Ep 97: One Trusted Adult

Episode Summary

Brooklyn Raney, author of One Trusted Adult, shares with Andy what she’s seen works with teens as a mentor, high school dean, camp director, and parent herself. Having support at home is important for teens, but having just one trusted adult outside the home can be even more impactful.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Helping your teenager approach independence is hard. You want to make sure they know how to make their own choices so they’re prepared for adulthood–but you want them to always make the right choices. You want them to have autonomy and take care of things on their own–as long as they do it the way you want.

Even though it might be tempting to always take control and step in when your kid is making tough decisions, sometimes you just need to let your teenager learn on their own. If you constantly insert yourself in your teenager’s choices, they’re not going to be able to handle life’s crazy obstacles when they no longer have you to guide them through every little thing. Sometimes, you just need to let go and watch your teenager go at the world  themselves.

Brooklyn Raney has a lot to say about the benefits of letting go. She’s a speaker, teacher, and educator, and the author of One Trusted Adult: How to Build Strong Connections and Healthy Boundaries with Young People. She also runs a leadership camp for girls which helps teach young women about teamwork and resilience, and is a high school dean. Her work has helped parents, kids and educators everywhere learn the value of letting go.

She compares raising a child to raising a baby bird. If young birds are given too much assistance when they’re young and fragile, then they never learn to fly. Similarly, if teenagers are controlled and micromanaged, they’ll never develop the critical thinking and decision making skills that are necessary to becoming a functional adult.

As an educator, Brooklyn has seen this principle in action. When several of her students were using the social media app Yik Yak to anonymously bully other students, she and her fellow faculty members had a tough time figuring out the best solution. They tried issuing a message over the platform, but they were only met with disdain–and the bullying continued. Finally, a group of students decided to band together and drown out the negative comments by posting a massive influx of positive ones. It ended up working even better than they imagined.

It just goes to show that if we can invest in the abilities of young people, we can help them grow to become independent and innovative. Instead of trying to step in and control the situation, let them work it out and learn from thinking critically to reach an effective solution.

As a parent, helping a teenager grow more independent means helping a teenager learn to handle their own emotions. Brooklyn breaks down how to practice the principle of letting go when helping a child work through a personal issue. She says one of the most simple, helpful, and unobtrusive gestures you can partake in when comforting a troubled teen is simply asking them whether or not they would like advice. Inquire if they’d prefer your opinion or if they would just like you to listen. 

In doing this, you’re not telling them how to live or act. You’re allowing them to make a choice and practice autonomy. At the same time, you’re showing them you’re still there for them emotionally and can offer advice if needed. Many times, teenagers don’t really want or need to be given advice. They just want a trusted adult to listen to their problem and offer some comfort, so that they can continue working through the problem in their own way on their own time.

This is a very important idea: a trusted adult during the teen years is key to ensuring a person’s mental health remains strong in their lifetime. In the episode, Brooklyn cites research that has proven this concept again and again. This trusted figure can be a parent, but it can also be someone outside the home such as a coach, teacher, aunt, uncle, etc. If the non-parent mentor is connected to the parents in some way,  that’s even better.

Brooklyn gives a great example in the episode. Her story delves into her son’s incident with his school’s administration regarding a vape pen. He was sent home for having the pen at school, and although his father administered an articulate, powerful talk on why this is unacceptable, Brooklyn’s son didn’t seem to be receptive to any verbal reinforcement. Later on, however, his drum teacher delivered to him a very similar speech about the dangers of vaping, and he was held in rapt attention and seemed to get the message.

While it may be frustrating that your teenager trusts another adult that isn’t you, the important thing is making sure there is  someone in their lives whom they listen to and connect with. If teens have a trusting, healthy relationship with an adult who can help guide them through life, they’ll enter adulthood with more grit and more problem solving abilities.

When it comes to this independent decision making, your teenager may not always know what they want. One day, they adopt a particular identity, and the next day, they’re a totally different person. While this may feel disorienting or frustrating for you, Brooklyn reminds us that it’s important to remember: all humans are flexible, fluid people. Young people are especially elastic, as they are still searching for the permanent aspects of their identity. 

One great way to help your teenager through this is to model the fluidity of identity in your own life. If you show that you’re open to change, you will help your teenager to see that it’s natural to continue to evolve and grow as an individual far past teenagerhood. It’s especially important for your kids to see you fail, learn from your mistakes and adapt. If they see this resilience in you, then they are likely to understand how they can apply it to their own lives.

Teenagers will always struggle with identity; it’s part of being young. Brooklyn talks for a while on the idea of ensuring that teens have a varied identity. This means making sure teenagers don’t put all their eggs in one basket, making certain that they think of themselves as nuanced and complicated individuals with more than just one thing to offer the world. She uses the example of her own teenage self, who identified solely as a good hockey player. Whenever she lost a game or made a mistake while playing, she felt although she no longer had anything to offer the world.

If we help teens see themselves as well rounded individuals with multiple interests, skills, and offerings, we can help them gain self efficacy and become more independent and successful in the real world.

When it comes down to it, watching your teenager become autonomous can be truly terrifying. You’re afraid that if you don’t step in, they’ll make bad choices that affect them for years to come. At the same time, you don’t want to control them to the point where they aren’t able to make their own choices when they reach adulthood.

Don’t fear; Brooklyn is here. She’s got lots of advice to help you figure out what’s going on inside your teenager’s head and how you can help them transition into adult life. In the episode, we cover

  • The difference between preventative and responsive mentorship
  • Why we like to put teenagers in boxes
  • How to set up boundaries while maintaining trust
  • The importance of feedback.

Thanks for listening. See you next week!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Instead of jumping in with solutions or answers, try:

“Do you need me to do something or do you need me to just listen?”

-Brooklyn Raney

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: There are people in the world who are authors, and there are people in the world who are teachers, and there are people in the world who like run summer camps, but you kind of do all of these things somehow. So can you just walk me through how all of this sort of came to be and why you’re doing what you do?

Brooklyn: Absolutely. So I completed the ED Theater program at NYU and had an incredible professor there who definitely was a trusted adult for me. And unlocked so much of my thinking and ideas around education and sort of unpacking the education I had received and spinning it and looking at it in a whole new way. And really understanding that we can’t access young people until they trust us. And so much of trust comes from play, and in engagement, and imagination, and just being present. And using those tools, I then went into the boarding school world where I had come out of, and I returned to my high school to redesign and redevelop, really ignite the leadership and life skills curriculum. And using theater as a tool for that just found so many ways to build relationships and have really difficult conversations about topics that were sometimes off the table for adults and teachers to be talking about. But are probably, I would say, the most important conversations to be having–A lot of those topics you discuss on your podcast, which I love, with so many experts.

Brooklyn: And from there, as you grow in your role in your position, I became an Assistant Dean at another school and then a Dean of students and really moved further and further away from the preventative side of education and leadership and life skills. And really on the responsive side and the reaction side. And got a little lost there, I think, personally. I enjoyed the work, I wanted to do the work. But I always felt like 51% of my job was responsive instead of preventative.

Brooklyn: And that was difficult for me, I think, there are many wonderful people who can do that work and it wasn’t the space I could live in. Because I wanted to be mentoring and I wanted to help before the crisis. I saw the value in the help in the crisis and so much stuff happens.

Andy: Oh, it’s definitely needed.

Brooklyn: So much–But I saw, especially high school girls, just really struggling. And so I proposed the idea of working with middle schoolers, I think one, to draw more people to our school and to learn of our high school program,. But two, to sort of get them earlier, get them before they’re pummeled by all this. And honestly, that gets earlier and earlier and earlier as the years go on.

Brooklyn: So we started something called the Girls Leadership Camp and we had 11 girls our first year. And that professor I talked to you about, from NYU, she was actually on staff and is one of the founding people with me. We wanted to create a technology free space where girls … I use a method called, c’mon. Like curriculum, what are we teaching? Model, what are we showing them about how women can get along and when we work together and just being adventurous and playful. The obstacle is always like, what challenge are we going to put in front of them that’s going to test this? Test their teamwork, test their communication on whether it’s building a picnic table, or climbing a mountain, or putting up your tent, or just getting along in a dorm. How are we choosing to make it a little uncomfortable so that we can have more real conversations?

Brooklyn: And then the end is the, now what? So you’ve had this experience, where do you go from here? How do you take this back to your community, your school, your family, and do something with it? So that camp from 11 girls every year, it kind of doubled and this would have been our 10th summer. And we have around 80 girls and a staff of 20, 25. And then we have a high school intern program now, so a lot of girls graduate from the camp and they want to stick with us, so they come back and intern.

Brooklyn: And from there, really, you asked me, how do I do all these things? Or how did all this happen? It’s because girls ask, young people are like, “Hey, you’re not going to leave us in high school alone, are you? We still need you.” And so we started a travel program called Girl Captain, where we go back and forth between Morocco and Peru. And we train high school girls to facilitate workshops on courage and confidence with elementary school girls in rural villages. And I mean, that is incredible work. When we get out of the way as the adults, we train and get out of the way, then two generations of young women are growing. So it’s all just born out of a need and I have an incredible board now that oversees the whole organization called Generation Change, and that oversees each of the programs.

Brooklyn: And then I really stepped away from day to day education to write the book and from writing the book, came all these opportunities to speak and run professional development programs for educators around the country and around the world now.

Andy: You mentioned that a big part of your approach is kind of getting out of their way and it’s letting things happen. And one thing that I had marked in your book actually, was following that same sort of theme and it was a situation about when Yik Yak came to your school and you had to figure out like how to deal with Yik Yak. And you sort of had a similar thing happened.

Brooklyn: Yes. And that reminds me, I mean, my favorite metaphor and example when I love to tell stories, but watching National Geographic … and I think this is as much a parenting message as it is sort of the educator or the camp director message. But baby birds, when you watch a baby bird coming out of that shell, you just want to crack it open for them. Like, it looks like painful struggle-

Andy: “Let me just get that for you.”

Brooklyn: Yeah “Let me just like help you out.” And I’m watching this National Geographic episode and they’re talking about how if the mother helps the baby bird, the baby bird will not build the strength in it’s neck to ever learn to fly. And so when we think we’re helping, we think that we’re doing something and we’re getting in there to get all the obstacles out of the way of the child. We’re really telling them that they’re not capable and we’re not allowing them to sharpen their beck and practice those skills to prepare to launch, to prepare for the next phase.

Brooklyn: And there’s that reason for adults to get out of the way, just for the very simple, like the child needs to build the skill. But the flip side and the story you’re talking about with the Yik Yak controversy, really was about that the young people had the answer. They could do something to prevent something with their peers that I couldn’t do. So for people listening, Yik Yak was this anonymous social media app where you could post anything and everything and meant to be positive or use, I think our student council was using it to say, “Hey, there’s hot dogs down at the grill, or we’re having a fire later, a volleyball match.” Like a good, easy communication system, quickly in the hands of anyone, not just adolescents. And it quickly took a turn.

Andy: It’s an administrators nightmare, though.

Brooklyn: It is. And I will never forget the day I was sitting in the dining hall and a young person walked past me and said, “Mrs. Rainy, check your phone.” And just kept walking like she didn’t want to be seen telling the Dean that something was going on, but she needed me to know. And so when I looked at my phone, I had 25 emails and all these messages saying like, “We’re having an Yik Yak outbreak.” And so when I got on there, I didn’t even know what this was, I had never heard of it. I downloaded it, got on there, saw it and then my gut reaction is to message and say, “Hello students, this is Mrs. Rainy, your digital footprint is going to be noted and we can see this and we’re better than this.” And then the number of nasty, terrible, horrible things said back to me and to each other and just the mocking and all of it.

Brooklyn: And so I was truly clueless and I found our school presidents and said, “What do we do?” “Like we don’t know either, let’s get the student leaders together.” Because we know there are people who really want to uphold this community, take care of this community and all the individuals. And when I got them together, I just sat in the back and I said, “I have no tools. All I can hope is that I’ve trained you to be leaders and committed citizens over the last year and this is your time.” And they, together, brainstorm the solution that they were just going to drown out the meanness and drown out the hate with a whole lot of love. And so they sat there for hours and just wrote really nice things, really nice thing after really nice thing. Liked each other, so that would move up in the feed and they actually killed something with kindness. Like they really stepped up in this huge way that I never … I know that I never would have thought to do that, ever.

Andy: Or yeah, been able to pull it off because then how would you get everyone to like, “Okay, post nice things now, everybody. And like them now.”

Brooklyn: Exactly.

Andy: They can only come from them.

Brooklyn: “Okay, Mrs. Raney.”

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Brooklyn: Right, right. Yeah, but that is … thanks for bringing that example up because it was a true moment of, I think, investing in young people on the front end and that prevented the work I was talking about. And that coming through and being what saved us on the other side of it.

Andy: What about when you kind of miss the mark a little bit, you write about these conversations that happen, that go like this, “I grabbed you a turkey sandwich so you can eat on the road and we can get to ski lessons on time.” “I don’t like turkey.” “But last week when I got you a turkey sandwich, you liked it.” “Well, I don’t like turkey now.” I think this is pretty common exchange with a teenager, what is going on here? Why does this happen? Are they just trying to make you mad? Do they really change their preferences within the span of seven days? Or is there something else entirely occurring that parents need to be aware of?

Brooklyn: Sure. I think you are referring to a mother-son moment that I shared about my son. Most of what I write about, like I am so far from being a parenting expert and my son will tell you that, certainly. But I really try to live in a space of assisting educators and holding up the mirror for educators and unlocking ideas for educators. But it is impossible to pull away your own parenting experience and we’ve all gotten the report cards or the comments about our child that we’re like, “Is this about the right kid? Like, this is not the same kid that we see at home.” And so where your child puts out their best or their brightest and where your child likes to unpack and totally let loose. Like, we all have the same … like we come home and we just like … I don’t think that we always bring our best home because we’re doing our best to hold it together and show our best sides out in the world.

Brooklyn: So there’s that dynamic there. But I think generally, if we were to think about young people and preferences and personality, and we all are in this beautiful identity formation mode at all times. And if someone said yesterday, they didn’t like turkey for whatever reason and I heard that, it’s like, “I don’t think I really like turkey.” But I had never been given permission not to like turkey because that’s what my mom buys. And now I have a voice, and I’m going to say, “You know what, mom? Don’t really like turkey.”

Andy: Actually, it’s not really that good.

Brooklyn: Yeah, or I’m going to be a vegetarian now-

Andy: I’m going to try this.

Brooklyn: Or I’m vegan. Totally and we’ve got to model that, we have to show that it’s like … your preferences can change. People get married, people get divorced, people become vegetarians and vegans, people switch sports, people move homes. Like we, as humans, are constantly influx but as adults, we really love to put teenagers in boxes, we really love to say this one’s on this path here and this one’s on this path here. Because then it’s very clear on how I serve that student, what that student needs. That student needs to be pushed, that student needs to be coddled, that student needs X, Y, or Z.

Brooklyn: And especially for young people, who’ve been in like a K through 12 in one community and it’s just passed on from teacher to teacher and the parents and everybody knows everybody. There’s not like a break free moment to re-identify or to cut your hair and not have everyone to ask you why or dye your hair or wear different style clothing.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Brooklyn: It’s difficult to shift and change, and so every time a new preference is made, it’s like, “Oh, so now you’re this or you’re that.” We want to label everything.

Brooklyn: So I think modeling, shifting, and changing and reshaping yourself and always open to growth and improvement is really important for young people to see. Especially trying something and failing at it, that’s the best thing that they could see.

Andy: I think that a fundamental human trait is that we just don’t like uncertainty. And whenever things are in a state of uncertainty, it just makes us feel like, “Oh.” And you just want to like resolve it somehow as much as you possibly can. And as parents, it’s so hard to like–

Brooklyn: Well, and somehow someone else’s uncertainty.

Andy: Oh, totally. It’s like just-

Brooklyn: Someone else’s uncertainty is more difficult–

Andy: Seeping out into you.

Brooklyn: Like it’s my child.

Andy: The aimlessness is just like, “Ah.” So I really like this, though, you write on page 11, “One simple thing that you can do is just ask, is there something you need me to do? Or do you just want me to listen?”

Brooklyn: Yes. That is key and my good friend and colleague, Shanterra McBride, who runs Marvelous University and works at our Growth Leadership Camp and in all our organizations at Generation Change. She modeled this and she does this and I’ve watched her do it over the years. And I think I tell the story about a father who heard our opening talk and sort of just … we always stayed our purpose, why are we here? And we say that in front of the girls and the parents. And the girls then we’re like, “Let’s go camp. Day one.” And they run out onto a field and they’re playing games and getting to know each other. And the parents kind of like slowly walk out of their space, a lot of mothers are like, “Do you have an adult version of this? Because I need this too.” There’s all of these like, “Can you help her with this? Can you do this?”

Brooklyn: And I’ll never forget this one father just sitting there sobbing and Shanterra approached him and he just felt like … I think he was a single dad and just felt like he was failing her. Didn’t have the skills or tools that he was watching us act out in front of these girls and he’s like, “How will I ever do this for her, be there for her? I never have the answers, I want to save her, I want to put on my armor and swoop her up and save her from every negative situation or difficult situation.” And Shanterra looked him right in the eye, like held his face and said, You only need to do one thing and that is to ask your crying child or your disrupt child, do you need me to do something? Or do you need me to just listen?”

Brooklyn: Because about 90% of the time, they’re just going to say, “Listen.” Like, I don’t want you to do anything, don’t need to act, I don’t even want to hear your opinion on the matter. I just want to drop this off in your lap and let you hold it for a little while, while I move on and do my thing. And that’s painful, that is painful for an adult who really loves the young person to just hold the thing that’s upsetting them. But then, 20 minutes later, they’re jumping on trampoline and they’re going four wheeling and they’re going swimming and they’re fine. And you’re sitting there like worrying and wondering how I’m going to fix this, unravel it. Well, we’ve got to learn to just sit, just sit and just listen.

Andy: You write about an incident with your son involving a vape pen and a Harry Potter lunchbox…This whole story that’s really interesting. And then one thing that I thought was really fascinating is that among your husband’s concerns, were your child’s business skills. It says, so yeah, okay, you ask this kid to buy something and yeah, he came up with the money at the beginning and gave it to the kid and for nothing. And yeah, and then he ended up getting in trouble for it. And I thought it was a great example of how sometimes there’s just like always a lesson to be learned. Even in a bad situation, if you kind of like lean into it or keep the right kind of like mindset about you, actually, a lot of times in the worst situations are the best opportunities for all kinds of different lessons and to be open to those.

Brooklyn: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think we hyper focused on the thing like we could have … and we did for a little while, hyper-focused on the vape and fear for our son being addicted and the health ramifications and all of that. But when you pull back a little bit and see there’s a social dynamic concern at play, and there’s a sort of he’s expressing his independence in a risky way right now. And then yes, my husband is a salesman and a businessman through and through, and he’s just like, “You never front your own money.” I would hope my husband’s talking about for sodas or for candy or whatever. So a friend asks you to get something, like there was a big business lesson in the middle of all of that.

Andy: Right, which is so true. And it’s good to learn that now with $60 at stake, then have it happen later.

Brooklyn: Exactly.

Andy: It’s like, you got to get something upfront, the client’s got to have some sort of…they got to meet you halfway, there’s got to be a deposit involved. We can’t just be doing this whole thing, taking all the risk ourselves here or whatever. And how do you advocate for that and like set that boundary for yourself is not easy to do that. Especially when they’ve never had to do it before.

Brooklyn: Right. And I think the whole thing of him–the principal calling me and saying like, “Your son have a vape pen and we found it in his Harry Potter lunchbox.” To me, that was such a moment like here is the teenage brain, encapsulated by a Harry Potter lunchbox with contraband inside of it. And that is that they’re just rubbing up against all of these youth needs of wanting to belong and wanting to feel independent and test the limits and find a boundary. But they still sleeping with a Teddy bear and want the safety and structure of a solid home life.

Brooklyn: And I think to your point of what you’re saying about the important message not always being what you’re emotional about in the moment. There’s another story in the book about a student who was selling all kinds of contraband things and running quite a little business operation out of their dorm room. Through a parent finding a credit card charge or something naughty that they weren’t supposed to have, that landed in my office. And so when I got to the student and learned the scope of their business, it was actually quite incredible what the student was able to do as an entrepreneur on campus. Although, highly illegal and against all school rules.

Brooklyn: And there was … in a moment as the educator, as the trusted adult outside the parent, obviously we had to uphold rules and obviously we needed to hold a student accountable and teach a really important lesson. But there was also something to celebrate about their ingenuity and their ability to build … there’s something there to build and to grow. While I’m holding a student accountable and actually, I walked them down to the police office to learn about the law on pedaling and handling in New Hampshire and where the business had met the law and the police officer had a great conversation. And obviously what was wonderful about this is, I was able to partner with the parents on the education of this child. So these were parents who were really eager and on the same page as me like, “Let’s take advantage of this and figure out the skill and the strength in this child. And just steer it in a better direction.”

Andy: Well, yeah. Wow, that sounds very entrepreneurial to have all of this going. That’s something that could be channeled in a really positive direction.

Brooklyn: Right. So was there consequence? Absolutely. There were big consequences, but there was also embracing the student’s strengths and like, “Hey, we can actually use someone like you on the campus activities board because you did this awesome marketing thing.” So let’s take the skill and steer it to something less risky, where you’re still feeling belonging and you’re still feeling a sense of connection. And like you have an ability to contribute with your skills, but in a safer way.

About Brooklyn Raney

In addition to being the author of One Trusted Adult, Brooklyn has worked in independent schools for over 10 years serving in roles such as Director of Residential Curriculum, Assistant Dean of Students, Dean of Students, and Dean of Community Life. During her time as an employee at Culver Academies and Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, NH, she also took on roles as an advisor, coach, acting and public speaking teacher, Title IX Coordinator, and leader of student wellness initiatives.

Since 2008, Brooklyn has engaged, educated and empowered countless young people throughout the United States, Canada, South Africa, Peru and Morocco.  Embracing Maya Angelou’s motto, Brooklyn thrives with passion, compassion, humor and style, presenting and consulting on a range of personal development topics such as self-image, building healthy relationships, conflict resolution and leadership.

Over a humble cup of coffee she will tell you that her proudest achievement is establishing the Girls’ Leadership Camp and the non-profit Generation Change which seeks to emboldening youth to be empathic, compassionate and trusted change makers.

Brooklyn and her husband Bill live in Moultonborough, NH with their son Landen, and dogs Tuukka and Larry Bird.  Speaking and education may be her profession but family and coaching young people are her passion.

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