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Dennis Coates on Coaching our Teenagers for a Happy, Healthier Life

December 21, 2012

Dennis Coates

Author, founder of ProStar Coach and personal development expert Dr. Dennis Coates spoke with recently about navigating teenagers through the challenging years of adolescence. As noted in the recent interview with Dr. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s research into the teenage mind, “Puberty represents a period of profound transition in terms of drives, emotions, motivations, psychology and social life … there is increasing evidence that adolescent changes in sensation-seeking may include some puberty-specific changes, and may provide new insights into adolescent risk taking.”

Dr. Coates earned B.S. in Engineering from the U.S. Military Academy (1967) and an M.A. (1972) and Ph.D. (1977) in English from Duke University. Dr. Coates is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and is currently CEO of Performance Support Systems. Dr. Coates created the MindFrames personality assessment, 20/20 Insight performance feedback survey system, and ProStar Coach online personal development coaching platform. Dr. Coates is also author of two books on coaching teenage development, Conversations with the Wise Uncle and Conversations with the Wise Aunt (2012). What inspired you to apply your experience coaching adults to helping teenagers, and the parents of teenagers?

Denny Coates: “For over 25 years now I’ve been writing and creating assessment and learning programs for adults in the workplace to help them communicate with each other better and get stronger for the challenges of work. I’m talking about helping them change behavior patterns that were ingrained for years, even decades. So they were struggling to replace old, comfortable dysfunctional patterns with new, effective ones. This takes an enormous amount of motivation and effort over time, and all too often the effort fails. It made me realize how beneficial it would have been if they had ingrained the right patterns in for first place, when they were young. That’s when I decided I needed to help young people. And when you try to do that, you need to help their parents, too, because they’re such a huge influence.” It feels like the teenagers of today are under more intense pressure than when we were teenagers – is that true? Have the competitive challenges of obtaining a higher education and a global workforce increased the pressure on our teens?

Coates: “I’m not sure the pressure is greater, but it’s certainly different. The world is definitely a more dangerous place. Technologies are more powerful and alluring. And opportunities in the workplace keep shifting. On the positive side, I think parents and more adults are more conscious about the goals, processes and skills needed to parent adolescents.” How is the explosion of social networking, and the ability of teenagers to communicate and stay connected via texting, Twitter and Facebook, impacting teenagers?

Coates: “These are amazing technologies and can be a benefit in our lives if we use them right. One of the most acute kinds of pain a teenager can experience is to be excluded, left out of peer activities and relationships. Texting, Facebook and Twitter can, as you say, help them stay connected with each other. Using a tiny smart phone, they can send and receive messages effortlessly. But like any tool, it can be misunderstood and misused. I think a lot of teens believe this is a good way to make friends. In fact, these platforms are too limited for the purpose of creating friendships. The illusion is that these brief, shallow messages have great significance, that something wonderful is happening. Social networking can help maintain a friendship, but the most powerful social medium for making friends is one-on-one, face-to-face human contact. Unfortunately, the more time kids spend with their computers and smart phones, the less time they spend with each other. In the long run, all this social networking can be a huge, unsatisfying distraction. Not to mention privacy and online safety concerns.” What can parents do to both prepare their teenagers to cope and thrive in a healthy way?

Coates: “I think the first and best thing a parent can do is to remember and appreciate the real goal and purpose of parenting, which is to prepare a child to be a happy, successful, independent adult. So every time they say something, every time they do something, they would be wise to consider whether it furthers that goal. Adolescence lasts 10 to 12 years. That seems a long time to coach a child along the way to adulthood. But there’s so much they can learn, and before you know it, they’re grown and gone and it’s too late to have an influence.” We all want our children to be happy and independent – how can parents know when to step in and when to fall back? To both be there when our teenagers need us, but help our teenagers develop the skills they’ll need in later life?

Coates: “In the best case scenario, teens are learning how to think for themselves. They’re learning critical thinking skills. And they’re learning how to get along effectively with others – social skills. And they’re building personal strength, so they can face adversity and deal with the kind of tough challenges they’re going to encounter all the time in life as an adult. This kind of growth takes years. Life at home and in school can be a microcosm of life as an adult – an opportunity to learn from experience safely. For example, they need to learn responsibility and independence. They need to acquire a work ethic. A wise parent will give them modest challenges on the front end, coach them and encourage them, and as they succeed, give them more. And all this can be above-board, a conscious learning process for both the parent and the teenager. For example, a parent can say to a young teen, ‘Son, someday you’re going to be on your own, calling all your own shots. So we want to start giving you more freedom. If you can prove to us that you can handle that and be responsible, we’ll give you more. If not, we’ll take some of it back. Does that sound fair?’ Like that.” Our community has experienced tragic deaths of young people recently. What can parents do to separate normal teenage emotional angst from more serious issues?

Coates: “What usually happens is that loving parents often don’t have great parent-child communication skills. There will be an issue and they won’t say or do the most effective thing. This angers and alienates the child. So the child may discount or resent future efforts at coaching, and worse, the parents will lose touch with what the child is really thinking and feeling. I always encourage parents to work on themselves. Start as soon as possible to improve the communication skills that matter most between parent and child, such as listening, giving feedback, dialogue, coaching to learn from experience, stimulating a child to think, and resolving conflict. We aren’t taught how to do these things right, so you need to invest in learning now. Keep the bridge of communication from tumbling down, maintain that bond of intimacy and you’ll know if the emotions are typical or based on mental problems. And your kids will still feel close to you after they leave home.” Finally, what advice do you have for students preparing for college and life after college?

Coates: “The traditional advice is to take your studies seriously. Make good grades so a college will accept you. And along the way, you’ll learn things. That’s as true today as it always was. And a college education can be priceless because of the way it challenges a young person to think and work hard, at the time when the intellect part of the brain is wiring itself for basic functioning. After the age of 22, the sensitive window for this development closes. Also, I’d tell motivated young people and their parents that there’s more to succeeding in life than a college degree. That gets you an interview. After that, other factors count more, such as social skills and personal strengths – your character and your work ethic. That’s what employers are looking for.”

One Comment
  1. Patty Shipps permalink
    December 21, 2012 4:13 pm

    Love your articles about students and staff.  Wondered if you would want to do one about Kevin Kelly.  He is a senior at DHS.  He is very active in band, on the football team, and also the just nominated new SPL (Senior Patrol Leader) for Boy Scouts Troop  905.


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