Written by Olya Pavlishina, LMFT
We all know that being a teenager is not easy. Teens have to deal with navigating their way in the world while undergoing monumental physical, emotional, and social changes.
Powerful new emotions make teens feel alienated from others, including themselves. They sometimes just don’t know why they feel sad or anxious or angry.
Because of changes in their brain, they can respond to some events in their life with very strong emotions and sometimes some harmful choices. We’ve all heard many heartbreaking stories of teens self-medicating with substances, experimenting with risky sexual behavior, or worst of all, committing suicide.
What we also know that if we expose our young people to positive, supportive environments, they will flourish. This is where mentors come in.
A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. We as parents are mentors to our kids to a point, but you are likely to agree that you cannot be all to your teen. The more I work with teens the more I am convinced that every teenager should have a non-parent mentor in their life. Here are three reasons why!
1. Teens don’t always want to open up to their parents about their struggles.
Adolescence is a time when teens differentiate from their parents. Sometimes there is no right thing that a parent can do in a teenager’s eyes. I am sometimes puzzled by how I can connect with the most difficult teen in my office but struggle to connect with my teen daughters at home.
I’ve worked with some wonderful families where teens just don’t want to open up to their parents. At the same time, they think their coach, youth leader, or teacher are the coolest people in the world. The teens look up to them! They risk opening up their hearts to them!
Somehow our teens are prone to think that we are from a different world and won’t understand. Just the other day one of my daughters commented to me, “You just don’t know how teens think. You just don’t get it.” My husband jumped in, “You would think that after working with teens for 16 years, your mother might know a little bit about teens.” Not in my daughter’s opinion.
The point is, no matter how cool of parents we think we are, our teens are not likely to come only to us for guidance on all the issues in their life. And you don’t want them only to seek advice from their friends.
2. Your teen’s friends don’t have the wisdom, life experience, and brain maturity to consistently guide your adolescent in making healthy choices.
It’s great if your teen has supportive close friends who listen and encourage her or him. Opening up to a friend is better than keeping all struggles to yourself.
At the same time, it’s also good if your teen has a trusted adult they can open up to beside their friends. Wisdom often comes with age and life experience. Your teen’s friends are still teens themselves without the necessary life experience to make consistently good decisions.
Neuroscience also tells us that teen’s brain is still maturing. Your teen’s friend’s problem-solving and strategy-planning skills are still developing.
And the third reason why your teen should have a mentor is…
3. Sometimes you need other adults to see your teen’s greatness.
There are times when we as parents are so exhausted dealing with our teen’s attitudes or emotional ups and downs, that it’s hard to notice how great they are.
We can lose sight of our teen’s gifts and talents. If you’ve ever talked to other parents of teens, you most likely heard more about their kids’ problems than successes.
That’s why it helps to have an adult mentor who: cares about your teen, notices the great things about him or her, and helps bring those qualities out. A mentor can easily spot awesome things about your teen because they are on the outside of your family and don’t have to live with your prickly teenager.
Just in the last few weeks, some youth leaders shared some positive insights about my daughters that helped me to see my girls in a new light. I am so thankful these people see my girls’ strengths and build them up.
So, where do you find a mentor for your teen?
Start out by looking around for healthy adults that your family already knows. Consider whether they share your family values. Encourage your teen to spend time with them. Ask this adult whether they would be open to hang out and get an ice cream cone with your teen.
As a teen counselor, I have seen the following people be awesome mentors to adolescents:
• Youth Leaders
• Family Friends
• Adopted “Grandparents”
Here is what one mother shared when asked who her teenage daughter’s mentor is:
“Her coach. He brings out the best in her, and he sparks the joy in her sport. My girl has played volleyball since she was 8 (now 14) and this is the absolute, hands down, best coach she’s ever had. He pulled her aside and got on her about a grade (caused her to go from an F to a B!!). Love this guy! So thankful for him!!! He will kick her ass and tell her how important she is all at the same time!”
One teenage boy shared the following about his former basketball coach being his mentor:
“I call him when something major is happening in my life. He might not answer right away but he calls back. He listens. He really hammered it into me that I need to take responsibility for my part in things. He encouraged me not to blame but work on my stuff and my skills. He got me into thinking ‘how can I continue to improve.’ This ‘taking responsibility’ thing is really going to help me when I am older.”
You are probably thinking, “I want those coaches to be in my teen’s life!”
What is a difference between a teen counselor and a teen mentor?
In some ways, the relationship between an adolescent and a teen therapist and an adolescent and a teen mentor look similar.
Common struggles faced by teens that are helped by counseling could also be addressed with a mentor (relationship difficulties with parents or peers, making decisions about college, or figuring out how to stay motivated in a class that is not fun).
As your teen wrestles with the challenges and choices in his or her life, both a counselor and a mentor can be instrumental in guiding your teen in their character formation.
Both a good counselor and a good mentor will not take away from your role as a parent but will enhance it.
Both counseling and mentoring can be very effective (or non-effective).
The two relationships are different in a few ways.
Counseling is a formal relationship. Mentoring is an informal relationship. Your teen meets with a counselor by appointment and in the office. In most counseling sessions, your teen and the counselor will be working on specific goals.
Meeting with a mentor can be on the phone or at a coffee shop. Sometimes they might be focused on the goals your teen is working on or sometimes it’s just a conversation between two friends.
Mentoring is commonly a long-term relationship, while a counselor is in your teen’s life for a short period of time. A counselor gives your teen tools and helps him or her problem-solve life challenges.
It’s definitely easier to find a skilled teen therapist than to find a solid mentor for your adolescent. It is best for you to look for a mentor when things are pretty smooth with your teen and you have time ponder and discuss who that mentor figure can be. When a crisis hits, your best bet is to find a caring teen and family counselor.
If your teen is self-harming or suicidal, you should definitely consider a professional counselor even if your teen has an amazing mentor. The training and experience of a teen and family counselor will be vital in those circumstances.
Be on the lookout for that special mentor for your teenager!
If you think your teen needs counseling support right away, please call our Vancouver, WA office for a FREE initial parent consultation (360 356 8756) or schedule an appointment online with one of our teen therapists:
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