By Laura Fralich, teacher Gray-New Gloucester High School

Give them choices: People like to have choices in order to feel in control. Toddlers have a lot of their lives dictated to them so they want to assert their independence whenever they can. Giving them choices allows them to feel in control even if the end result is the same. We always give my daughter the choice of her blue jacket or her black jacket, she consistently chooses her blue jacket but she insists that we lay out her options every morning. Similarly, teenagers are at a life stage when they desperately want their independence but there are many things they are not fully ready to do on their own. Giving them choices allows them to feel a sense of autonomy while ultimately achieving the same goal – i.e., write an essay or do an oral presentation. Either way, they are demonstrating their knowledge but they feel a greater sense of control and they may be able to use the skills that better suit them.

Set Clear Boundaries and Expectations

My daughter is constantly and exhaustingly pushing boundaries – e.g., How far down the driveway can I run? How high can I climb on this bookshelf? Although they will challenge it, they are testing our limits in order to understand where the line is and if we will hold that line. This ultimately provides a sense of security in knowing where that edge is and that we won’t let them fall off it. Teenagers similarly need to test us to know where the boundaries are and to see if we will enforce them. As frustrating as this can be, being consistent with these boundaries provides a sense of security. People who have experienced trauma have often not had clear boundaries set in their life, so although they might be the ones who push the most, they are desperately seeking an understanding of where the line is because it has historically been a moving target.

Challenge Them With Support

My daughter is really into puzzles. Although she is 2, she has far outgrown the 2+ puzzles and she can pretty consistently complete a 3+ puzzle on her own. My husband got her a 4+ puzzle for Christmas, a 120-piece ocean scene that I thought was way out of her league. However, with our support and guidance, she completed it. If we only gave her toys and games at her developmental level, she might never learn new skills or feel a sense of accomplishment. However, if we gave her the puzzles and did not support her, she would get frustrated and give up and might never try something challenging for fear of failure. Similarly, teenagers need to be challenged with support. We cannot be disappointed when they give up if we have not given them adequate support for a challenging task. This is how many students lose self-confidence and become disengaged with their education.

Use Humor in Discipline

My daughter is extremely reactive to our telling her not to do something in a harsh or stern voice. More often than not, she digs her heels in and does that thing with more passion and determination. If you tell her “Whatever you do, DO NOT throw that fork, GIVE IT TO ME RIGHT NOW”, she’ll give you a mischievous grin and throw it to some unreachable place under the couch. But if you use humor to lighten the mood- “Do you think that fork can be used as a hairbrush, why don’t you give it to me and we’ll try?” – she thinks this is hilarious and willingly gives it up. Similarly, with teenagers, humor has the amazing ability to lighten the mood and put you on the same level while also achieving what you want – “I know you all want to go to the bathroom together so you can all vape together but unfortunately only one of you is allowed to do it at a time.”

Validate Their Feelings and Brainstorm a Solution

Everyone wants to feel seen and heard. When boundaries need to be set or discipline needs to be enforced, validating their feelings makes people feel seen and understood and they are usually more willing to comply – “I know you really want to play with that butcher knife, that must be really frustrating to not get what you want, maybe you can try cutting the banana with the butter knife instead” or “I know you want to SnapChat with your friends all class, it’s probably really annoying to hear me tell you to put it away all the time. Can you talk to your friends about it at lunch instead?”

Apologize and Repair

We all inevitably get frustrated, short-tempered, or angry with our toddlers and our students. Saying you’re sorry afterward shows them that you are human and it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you make amends and work towards repairing the relationship. It also models the behavior you want to see and shows them how to say sorry appropriately. Not apologizing sends the message that anger is an acceptable reaction to frustration.

Unconditionally Believe in Their Inherent Good

All humans are inherently good and want to succeed; their needs just might not be getting met or they don’t have the tools to communicate those needs. One time when I was nursing my infant, my daughter picked up my coffee cup and when I told her to put it down she proceeded to dump the entire cup on my computer. After calming down from my state of panic and rage, I was able to recognize that she didn’t do that because she is a malicious child. She did it because I was giving my attention to our newborn and not to her and she didn’t know how to communicate her frustration and sadness about that. Similarly, teenagers want to be successful but they sometimes lack the necessary skills or the ability to communicate what they need. Instead, those needs manifest in behaviors that are often disruptive, defiant, or reclusive. If we dig deeper to understand what their unmet needs are, we can give them the support that they are seeking but not communicating. However, it is essential that we start from the unconditional and wholehearted belief that they are inherently good.

Take Care of Yourself

We can’t do any of this if we are overtired and overworked. The best thing we can do for our kids and our students is to take care of ourselves so that we can be present and our best selves.

Laura Fralich,
Gray-New Gloucester High School