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How to Expand Your Teen's Perspective

From Meg Bamford, Head of Miriam School and Learning Center

One concept I have come to appreciate is that a person’s perspective is their reality. It’s easy to say, but not always an easy idea to understand for any age. This is especially true when we believe that only our opinion or perspective is correct.

For teenagers, coaching them to see beyond their “personal reality” takes considerable practice at each developmental phase.

Psychologists warn us about what happens when people argue and defend their perspectives and opinions. Often, those opinions actually will become more ingrained.

There is also the aspect of inertia. People experience something called “cognitive dissonance” – when the new information they are learning clashes with their existing knowledge or thoughts – which makes them feel uneasy. Psychological studies show that most people would rather dismiss information than reshape their worldviews to accommodate this new perspective.

You can see why trying to convince your child to change their mind may be harder than you think.

Here are several suggestions for helping to open your child’s perspective:

  • Try to remain neutral in your response. Using a negative tone or sarcasm, or yelling at them, will not help the situation. In fact, they will likely focus more on how you are saying something versus what you are saying. Take a breath.
  • Remember their perspective is their reality.
  • Ask questions. They will depend on the situation, and examples may include: What do you think happened? Why is this important to you? How will this help you? How do I know you will be safe? What do you think I am going to say about this? What facts do you have to support this?
  • Validate their perception, even if it means simply rephrasing what they believe.
  • Problem-solve together. Use questions like, I wonder what we could do be better next time? What other activities can you do instead?
  • If prudent, offer a personal experience in which you were in a similar situation and what you learned from it.
  • Go back to the big picture (safety, showing your best self, etc.).
  • Render your decision/perspective. Stick to it. If your child has misbehaved, remind them that you will always love them, but you do not like the action they have done.
  • Follow through with anything you problem-solved together.
  • If the first “plan” doesn’t work after a day or so, revisit the process.
  • If needed, write everything down, so your child has a visual resource to refer to.

By trying to build bridges of understanding with your child, you stop the pattern of behavior when children becoming highly invested in the fight, rather than seeing the big picture.

What I sometimes see with teenagers is that they can become fixated on a detail, and they fail to understand the full situation. When people get upset, they often are using the reptilian part of their brain, which means they are unable to access their frontal lobe, critical for executive functioning skills. Instead, they tend to be in “fight, flight, freeze, or flock” mode.

Often, you will find that kids have missed the rest of the conversation and do not truly understand their contribution to the situation.

Recently, my daughters accused me of denying them social competency in elementary school because I wouldn’t allow them to watch certain TV shows. I felt the girls on those shows were sassy, unkind, and rude. For a while, those discussions were endless and their feelings strong, but I am still glad I held out. Even eight years later, with elementary school days well behind them, clearly, the girls still don’t like the decision. However, they did stop mimicking the negative behavior of the girls on those shows.

Psst… I secretly look forward to the day that they will navigate these particular waters with their own children.