Tough Teen Personas
Every morning, one of the teen boys in our neighborhood waits for the high school bus on my front lawn while everyone else waits in the driveway. Dressed each day in what appears to be the same pair of ripped and baggy black pants, a black T-shirt and untied sneakers, he always has a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip and headphones perched atop his head, blaring music that can be heard from several feet away. Sadly, this young man easily slides into one of the classic stereotypes of today's teens.
As soon as the bus rounds the corner, this teen casually flips his cigarette butt onto our lawn, tosses the remains of his breakfast also onto the lawn or in the street, leaves his soda bottle on top of my mailbox and goes to school. For weeks, I would head outside just minutes after the bus pulled away to clean up after a child who was a virtual stranger to us.
Although for the most part this young man is rarely seen around the neighborhood, his demeanor, bus stop actions and vocabulary have become notorious, prompting several parents to drive their children to school in order to avoid this young man's bus stop routine. His abrasive exterior and intimidating appearance have also prompted neighbors to caution me against asking him not to toss his debris into my yard or to intentionally stomp on my flowers for fear of retaliation.
"That kid's bad news," said one neighbor. "Stay away from him. He's always in trouble at school," offered another. Not even knowing his name, I figured that if I expected him to act like a respectful member of society, I should set the example and find a way to discuss the need to respect my property with him.
Despite the tough, stoic persona, one morning I decided I'd tactfully engage this teen in a conversation aimed at expressing my request of him not littering or destroying our landscape. Rake in hand, I began with the pretense of asking him to step aside while I cleared the carpet of autumnal leaves blanketing our lawn. His response, and our resulting conversation, provided an eye-opening glimpse into the mindset of today's tougher teens.
The Teen Behind the Mean
Intimidating teens are becoming commonplace. We see them at the mall, walking home from school or hanging out at fast food restaurants. While parents work to ensure their child doesn't exude such outward characteristics, we don't always understand exactly what we're working against.
"Teens who usually seem angry, tough or mean are often feeling very insecure, scared or alone," says family therapist Melanie Parrish, LCSW, of East Aurora, N.Y. Intimidating teens may themselves actually feel intimidated or insignificant at home or with their peers. "The old adage that things roll downhill really comes into play here," says Parrish. "A teen who is pushed around by an older sibling or school bully often strikes back by demonstrating his strength against someone he hopes to feel superior over." Tough teens may be rebelling against typical household expectations or be silently struggling in school.
A teen who stands alone at a bus stop or intentionally demonstrates inappropriate behavior in front of peers and strangers ironically is usually looking for attention. Parrish educates her clients that these teens may feel overlooked, misunderstood or unappreciated.
One natural inclination is to label tough teens as coming from single-parent families, families where both parents work long hours outside of the home or from lower-income-level areas. "It is important to understand that these children come from diverse backgrounds and economic situations," Parrish says. "They are good students and have intact families."
Sixteen-year-old Tiffany Umbrecht of Madison, Wis., offers a unique perspective into the world of intimidating teens, one that details inner conflict. "I wanted people to talk to me, but I'd act cool or tough so they'd leave me alone," she says. "I used to hope someone would notice me but didn't know what to do if they did."
Even though a teen may want to be approached or confronted, it can be difficult to navigate past his or her clothes, attitude or body language. "Compounding the issue is a teen's natural uncertainty," says communication and personal lifestyle coach Annmarie Turner of Chicago, Ill. Teens who project an intimidating facade do so with a variety of signs and barriers. Stuffing his hands in his pockets or walking with clinched fists are a couple of the intimidating but subconscious signals teens send.
"Disengaging those barriers helps open a line of communication," says Turner. The simple act of extending your hand to shake a teen's hand demonstrates your willingness to welcome him, as well as your level of respect for him. Overcome an intimidating teen's snarl or cross look and look him in the eyes when you're speaking with him to further communicate you're ready to listen and are interested in what he's saying. "This can boost a child's self-esteem and crack open a friendlier door," Parrish says.
Teens like Umbrecht also find that small but persistent steps are extremely productive against tough teen personas. "I had a teacher who would specifically say good morning to me and ask me how I was every day," she says. "Finally one day I answered her. It was just nice to know that she thought enough to ask regardless of what I was wearing or the look on my face."
Nurture and Communicate
If your teen is headed down the road toward intimidation, heeding the advice of professionals like Parrish and Turner can provide helpful roadblocks to rerouting his behavior. "Clear and consistent communication and nurturing is always the best defense against destructive behaviors," says Turner. "Talking with your teen about a multitude of situations and emotions can help you get to the root of his intimidation," Parrish says.
Watching an intimidating teen interact with his family, friends and peers may uncover he's feeling left out of certain social situations or he's feeling inadequate. "Offering praise for his assets and talents or encouraging positive outlets and hobbies gives intimidating teens a healthier avenue to channel their energy," says Parrish.
Taking a moment to contemplate what prompts teens to resort to intimidation can be the powerful catalyst to breaking through their protective personas. That one morning I learned our neighbor seems to be struggling with his increasing level of maturity and adult expectations when he muttered, "Must be nice," as he heard my son shout, "Thanks for my breakfast surprise," out the front door. As I casually enquired about what high schoolers eat for breakfast these days, he replied, "Whatever. It's not like anyone makes it for me."
In less than 10 words, I realized there were facets to this young man that still wanted to be nurtured as though he were a young boy. As he slowly ambled onto the bus, he did pause to pick up his soda bottle off of our mailbox. At least now when our neighbor walks across my flowers, he waves or says hello and knows that we understand each other a little better than we did before.