Understanding Our Students

I am frequently asked, “What is your typical client like?” and “Why do they come to you?”
Like many other questions in this business, it’s difficult to give a concrete answer. No two people are the same. However, I have come to see that every student has a few things in common, so I’m comfortable presenting a general picture using a couple of important characteristics.

Identifying with a peer group:

Most young people struggle to find their peer group; in today’s society it is often difficult for them to navigate those peer groups, since many of them are inherently negative. Many young men do one of two things with expected permanence: they either choose the peer group to identify with that they believe will give them the most prestige, or they feel as though society has predetermined their group identification and therefore they must accept that destiny.

The reality, as most of us find out the hard way, is neither is realistic nor permanent; our peer groups are constantly evolving. One of the most difficult things for us to come to realize is that the outside world doesn’t actually define who we are.

Our typical student has identified with a peer group that doesn’t help him mature or evolve as a person; instead, it holds him back. He may have friends that routinely encourage unhealthy behavior such as substance use or criminal involvement. Although this behavior cannot be blamed entirely on the student’s peer group, we do tend to emulate our peers. Removing ourselves from those peer groups, even for a short period of time, gives us each a chance to reflect on our behavior and determine whether or not we are on a path that is productive for ourselves.

Decision Making:

When we look back on our early adulthood (say, 18 to 28), we can pick out very distinct features of our decision-making that weren’t as “mature” as our decision making is now. Why is this? The answer is simple: we are the sum total of our experiences. When we experience something, we assimilate (or absorb) the information learned from that experience; it enables us to make better decisions in the future. So when asked, “Why do teenagers make such bad decisions?” my answer is, “Because they don’t know how not to.”

Dr. Ross Green from Harvard University, who developed Collaborative Problem Solving, poses the question “Does anyone choose to fail?” The answer is that the vast majority of people choose to do well, within the bounds of individual ability. Therefore, we must view problems teens and young adults have from a different frame of mind. When we view their problems and poor decision making as results of deficient skills, we come to the realization that they first need to be taught those skills and have real life experiences. Only then can they be expected to succeed.

This brings me to my next point. This is the most dangerous time ever to be a teenager or young adult. The world is becoming a less and less forgiving place. Twenty years ago, making a poor decision around substance use in our young years meant the use of marijuana and alcohol; while all substance use should be taken seriously, most would agree that the effects of the aforementioned substances are less damaging than those of Oxycontin, Heroin, and synthetic opioids, all of which are now commonly abused at this age. Not only do these substances often lead to dependence (which definitely needs to be addressed), but along with that dependence often comes criminal prosecution. The mere possession of many of these substances is a felony in many states. From making only a few bad decisions early in life, a young person can potentially saddle himself with a serious psychological and/or physiological substance dependence problem, pending legal issues, and sometimes be labeled as a convicted felon for the rest of his life. Ideally, some form of intervention is put in place in order to save the young person from “learning the hard way” well before there’s no turning back.

“Why won’t my son listen to me?” is the next question I often get. The answer is simple. “Did you think your parents were right when you were a young adult?” Not shockingly, most of us can easily say that we didn’t. Going back to the discussion about decision-making, at that age we don’t yet have the ability of accurate foresight; we haven’t yet learned from our life experiences because we haven’t had them yet. Taking your parents’ word that they are right and you are wrong happens seldom for the best of us at that age, let alone for an individual challenged with a predisposition for mistrust or oppositional defiance. This is where it is crucial for a young person to have peers, mentors, and/or role models who provide unbiased, trustworthy opinions and advice. Frankly, no matter how right the parents are, words that are spoken but not heard yield no results. Sometimes, as a parent, you can say something to your son over and over until you are blue in the face and not get through, while an unrelated mentor or role model might say the exact same thing and have it sink in immediately. The statement is even more powerful and effective when the mentor or role model practices what he preaches.