When I am communicating with parents I’m often telling them that they are being a bit too wishy-washy, a bit too soft and that they need a bit more backbone in their style to get the best out of the young person that they are interacting with.
There is no one size fits all when working with young people, the key is in your flexibility. It is in how much you can change and adapt and adjust to the rising and falling tides of the young person’s emotions that you are dealing with.
I don’t say too much about when we need to have a different strategy and soften. So I’m going to give you three specific scenarios where having a softer touch approach is appropriate.
Number one, when they are tired. If you have a young person who is pushed to their limits or when we are being forceful in how we are communicating with them.
We could easily add to the anxiety, worry, and pressure that they feel.
I understand and appreciate the desire to give your children as many experiences as possible (particularly if you didn’t have them when you were growing up) via after school clubs, extra tuition, weekend activities and holiday clubs.
But they get tired, and they need more sleep than you do. If, after school, they have a couple of hours of homework and an activity, that’s equivalent of a nine to five working day after they’ve been learning all day.
Their brains are already tired, and they may be full and unable to process anymore. That’s why they need so much more sleep because their brains are processing through the night – growing and organising things that adult brains don’t need to do quite so much anymore.
If you have a child who is being sensitive and delicate on an emotional level, and you know that they’re tired, my suggestion here is to soften. Don’t push harder. Don’t ask them to push through to make them more resilient. You might just end up pushing them over the edge and that is not going to be fun for anybody.
Another time when it’s a good idea to be softer and more nurturing in your approach is if they have been mistreated. Now, if there is a constant moan of “My sister hit me around the head” that’s likely to be sibling relations and not mistreatment.
But if they’ve been involved in an incident at school, or something unexpected happened where they were a victim, then that may be a good time for you to soften.
Let me give you an example here. Once upon a time, I had a consultation with a chap who had some severe sleep issues and had been on some heavy drugs, which were not appropriate for his age to help with the sleep. I think the doctor felt like they were running out of different options but when we probed a little deeper, it transpired that he had been quite severely bullied at school, unfortunately, for quite a long time.
Mum was present during this consultation and when I asked Mum if she knew about the bullying, she responded that she did, but didn’t want to get involved and had wanted the boy to sort it out for himself. So, she was coming from a tough-love perspective.
Of course, it would be amazing to see him develop more resilience, deal with the problem on his own and get past it. But the fact that he’d ended up coming to see me, perhaps indicated that that wasn’t the outcome that was being achieved here.
I made a point of saying, in front of this young person, to the parent, that in my opinion, the parent needed to get into that school and sort out this bullying, because the sleep issue wasn’t going to get solved until they didn’t have that bullying issue to worry about.
To me, that made sense. As I was saying it, I could see this young person become wide-eyed and starting to smile because I think that what he was hearing was someone who was going to advocate for him when his parent hadn’t done it.
If you have a young person who is being victimised in some way, they’re already experiencing something tough, they don’t need tough love.
We want to be offering them a little bit of Tea and Sympathy so that we get to hear what’s going on and they feel comfortable communicating with us before we start creating a problem-solving strategy.
When we have a young person that is under bags and bags of pressure. For example, when going through exams, tests and assessments and all of those sorts of things.
They can add tremendous pressure to a young person’s life, like ridiculous, adult levels of pressure that they shouldn’t need to be experiencing.
We want to be able to give our young people as many opportunities as possible and if there’s a chance for them to go to the best ballet school that exists, then we want to put that in front of them when they have got that raw natural talent and ability to do it.
But do we want them to give themselves a breakdown to be able to achieve it? Hopefully, the answer is no.
Sometimes have teachers that might say to me, “That’s life. They’ve got to get used to these things” “They are going to have university exams in the future, they’re going to be harder than what they’re going through at the moment.”
I’m sure you’ve heard it said before that diamonds evolve under pressure because obviously, diamonds are a very precious element. Well the most expensive element on Earth is francium and that one is explosive. If you drop that into the water, it will cause a massive explosion. It is a chemical symbol is Fr and it is 87 on the periodic table.
My point is that not everything that is cultivated under pressure, and not everything that is highly valuable, is useful in the same way. We don’t want to put our young people under so much pressure, that they become explosive.
Equally, we don’t want to put them under so much pressure, that they feel so precious because of that and then they may be don’t connect well with others. So, what do we want for these young people? Is it more important that they potentially burn themselves out, push themselves to the brink of a mental break? Or is it more important that they’re okay, and that they’re good people? Maybe it’s important to soften, but not necessarily, to say, “No, you don’t need to do that exam” and allow them to opt-out of it, because that may not be appropriate either.
But could you soften so that you can have conversations such as “How can I best support you through this? What are other ways in which we can make life easier?” Can you think about how to change the structure of what’s going so that they can cope with the things that they need to put their time and focus into?
It’s not about giving them an escape route (unless you want to and sometimes that is the right thing to do). But on the most part, it’s about carving out an environment so that what they want and need to achieve can be achieved, but without unnecessary cost to other aspects of their life, such as their mental health.