Ep 46: Handling Problem Teenagers
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David Sortino, author and psychologist, talks about the lessons he learned working at a school for problem teenagers during his twenties. He developed a unique approach, using kinesthetic activities to engage the students. This episode also covers his book on the neuroscience of learning.
Full Show Notes
David Sortino’s passion for working with troubled teenagers started during his own childhood when his school administered an achievement test to determine which level of classes each student would be placed in. David threw the test in revolt and was placed in a special education class referred to by everyone else at the school as the “Zoo-Zoo Class”. During that year, he noticed how everyone treated the “Zoo-Zoo” students and it inspired his interest in troubled teenagers.
In addition to his PhD in developmental psychology and his doctoral work at Harvard, Dr. Sortino has a lot of real-world experience working with troubled teenagers to draw from. He’s worked with juvenile offenders in prison, gangsters seeking rehabilitation, and kids who have been expelled from school. His book, The Promised Cookie, is the true story of a school for troubled teenagers where Dr. Sortino worked during his twenties. Using unconventional methods he was able to get through to a group of very hard-to-reach students.
What parts of David’s methods can parents apply with their own difficult-to-reach teens?
Well, for one thing, he explained how to use a behavior contract most effectively with a teenager. The key, David says, is to appeal to their current stage of moral reasoning while also challenging them to use their higher-level morality. Most teens are in the ‘Reciprocity’ stage, says Sortino. This means they will respond best when they feel like they are getting something in return for every concession they make on a contract. Additionally, writing the contract will also challenge your teen to think about right and wrong, a higher level of moral reasoning.
Another tip, David told me, is to focus on your expectations for your teenager. Do you have expectations that your teen’s current actions are hurting their future? Or that your teen should or shouldn’t go to college? It’s hard not to! We all have hopes and dreams for our kids. But those expectations can actually cause teens to rebel and push against our influence. How do you manage your own expectations for your teen? David has some tips on this episode.
Dr. Sortino also taught me a great strategy for connecting and empathizing with your teenager. He says the key is to think back to the most vulnerable moments of your own childhood and imagine how you felt during those moments. Remember feeling scared and worried and embarrassed as a kid and teen. When you approach conversations with your own teenager after doing this kind of visualization you’ll feel much more connected.
During our interview, David covered all of these topics as well as a ton of other great stuff.
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Word-for-word examples of WHAT to say to your teen
1. When your teen seems “lost”:
“Look, I really understand what you’re going through. Just believe in yourself and try to get through this period. Go with where your heart is.”
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Appeal to Your Teenager’s Sense of Reciprocity:
Most teens are still in a stage of reasoning that focuses on reciprocity, David told me. This means they respond very well if you can always make them feel like they are getting something from you whenever you want something from them. One great way to do this, David says, is to ask for way more than you want so that you can bargain down to a lower number and make your teen feel like they are winning. This is similar to what I learned from FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. For instance, you could ask your teen to do 45 minutes of work and then let them talk you down to 30 and then 25. Think about the top things you want your teenager to do right now and write them down. Then think about how you could ask for double what you really want. Try asking for this instead of what you really want. Then, be willing to bargain.
2. Define Your Expectations for Your Teenager:
3. Feel Your Teen’s Vulnerability:
About David Sortino
With a Master’s degree in Human Development from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Clinical/developmental Psychology from Saybrook University, Dr. David Sortino is a leading expert on dealing with difficult children. David is the author of two books. The Promised Cookie is the story of a group of troubled students he worked with during his twenties. A Guide to How Your Child Learns is a collection of essays David wrote about educational neuroscience, with many relating directly to the teenage years.
David also holds additional credentials for working with learning handicapped students, specialized resources, and multiple subject teaching. He consults with parents and schools in the areas of achievement motivation and school success.