Teen rudeness and righting wrongs: the hidden justice paradox and how to harness it to lose the rude (Part 2)

So last post we explored how our ‘mouthy’, rude and  argumentative teens often have at their core a strong sense of justice. The paradox in all of this is that despite this sense of justice, it can cause them, when they perceive injustice,  to treat us, as their parents, teachers or workers, with great contempt and very unjustly. The problem is that justice lies in the rational part of their brains, but their emotional response to it lies elsewhere and when they sense injustice their emotions take over and can cause them to express themselves very poorly. So if we ask them to do something that they view as being unfair, they will often get very angry and try to argue with us in a very clumsy rude way. We then get angry with them for their disrespect and we often end up with a rapidly escalating incident where we can almost forget what the original request was, as it was, at least in our minds, a fairly simple one.

Which brings us to this post- What can we do to get them to express themselves better, to not treat us like a verbal and/or physical punchbag? How can we get them to respond more appropriately to their perceived sense of injustice? How do we avoid the emotional blowouts? What should we say and do when they are trying to draw us into an argument as to why we are wrong and they are right?

1. Whenever possible, explain why

Perceived injustice often stems from them not knowing the reason why they have been asked to do, or not do, something. Obviously sometimes there just isn’t the time to explain why, I get that, but whenever and wherever possible, try to explain yourself so that they understand why. That way you can often avoid there being a problem in the first place.

So if you are telling them that they can’t stay out with their friends until 11pm, or that they have to put their phone away in class after everyone else has and they haven’t, add in the reason why. For example, “You can’t stay out till then because you’ve got school in the morning and sleep is important for us all to function”, or “Can you put your phone away please? I need your full attention and I know I just don’t ping and flash enough to win against your phone!”.

Note here how the use of ‘us’ can minimise the potential adversarial nature of the interaction, and the use of a bit of honest humour lightens the whole mood. It becomes less about telling them what to do in a seargent major kind of a way, and more about communicating your need. It comes across to them as being more fair than just being barked an order.

2. Don’t completely shut them down… delay

If despite all this they still argue with you, all is not lost.

For example, if you have just told them to stop doing something and they are beginning to argue you with you about why they weren’t in fact doing it, or that there is some excellent reason as to why they were doing it, don’t enter into a debate with them unless you actually have the time to listen. Otherwise they will pick up that you are pretend listening and are just trying to shut them up, which will just make them wild. To them that is injustice served up on injustice.

If you don’t have the time, say, “We don’t have time to go into this right now, but I’m interested to understand. We can talk about this at x time (like at the end of the lesson), but right now I need you to do this”. Be warned, the first few times you do this they may well lose it as they want to debate this now, like NOW! Don’t engage with the emotion and the obnoxiousness they may well throw at you, as they are desperately trying to pull you into a debate NOW. Do not give in. Do not get sucked in. Just firmly but calmly repeat that “I do want to hear from you, but it’s better if we do this later when I can give you my full attention” (and in your head tell yourself, “and once you’ve calmed down” but don’t say that out loud as nothing drives a person who is not calm, more mad than telling them so). They may well still have a full-on fit of anger in which case remove them or yourselves (depending on what the context is) until they have piped down. Trying to engage them in a rational conversation is just not going to happen, the brain chemistry is all wrong, so don’t even try.

3. Actually have the conversation

Then later on once the anger and emotion has died down, make sure you do actually have the conversation with them about why they feel/felt aggrieved. This is the bit that so often never happens and why the situation never improves. We can’t tell them that we will talk about this with them later and then not do it. That only adds to their sense of injustice. That is as bad in their eyes as just straight out shutting them down in the first place, “be quiet and do as you’re told”. If we want them to hear us, they have to feel that they have been heard. Yes, it does require a whole load more effort, but it does make everyone’s lives easier in the long run.

Ask them what the issue was for them.

Let them get it all out before responding. Particularly resist the urge to disagree with them, to essentially tell them that their version of events is all wrong. Let them have their say. Let them feel that they have been heard. For these kids, not feeling heard is one of the biggest injustices.

Thank them for sharing in such a calm way.

You are reinforcing good communication methods. Tell them that it is much easier to understand and respond to their complaint when you do it when you are both calm. This expression of togetherness is important as it removes the perception in their head that this is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation and introduces the idea of you as a human being rather than an inanimate punchbag.

Respond respectfully

You might find that you understand or appreciate something about the incident in question that you didn’t at the time, but now do once they have shared calmly. In which case, great! They feel heard and you are better informed. Tell them that this is really good to know and talk about how you could both try and avoid something similar happening again. Trust me, they will start to see you completely differently and won’t jump to the conclusion that you are a clueless idiot quite so quickly again.

Chances are though, that you will disagree with a lot of what they have said you did, or what happened, if not all of it. Often it will seem like you are talking about something completely different from what you experienced and will wonder which planet they are on. Try not to get annoyed, however annoying it may be! Calmly and respectfully let them know that this is not how you remembered it but you still appreciate them sharing with you. Here you are modelling how to disagree well. If you get annoyed with them because of what you perceive as the injustice of their lies, then you’re not actually communicating with them much better than how they responded to you when they felt a great injustice had been committed against them. Take the high road.

Use phrases like, “I feel….”, “I think…”. So you might say something like, “I think that our recollection of what happened is not the same. My recollection is that……”

Be sure to let them know how their behaviour made you feel. For example, “When you shouted at me I felt disrespected. I felt like you were not listening to me. I was frustrated because your behaviour was disrupting the class and being able to teach everyone is very important to me”.

Avoid “you” statements like the plague. “You” statements come across as aggressive and you telling them how it was and how they feel. The above ‘I’ example comes across far more constructively than a ‘you’ version: “You were being so disrespectful. You were not listening to me. Your behaviour was disrupting the class. You were disturbing everyone else and stopping me from being able to teach”. I guarantee the “you” version will cause the young person to mentally shut down, to disengage, “What does he/she know?”, or worse to get angry all over again.

Aside from ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ statements being good role-modelling of assertiveness, it also encourages further communication because they feel less ‘got at’ but you have still been able to get your point across. When you use ‘I’ statements, they are more likely to do the same. You both feel less ‘got at’ and more inclined to share constructively. If you start serving up ‘you’ statements, they are more likely to do the same and you both will come more entrenched in your positions and most likely get angrier and angrier and nothing ends up changing.

The golden nugget in ‘I’ statements is that you are showing your humanity, demonstrating that you are a human being with feelings. This is an important wake-up call for teens as you’d be amazed how much they forget this. It’s like they think us adults are robots and that’s why they can treat us so appallingly.

I get that you might be enormously disinclined to share with them, even just to say how their behaviour made you feel, after all which rabbit lies down and shows a fox its belly, but you must remember that you are not in fact the prey and they are not the predator. At the end of the day we are all humans, we all have feelings, we can all get it wrong but we can all fix it with a good bit of communication. Show them your humanity and you’ll find that they too are more inclined to show theirs. At the end of the day if we are to help them change then we need them to accept their humanness, including their flaws and there is no quicker way to get them to do this than to show them that we are humans too.

4. What if they don’t communicate?

In all of this you might find you flounder at asking them for their version of events, because they clam up and say nothing. This can be for a number of reasons:

They may really struggle to communicate, for a whole host of reasons. Tell them to take their time, you really want to sort this situation out and to do that you need to hear from them. If you’re still not getting anywhere, give them the opportunity to go away and come back again later. It might be they find it easier to communicate on paper, either in writing or by doing a flow-chart diagram of what happened.

They might not actually remember what happened, particularly if they did end up blowing up. This then frustrates them immensely, as there was a perceived injustice, and now they have the opportunity to be heard, they can’t remember to effectively ‘fight their corner’ as they see it. Ask them if this is the case. Then encourage them, if it happens again (which it invariably will) to go away and right down what their problem is, so that you can discuss it and try to avoid the situation arising again.

They think you are a complete tool and not worth talking to. While they stare at the ceiling, or roll their eyes or scowl at you, tell them that even though they might not want to discuss it you really want to understand as they seem to be really angry and that can’t feel great. Your door is always open, you are always available to talk when they are ready. It’s likely that there will be another incident as their sense of justice won’t just disappear, but if you keep on reminding them that you want to understand, then you maximise the chances that eventually they will talk.

5. Consequences

In all of this it may be appropriate or within the standard rules in school, for example, for there to be some consequence for their behaviour. Make it abundantly clear, if applicable, when issuing the ‘ticket’ that this is not a consequence for how they felt – annoyance, frustration, whatever – but a consequence for how they expressed it, making sure they know why their expression of it was not acceptable (emphasising the impact on others, including yourself).

We so often send unclear messages, which end up with teens thinking that they are not allowed to feel certain things, when in fact our problem is not the emotion, which they are allowed to feel, but in their expression of it.

In this confusion, teens often are left with an even greater sense of injustice when issued a ticket, precisely because they feel that they are being punished for feeling, which would be unjust if it were true. That’s why it is so, so important that we link any consequences directly with their expression of an emotion and not the emotion itself. Then they are more likely to view us as fair and as wanting to help them rather than just wanting to punish.

6. Re-education on the road to justice

If we are to really help them change their communication ways, it is likely that we or someone needs to take the time to really sit down with the young person and help them to see that their current vitriolic way of dealing with a perceived injustice is actually less likely to lead to any justice. People stop listening and discount the essence of what they are trying to say- the message gets lost in the delivery.

Next post I’ll go into what that sort of intervention should look like and what it should include. When we work with a teen, working from where they are and working with their own strong motivations, such as justice, we can deliver highly targeted and effective interventions that actually interest them as it feeds into their own internal drives.

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