#6 Rule of Excellence

March 31, 2008 at 9:49 pm | Posted in Rules of Engagement | 2 Comments
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Don’t settle for second best. Don’t get sucked into complacent mediocrity. Save your mediocrity for something that doesn’t count- bake a mediocre cake, get a mediocre score on Solitaire but please where relationships are involved go for the best, the tip top, won’t ever stop mentality.

In any relationship but particulary with teens and kids, you will only get out what you put in. So if you are expecting an excellent result with your teens but are not putting in the time or the effort and are not really stretching yourself to do the best you can then I am afraid you are going to be disappointed.

If you have got to a point with your teenager where things are not looking great, then ask yourself- have I been giving them all I can? Have I been giving them what they need? A common mistake is to shower kids with the wrong thing- for example spoiling them with gifts when all they want is to spend some quality time with you. To learn how to shower the right thing you wouldn’t go far wrong reading Dr Gary Chapman’s, Five Love Languages of Children and his latest Five Love Languages of Teenagers

Excellence means committing to try and find the solutions to your problems, thinking about what you are doing and what you need to do, exploring different strategies for relating to them and trying them out. This could mean taking the time to read up on how best to relate to your teen, attending a seminar, talking about the issues with your friends and family. In essence it means setting aside time to put them before yourself. Particularly for professionals it means using the best resources you can with the young person (a particular bug bear of mine is badly presented worksheets that have been photocopied / xeroxed within an inch of their life to the point where it is like looking at a photograph of a ghost that has been through the washing machine twenty times), and engaging them in work / discussions that have a clear logic that you have actually thought about rather than just ‘winging it’.  Do not forget that for a lot of teens, the quality of the things you present them with, physically or verbally will be their measure of the quality of your care for them.

Being a beacon of excellence WILL be hard work (if it is not then there is room to try harder) but it WILL pay dividends. Not only will your relationship improve massively but as each new improvement comes along you will be spurred on and motivated to continue. It is a gift that keeps on giving – to you and to them.

#5 Rule of Scouting- be prepared!

March 26, 2008 at 9:42 pm | Posted in Rules of Engagement | Leave a comment
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If there is one group of people that have possibly the greatest power to push adults to the brink of insanity, it is teens. They are persistent, they are stubborn and they can seem so cock sure of themselves. They know how to press your buttons- they know how to make you scream, they know how to make you crumple in defeat. They can play you better than Roger Federer plays tennis, and they won’t be as mild mannered about it either! Teenagers are experts on how to bring the worst out of their parents or professionals, particularly when it serves their ends.

So when you are trying to change some aspect of their behaviour do not go in there expecting it to be a breeze. Do that and you will get a rude surprise when you discover yourself in the middle of a hurricane. Instead you need to take the time to think about what you want to achieve and how you are going to achieve it. You need to go in there with a strategy, a plan of campaign. You need to have thought of every possible response you are going to get from your teen and have a counter-strategy.

For example, if your teen is staying out way too late and you want to get them to come in earlier you need to follow this formula, which applies to all issues:

  1. Define your goal– what time do you want them in by at the latest? If you are woolly with your teen then you can be sure that they will stretch the wool until there is enough to make a sweater. Be clear.
  2. Know what the consequences of non-compliance will be. You will need to have a range- the one that you think will work, may not ultimately. Obviously as a first stop on trying to sort this out you may not need to make threats and consequences, it may only need a conversation. However the next level is when you are having to dig your heels in, and this is when a consequence that is going to bother them needs to kick in. If they get allowance / pocket money, then dock that if they don’t come home on time. However if they are not money-motivated then this will not work. You know your child, you know what is going to hit them where it hurts.
  3. Be consistent. If you make a threat about what the consequences will be if they do not comply then you MUST MUST MUST be true to your word. If not then you might as well throw out your doormat and lay yourself down in the hall so that they can wipe their feet all over you. They will not take you seriously if you do not follow through.
  4. Be persistent. They may well come home late for the rest of the week, but they are just testing whether you mean what you say regarding consequences. If they realise you mean business then they are not going to persist. The base line principle is that you have to be more persistent than they are. This is tiring, it can send you nearly loopy but it will work.
  5. Adapt. If you are being persistent and consistent but are not getting anywhere, then consider whether you have got the consequence right. If they don’t care for the consequence then the incentive to do what you want them to is limited. Think of it this way, if you knew that every single time you ate chocolate that your skin turned green and stayed that way for a week, then you wouldn’t do it. However if every single time you got a small little green spot on your left buttock then you’d probably keep eating! It’s all about impact. What is the impact of your consequence going to be on your child? It may be that you need to up the ante. Have a back up plan in case your original one does not work out.
  6. Stay calm. When enforcing your consequences, do not blow your top- they won’t listen. Be calm but firm. If your teen sees that you adopting this technique is paining you, then they are going to be thinking that the longer they test you for, the more likely you are to crack and give in and they will keep on testing you! So you need to go into this all with a plan as to how you are going to keep yourself calm. This might mean not addressing the fact that they waltzed in at the dead of night until the following morning when you are in a better frame of mind. It might mean that instead of sitting there stewing while waiting for them to come in, that you do something that relaxes you, like having a good read in the bath. Fair enough, you might not be as relaxed as you would usually be after such an activity, but at least you will be more relaxed than you would otherwise have been.
  7. Think through what buttons they will try and press and have strategies to resist! For example, does your teen play the guilt card (“you just don’t understand. If you realised how stressed I am then you’d let me spend more time with my friends”), or the mega tantrum card (“If I go around your living room and smash your favourite vase then you’ll know that I not going to give in and will do what the hell I want”) . Again, you know your kid, think through what their likely responses are and have a counter-strategy
  8. Don’t let your guard down too soon! Their is a particular breed of teenager that will play the compliant one, but only for a limited time before reverting to previous behaviour. They might be compliant from the beginning and wait until you are not really paying any attention, and start doing the same thing again, often behind your back. On the other hand you might have had to go through the process above, finally think you have cracked the problem, let your guard down and then they revert. In which case you need to be clear, consistent and persistent with your consequences at once, or again they will think you are a walkover. Usually the return to old behaviour will happen fairly soon after you think you have cracked it, so keep your radar on for the first few weeks at least. This is fair enough and is all about establishing trust over this particular issue. However if they have earned your trust and you are still prowling around months later, then they may come to resent you and will rebel.

Teens test you for a number of reasons. First, to see if by being difficult you will give up so they can carry on as before and second, to see if you care. Very difficult teens who have had very difficult experiences in life will often test parents, carers and professionals to the absolute limits because they don’t actually believe that anybody really cares about them. They are expecting you to give up on them so they test you to see how much you care. If you follow the steps above however, then that young person will know that you care, else why would you bother? Why would you persist? It may take a long time for the most difficult teens but if you follow the formula it does work.

It will be tough and it does take effort. If we enforce these boundaries / changes in behaviour it shows that we want the best for our teens and they will eventually see that. It is when there are no boundaries that a young person will feel unloved. No greater love was there than this, that a parent / carer/ professional went through a challenging process to do the best for a child. If you ‘adminster’ the process well by being prepared then the more quickly and easily the benefits of the change in behaviour will be seen by all. The rough doesn’t just go with the smooth, it makes the smooth.

Let me do my job – New Labour and their audit culture

March 19, 2008 at 8:24 pm | Posted in Politics | Leave a comment
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I am a very untrustworthy person you know. I am lazy and I sit on my backside at work all day, drinking tea and chatting. Well at least this is the only rational explanation I can come up with as to why I spend 50% of my time under the employ of local government having to type into a database what I am going to do with the young people I work with before I work with them, and then what I have done with them after I have done it. This then results in me spending 50% less time looking at the latest research on what works to help young people and improving what I actually do with them.

And why do I have to do this? Because the government is constantly checking to see what me and my colleagues are doing to check that we are providing ‘best value’ and are operating in the most efficient effective way. What the government fails to realise however is that by checking for best value they are ensuring that we are more inefficient and less effective.

I have recently completed government endorsed training in effective practice. The main thrust of this nine month course was that as practitioners we need to reflect on our practice and look at the latest research as to ‘What works’. Well thank you for informing me of this obvious fact and providing me with this theory on the one hand, while ensuring that I cannot do it with the other.

The thing that just makes me rock with laughter about this is that due to the governments lack of trust that we are doing a good job, it is actually breeding a whole generation of number fiddlers- people putting in these databases what the government wants to hear, rather than the reality so that they don’t have them breathing down their necks. Oh, if only it was just the sweet breath of Gordon Brown on my neck, but the reality is that perceived bad performance means cuts in funding and honest returns are the norm at the moment but I do have to wonder how long that will last.

So let’s just recap, we can’t do our jobs as well as we could because we are having to record it the whole time, which means that performance must be going down (which it is), which means that we have less money, which equates to less staff, which equates to even less time improving our practice because our caseloads increase. This only leads me to wonder whether New Labour’s audit culture is actually a subtle strategy for cutting funding without it being a blatant cut. But surely this means that eventually they are going to unravel, because everything is going to end up performing badly because they are drowning public sector workers in bureaucracy. Indications are that this might indeed be happening; one only needs to look at the education system and the NHS and the cries of teachers and medics. This is why I refuse to fiddle the figures and why the vast majority of workers refuse to- unless we tell the truth then the lunacy of this overcontrolling audit culture will not be exposed.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is inevitable and correct that there is some monitoring of the performance of public sector agencies, after all it is the taxpayers money and they need to know they are getting a good return. However they also need to know that there is a line where the monitoring becomes counter-productive and does more damage than good. New Labour are so far over that line that they don’t know where it is.

The result is a haemorraghing of good workers who care about doing a good job, out of the public sector. There is only so long that you can stick with something that you see as being counter-productive. It is like being told to stuff your face with cakes by the slimming expert and then being told off for not losing weight. Nobody can stand such contradictions for long.

So I have one simple request. Trust us. Unless you do, then all the public sector will be left with are number fiddlers and people who don’t really care about how good a job they do, or those who started out caring but have had any last drop of care sucked out of them. This is no way to run a country.

Simon Caulkin wrote an excellent article on audit culture in 2002 for The Observer: http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2002/may/12/madeleinebunting.business

#4 Rule of Patience

March 17, 2008 at 9:14 pm | Posted in Rules of Engagement | Leave a comment
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Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a brand new relationship or a new phase in an existing relationship. If you are trying to overcome some issue with a teen and improve your relationship with them, don’t expect too much too soon. If you rush it, then you are less likely to succeed.

Slowly but surely is the approach to take, with praise being offered at every opportunity where a young person has made a positive change. A common mistake that I have seen parents make is witholding praise until “they have proven to me that they can keep it up”, or “He’ll just end up falling back into his old ways. I want to be sure that the change is here to stay first”. Valid thoughts, yes, as so many parents are veterans of nine minute wonder changes in behaviour (“They were great yesterday but it all went down the plughole today. She’s just as bad as before”). Yes there will be ups and downs, but if your teen gets exactly the same response from you when they do something well as when they are a nightmare, what’s the incentive to change? If change is going to be achieved and be long lasting then everyone in the relationship needs to be seeing the benefits! If you went to the gym 7 days a week and were as flabby as when you didn’t go, you wouldn’t continue going would you? It wouldn’t be worth the effort! In the same way, a teenager is not going to persist with the effort of changing their behaviour unless they see why it is worth putting in that effort. So praise at every opportunity when they are doing well is worth it- it incentivises good behaviour and makes it way more likely that they will continue on the behaviour-changing journey.

It is also vitally important that you set realistic expectations of how quickly you will see positive results and how consistent that change in behaviour will be. It may take several weeks of consistently applying a new boundary or dealing with a common situation in a new way to see any discernible change.

For example, this could occur when dealing with anger eruptions. You might find that you usually deal with your teen’s anger outbursts by shouting back at them. You may adopt a new approach of letting them have their strop without responding and asking them to go away and cool off before having a calmer discussion about the issue later on. It may take a couple of weeks for the teen to deal with the fact that they are not getting a shouting response. A fair proportion of teens will actually be having angry outbursts because they know it will push your buttons and your not rising to their bait may well end up winding them up even more intially. However if you rigidly stick to your guns then they will eventually realise that there is no point blowing their top, as it is getting them nowhere. If instead they realise that they can get you to listen better by approaching you in a calmer way, then they will. After all, if they are having anger outbursts then it is often to get your attention and if they can get better quality attention by being calm and rational then that is what they will do. Teenagers are masters and mistresses of minimal effort, maximum gain! However they are also prone to erratic behaviour and while they may take three steps forward, two steps back every now and again is to be expected. However as long as progress is being made, then it is all worthwhile. So it is key to praise them every time they have responded well, and even if they do slip up, to refer them back to the times when they did deal with a situation well and encourage them to use that method again pointing out all the benefits. Don’t throw in the towel at the first hurdle just because you had unrealistic expectations- that way you get nowhere! This also equally applies to you- you may well slip up yourself, for example falling back into the old anger outburst response of shouting back. You are not perfect either and you should cut yourself some slack. Make sure however that if you slip up that you admit it to your teen and commit to doing better yourself. That way they learn that it is not a disaster if they slip up and if they take responsibility, that all is not lost and you can still move forward. This is powerful role-modelling.

Be patient with them, be patient with yourself, offer praise whenever possible for better behaviour, be realistic and expect some hiccups on the way and you will have far greater success than if you are impatient and unrealistic. Focus on the positives and the positives will keep on coming. Before you know it, you will see more of the positive than the negative and you will have a long-lasting behaviour change on your hands, most likely for both you and them.

#3 Rule of mutual learning

March 12, 2008 at 7:32 pm | Posted in Rules of Engagement | Leave a comment
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This may come as a shock, but you don’t know everything. It will undoubtedly come as a shock to most teens that they don’t know everything too. How many times have we heard the old rhetorical when speaking to teens about something that they don’t want to talk about, “What do you know?”.

Yes as an adult you generally have the trump card on knowledge through life experience by virtue of your years but the amount of candles on your birthday cake does not mean you are the authority on every aspect of life ( even if you may be the authority on how to put out a small fire). So when engaging in a conversation with a teenager enter it in the expectation that you might learn something from them. This is the breeding ground of genuine respect- it shows you value their input and they are more likely to value yours. This is worth its weight in gold when you are trying to change someone’s behaviour for the better.

#2 Rule of Self-Preservation

March 11, 2008 at 8:58 pm | Posted in Rules of Engagement | Leave a comment
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You can’t look after the needs of others without looking after your own; you can’t give what you do not have.

If you are trying to effect change in any young person’s life or just to merely connect with them, then you need to be going into that relationship with your own tank as full as it can be. That way you can give them more energy and you will be more motivated, which translates into a feeling in the young person that you care. (For the importance of this see Rule of Neutrality).

It also means that you have the energy to deal with any challenging behaviour or general difficulties in a more “Can do”, calm and measured manner. You have to be able to deal with life’s stresses in a way that we would like our teens to. There is no point encouraging a young person to have a more ‘can do’ positive attitude if every time things don’t go to plan we descend into negativity and become a doom-and-gloom merchant. You are a role model- what you do says so much more than what you say. You have to practise what you preach.

The reality of being a parent, or working with teens (or even both!), and also having to deal with everything else in life is that often we will feel like we are running on empty. And perversely it is when we are feeling like this, that we will actually try and avoid doing the things that will make us feel more full, coming out with the reasons such as “I don’t have enough time for me”, “If I don’t do x, y and z for Tom, Dick and Stanley then the world will surely end”.

But this is plain and simply a false economy. Yes you might be doing x, y and z but if you are running on empty you won’t be doing the best job you can, you will be taking longer and will be inefficient, and when time is often our biggest enemy, inefficiency is something we cannot afford. Even worse, you are more likely to behave in front of teens in a way that damages rather than improves relationships – snap at them when they ask you something, or not take the time to really listen to them.

Going back to being a role model- don’t we want the best for our kids or the kids that we work with? Well then what better gift could we give them than teaching them to be their own petrol / gas station.

So how do you practically make sure that your tank is as full as it can be? It’s called quality ‘me’ time. For different people that means different things. For some it is going for walk in the country, for others it is lying in bed with a good book, for some engaging in some form of creative activity, or just regular exercise. It is time when we can be ourselves without the external (sometimes gale) forces of life being at the front of our minds. It is moments of escapism.

It is also about getting re-motivated, getting back to the roots of why you do what you do. So often we can get blown off-course and distracted by the minutiae of life and work and miss the bigger picture. In a parenting relationship this can mean taking time to think about why you care about how your child behaves- you want them to be the best they can be, you unconditionally love them etc. In a working context this means going on conferences and attending training, which sometimes in itself can be a fight with management. Argue for it along the lines of ‘personal development is professional development’, bringing up all the points in this post.

Look after yourself, others depend on it.

#1 Rule of Neutrality

March 10, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Rules of Engagement | Leave a comment

You cannot have a neutral impact on someone that you see on a regular basis- be it your child, a young person on your social work or youth offending caseload right through to the person that you rub shoulders with at work every day. If you are a ‘regular’ in their lives then you are having a regular impact. You might think that they aren’t listening to you, you might not speak to them much, but by virtue of the fact that you are there- you are making a difference. Thinking, “it doesn’t matter what I say they will do their own thing”, or “what I say or do won’t make any difference” is dangerous thinking. It’s hiding behind the idea that your involvement with that person is neutral and therefore that what you say and do isn’t really all that important. After thoughts come actions, or inactions and if your thinking is wrong then so will your actions be- sloppiness, limited effort and a gloomy sense of pre-determinism. At this point you are nowhere near neutral- you are having a negative impact.

Young people can smell you a mile off. Particularly those kids with behavioural problems, or those who have had a rough start in life and are vulnerable- 9 times out of 10 the reason they have their problems is because they have been failed by adults- parents and all too often professionals. If they see another one coming then the barriers will come up. They will be thinking, “Here comes another one, God help me!”. Given half a chance they will run (not turn up to your appointments or if at home will run off to their rooms) or they will put the barriers up verbally and tell you colourfully to get lost.

Put yourself in their shoes. If you have had the worst haircut of your life, the next time you walk into a barbers / hairdressers, sit down and get yourself comfortable and then see in the mirror the incompetent hairdresser walk towards you, you don’t just sit there. You run, you run like the wind, or tell the hairdresser in no uncertain terms that if they put a pair of scissors anywhere near your head that you might do them some damage.

Always go into a new relationship with the expectation that the young person sat before you is going to sniff you out, put you to the test. If you have even a whiff of negative determinism, or a sloppy ‘can’t be bothered’ view, then you can only expect a poor level of engagement. In professional terms this will manifest either through non-attendance, non-cooperation in sessions, or faked engagement that just gets you off their backs.

If you are trying to get your child engaged with you at home after a rocky spell they will sniff you out too and may respond with disengagement (doing anything to avoid being with you), argumentativeness (“What do you know you crusty old fool”) or fake cooperation (“yes Mum I’ll never smoke again”, while smoking out their bedroom window every night). Young people can and will forgive you if you have made errors in the past, are upfront about them and show them that you are genuine*, but it will come undone if you don’t operate from the base principle that you can make a difference in their life.

If you get through the test period and you have not given up on them, even when they have pushed you to the edge of despair with their non-engagement, their negativity or their fake cooperation then they will come to believe that you genuinely care. Knowing that someone cares is the base need that every person has, and most of all young people. The test period might be short or it could be painfully long, but the end result is ALWAYS the same and on that hard won foundation a great building will rise.

Entering the test zone with the belief that you are going to have a neutral impact will end up in failure- a pile of rubble from which nothing can rise. Entering the test zone with a belief that you are going to have an impact, motivates you to do your best and exponentially increases the chances of success.

To think your attitudes don’t affect your behaviour is as stupid as suggesting that a young person’s attitudes don’t affect their behaviour. If you want to get real with them, then you’ve got to get real with yourself.

You do make a difference and will always have an impact- believe that and success moves closer.




* ‘The Rule of Redemption’, that you can turn an ongoing relationship around is a blog for another day.


The Rules of Engagement

March 10, 2008 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Rules of Engagement | Leave a comment
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The basic stuff of relationships is engagement. All parties need to be able to relate to one another, communicate and ultimately want to put something in and get something out in order for that relationship to work. However, with teens this can be a problem. Due to the complexities of adolesence, engagement is often the last thing they want to do with an adult and this can often lead to problems, not least when an adult identifies that the teen that they live or work with is exhibiting challenging behaviour and they want to do something about it, be it a small or large issue.

What follows is a series of posts all about the rules of engagement with teens. With many years working with teens in a youth justice setting who have initially wanted to disengage my head from my neck rather than engage with me, these posts come from a sea of experience. The lessons I have learned and the knowledge acquired, although coming from the extreme end of adolescent behaviour are just as applicable to all sorts of levels of relationships with teens, from the family home to school to social care- any environment where teens are about!


February 4, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Posted in Commentary | Leave a comment

This is the blog of Sam Ross, Teenage / Adolescent Behavioural Consultant.

I aim to provide tips, insight, relief and ‘Aha!’ moments to all those out there living and/or working with teens. For those working professionally I will also be posting practical programmes of work.

Teens can be the best to live and work with, and sometimes it can feel like the worst, but if you know how and have the ‘whispers’, everyone can get along great with them!

Happy reading!

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