By: Dr. Peter Scales, Guest Blogger
I get a lot of questions about how to address bad, rude, or inappropriate middle-school-aged and teen behavior when it’s coming from other people’s kids. Whether you’ve overheard a young person in your neighborhood swearing, or you’ve witnessed a young person making derogatory remarks or treating another young person badly, it can be tricky to know when—and when not—to confront him or her about the inappropriate behavior.
Remember that both young and older adolescents say and do things much of the time that are just "experimenting" or trying on for size a role or manner of speech, dressing, or acting just to see what it feels like, not because it’s a regular part of who they are. Sometimes, they say and do things just to see if adults will react, not because they believe them. Sometimes, just ignoring what they are saying can be the best tactic!
But generally, if you want to address the behavior, it's a good idea to talk with both the young person and their parents, if possible. Even if only to let the parents know you said something to their kids. What you might do in different situations depends on several things, but here are three general rules-of-thumb to keep in mind when addressing these types of situations.
1. Consider how well you already know them and/or their parents, and think about what kind of relationship you want to have with them. The more you know the young person and his or her parents, the more you probably understand what their parents’ values would be in this situation, and what they would want you to do. To the extent you can, you want to reinforce what the parents would want. And the more you care about your continuing relationships with the kids and their parents, the more you will try to be sensitive to what the parents would want. However, if something seems to involve safety issues, then you may have to act without worrying about what the parents will think. For example, When my wife and I heard middle school boys shooting off air guns in the woods behind our house where all the neighborhood kids walk and play, we said something to them immediately without being concerned about the parents’ reaction, because even those air guns fire projectiles that can hurt other kids. And they happen to be forbidden by our local town ordinances.
2. Consider what they are really saying, or doing. Are they saying things that you’re just uncomfortable hearing, or are they saying things that suggest they might be getting into trouble/harming themselves or getting other kids into trouble/harming them? Maybe you don’t like that they are singing song lyrics that are objectionable to you, or that they are wearing a t-shirt with something objectionable on it. That might make you uncomfortable or disappointed, or even angry, but is not necessarily something you want to make a case out of, especially if it’s the first time you see or hear it. On the other hand, you might be hearing a young person making fun of someone who is developmentally delayed, or a new kid who can’t afford expensive clothing or gadgets. In those cases, you might directly say something to them about how hurtful bullying and teasing can be, and that maybe all that other child needs is one other kid to be their friend. Challenge them to be that person instead of someone who teases. That might not stop their teasing right away, but it reminds them that there is another more admirable way to behave.
Or perhaps you’ve overheard a teen talking about getting an adult to buy him or her beer or cigarettes, or about purposely cutting classes at school. In those kinds of cases, you might both say something to the young person, and also let them know you’ll be telling their parents, or say nothing to the youth but instead let their parents know you heard the conversation and were concerned for their welfare and thought the parents ought to know. As a psychologist, I generally favor letting middle school and older youth know that I’m going to talk with their parents about it, and not hiding that, because I want them to understand that all the adults in the neighborhood are in this together. In the same way that we don’t let kids play off (or “triangulate”) Mom against Dad, we want them to know that their parents and the neighborhood adults are on the same page, so there will be no secrets.
3. Finally, consider your end-goal. Is your goal to stop something immediately that may be harmful to them or to others, or to make a gentle but firm reminder about a rule or value they already know? Or is it even a broader goal, to just to let them know that they are surrounded by concerned neighbors who watch out for all the kids and who will say something whenever they see or hear things that are not acceptable? Your answers affect both whether you say anything at all, what you say, and how you say it. You’re going to be quick, forceful, and no-nonsense if trying to stop something that is immediately harmful. On the other hand, you can be more easy-going but firm about rule reminders, and even use humor—especially self-deprecating humor—to make your point.
For example, Our home abuts the common walkway through woods to our subdivision recreation area, and we often hear a lot of things as people walk by. Two kids we know pretty well came by one summer day, and out of the blue came a very loud obscenity. I yelled out, “Hey, I know I’m old but even I could hear that! I know you’ve got a bigger vocabulary!” They laughed appreciatively, and I never heard them say it again. Maybe they just stopped doing it around me. But that’s the point—if everyone says something, then they don’t say it in front of anyone. Humor is often not appropriate in these situations, but when it is, it can get your point across in a lighter way that makes it easier for the kids to accept.
In the end, whether you say something, to whom you say it, and how, is a bit of an art form. Sometimes it will work right away, sometimes it won’t, and most times, you won’t have any idea whether you did any good or not. But at least those young people will know that you were honest with them, and said what you thought. In a real sense, that’s showing respect to those young people. In the long run, that counts for more in terms of what they think of you and how much they let you influence them, in however small a way, than the specifics of what you actually said.
Dr. Peter C. Scales is a developmental psychologist, researcher, author, speaker, and internationally recognized authority on positive youth development. With the late Dr. Peter L. Benson, he became the world’s leading researcher on the role of Developmental Assets in the lives of children and youth. His expertise is child and adolescent development, and the development of healthy families, schools, and communities where children and youth can thrive. He currently resides as Search Institute's Senior Fellow, frequently leading in the creation and development of various research and survey projects. Dr. Scales is the author of 10 books, more than 75 peer-reviewed articles, and more than 200 other publications. He holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in child development and family relations from Syracuse University. He currently resides in suburban St. Louis, Missouri with his wife, a retired high school health teacher. Their son is an attorney, and they have two granddaughters, ages 4 and 1.