkward subjects, be short and sweet. 

Particularly for teens, whose bodies are going through rapid changes, there are plenty of subjects that can be downright embarrassing to address. There are times when it is really none of our business, but there are also times when these issues affect our work with the teen or when we see that these issues may be affecting them negatively in other realms of their lives. In the latter case, it’s our responsibility to say something.

One way to give feedback on potentially embarrassing topics is to frame your comments in terms of the natural growth and maturation that occurs with adolescents. Don’t forget to communicate that your intentions come from a place of caring, while taking a straight-to-the-point, nonjudgmental, problem-solving approach. Normalize the potentially awkward subject (i.e. a teen’s increasingly noticeable body odor after gym class, or the revealing nature of a young person’s clothing), propose a solution, and move on. Teens appreciate when adults are open and direct, and this will go a long way in establishing and maintaining a relationship characterized by honesty and authenticity.

Put behaviors in a social context. 

Socially successful teens are aware of how their behaviors are impacting others, and feedback is a great way to help them build this awareness. Egocentrism is developmentally inherent in teens, but understanding the effects they have on those around them helps maintain perspective. It also helps build motivation for behavior change.

Frame feedback by expressing good intentions. 

One approach that teens respond to is to say, “If I didn’t know you so well, I’d be reluctant to tell you this directly; may I give you some feedback?” This allows you to frame the feedback within caring intentions, and most young people’s ears perk up at the information to follow.

It can be awkward at times to be direct and honest with the teens we work with. Even when we’re able to engage authentically, feedback can be difficult to accept for all people, regardless of age or stage of life. If we make a commitment to deliver feedback with compassion and kindness whenever possible, we can at least ensure that teens will pick up on our intentions to communicate caring and respect, which will ultimately lead to a stronger and more authentic relationship in the long run.

Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C, provides mental health services to adolescents and their families in the Washington, D.C., area. He is co-author of What Works with Teens: A Professional's Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.

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