Connecting with emotional teenagers is a critical piece of the job as a social worker. Evidence shows compassion can significantly improve both depth and quality of the relationship. Compassion will not only engage with teenagers authentically, but it’s also an opportunity to model a healthy, pro-social trait that will serve kids well into adulthood. So what does practicing compassion looks like? Four simple gestures will go a long way with adolescents.
When was the last time you told a teen you’re thankful for interacting with and learning from them? When we make a concerted effort to express gratitude, we create an opportunity for shared experience and foster an environment of compassion. There are a number of ways to express gratitude, all of which will have positive effects. Recognize and appreciate small changes and contributions the teen has made during your time together. Embrace struggles, personal, interpersonal, academic or social, and acknowledge that challenges are opportunities for growth. You could even reveal a struggle you overcame. Identify what each teen brings to the table and let them know you’re thankful for those qualities.
Expressing gratitude cultivates empathy, fosters awareness and leads to a greater sense of happiness and well-being for both the giver and the receiver. With practice, gratitude grows and becomes something we experience more often in our day-to-day lives. Modeling this practice for teens is a great way to create a compassionate environment. Show teens that when we reflect on gratitude, a negative situation can be transformed into valuable experiences.
Give a little, get a lot.
Think about the last time someone extended themselves to you in a surprising or unexpected way. A customer service representative patiently walks you through a question or concern about an insurance claim. Your barber runs after you with the glasses you left in the barbershop. A server at a restaurant makes sure your water glass is full before you realize you need more. All were done with a smile and kindness.
When people take the extra time and care to anticipate and meet our needs, it makes us feel appreciated. And teens are no different. When adults are rude, unfriendly, inconsiderate or condescending, teens are far less likely to want to cooperate. On the other hand, when we’re kind, considerate and extend ourselves beyond the minimum requirements, we cultivate a sense of compassion that’s likely to build relationships with the teens we help.
Research for the guide about engaging authentically with teens, surprisingly shows how much teens appreciated when adults extended themselves beyond what was expected. Adults who spent extra time with teens on the field, in classrooms after school or in the community, felt more respect from teens. They also felt more motivated to perform in those domains. When being generous with our time, a little bit of kindness can go a long way.
Time isn’t the only generous resource. Generosity of spirit, or sharing ourselves with teens freely, is a state of mind that we can cultivate compassion. This type of generosity takes self-awareness, self-compassion and the courage to make and own our mistakes. It’s important to compassionately respect and model our own limits. Pay attention to when we feel depleted or need recharging. If we overextend ourselves, we risk diminishing our ability to be of service.
Embracing a healthy lifestyle is required to maintain a generous spirit around teens. Setting an example of self-care is a great way to motivate teens.
Offer and invite feedback…Kindly.
Giving and receiving feedback is an important part of interacting with teens. Asking teens for their feedback shows social workers care what teens think and the impact our methods have on them. When social workers give feedback, it shows compassion and exuberance in helping teens achieve their goals.
Compassion is important to feedback because it is difficult to receive. Often times, it is a challenge taking negative feedback, but for some teens it can be hard to take positive feedback and compliments. By understanding teens’ reaction to feedback, we express compassion and an interest in understanding who they are.
Compassion is not just a soft skill. It’s a way of building relationships. When social workers model and express compassion with teens, not only will that strengthen the relationships,it will also increase the likelihood that our work will be effective. And most importantly, we set an example of how to behave and create a kinder, more caring world.