Teens 101: Supportive vs. Antagonistic Relationships

Adults v. Teens: The Fight Where Everyone Loses

Negative exchanges occur between young people and adults every day.  We accept it as normal for some relationships to be antagonistic, at least some of the time.  These exchanges might feel inescapable or even necessary, but they are also counterproductive, not to mention unpleasant.  What are the effects of antagonistic relationships?  What would it take to maintain supportive relationships between adults and teens and reduce or even eradicate antagonism?

A story from my childhood:

One year my desk was in the middle of my classroom, second to last in the row.  The boy who sat behind me was from Washington Drive, our low-income housing neighborhood.  During class one day while we were all supposed to be doing something quietly, he went up to the teacher’s desk at the front of room and quietly shared whatever problem he was having.  I have no idea what he said.  He may have lost his book.  He seemed to be having some mishap that was preventing him from doing whatever the rest of us were doing.  Perhaps this was the 50th time this problem had occurred or perhaps he spoke disrespectfully to our teacher.  Maybe the teacher just didn’t like him.  Whatever it was, the teacher erupted.  He stood up shouting and came around his desk to be toe to toe with the boy who sat behind me.  He had the class’s full attention.

Shouting loudly, he poked his finger into the boy’s chest, forcing him to take a step backward.  He shouted and poked him all the way back down the aisle, backing him up into the boy’s own desk, right behind mine.  I cowered beneath them as the boy who sat behind me bravely accepted his berating.  Then my teacher gave him one more big poke and the boy fell backwards over his desk onto the floor.

And the whole class laughed.

Our class had several lessons reinforced that day.

  • Bigger and stronger people are allowed to mistreat smaller people, especially if those smaller people don’t have advocates elsewhere in their lives.
  • Those with less are worth less.
  • Do not interfere with the actions of the authority in the room, because next time it could be you.

I don’t know why the class laughed when the boy fell.  Perhaps because we were terrified and needed some release.  Perhaps because we were glad it wasn’t happening to us.  Perhaps because we were identifying with the authority and taking a feeling of power from intimidating the weak.  I’m not sure.

The boy was powerless.  He was at the mercy of the violent whim of my teacher.  He had no choice but to show up again the next day, and every day that year, and accept his lot.

For the teacher’s part, he had limited options as well.  He had taken on the responsibility of shepherding our motley crew from point A to point B.  His job was to maintain order, establish authority and obedience, and get us to memorize the information he put before us.  Many teachers (and parents) resort to yelling to achieve these ends.

No one in this dynamic has a lot of options available to them, including the students like me, holding their breath, waiting for it to be over.  As adults sometimes we find ourselves having to corral the young people in our care forward, using whatever means available, and the young people have to go along, doing the best they can within the framework.

What would have to change to create healthier dynamics between young people and adults?  What would have to be let go?  Would it be worth it?

If we could go into the past and somehow whisper to my child self as she cowered under my shouting teacher, “Would it be worth it to change the structure here so that this wouldn’t happen?”  She would whisper back, “Yes, please.”

My guess is that the boy who sat behind me would agree.

If we could go back and magically stop time to ask my teacher, “Do you wish that this dynamic was different and that you weren’t screaming at this child?”  Would he whisper, “Yes, please” too?

For me, I think that the problem inherent in the commonly negative dynamics between young people and adults is rooted in the frequently compulsory nature of the relationship.  When nobody has much choice or autonomy, it’s a recipe for resentment on all sides.

For adults, sometimes the structure of the relationship makes it easy to see the individual needs and preferences of the young people as annoying obstacles.  We’re trying to get something done here, and your needs and preferences are a problem.

For young people, it’s easy to see the adults in their lives as harassing, demanding people who are best avoided if possible, rather than helpful facilitators.

So how to reimagine these relationships? Improvement comes when both sides of the equation see the other as human, as equal individuals whose autonomy, needs, and preferences are as legitimate and valid as one’s own. Teens need our guidance, to be sure. I’m not suggesting that we adults just “let them do whatever they want.” This is not a suggestion to melt all boundaries. It is a suggestion to consider how important and necessary whatever seemingly compulsory thing is, and to acknowledge that the young person’s feelings around it are certainly as real and important as our own.

Respect and consideration are not easy in our busy lives. It’s hard to slow down and consider. Furthermore, this approach creates a whole new set of challenges that take time to sort through and resolve. However, none of these challenges include shouting, humiliation, or fear of adults.  Is it worth it?  I think so. As a parent I admit that I do not achieve this careful and caring relationship much of the time. I’m human. We’re all human. And that’s exactly the point.


Catherine Gobron

Catherine has spent her career creating alternative educational options for young people.  She led the program at North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Hadley for more than a decade, and is now Co-Director for LightHouse Personalized Education for Teens in Holyoke.  Catherine resides in the Hilltowns with her family and aims to live with gratitude and serenity, achieving this about 15% of the time.

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