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Your unspoken thoughts could be holding young people back

By Jessica Pierson Russo

Youth turned away covering earsThey say dogs can “smell fear.” Can kids smell when we don’t really respect them?

We're at parent-teacher conferences. My son's teacher says, “Overall, your son is doing fine in my class.” I nod. My husband nods. I look over at my son at the end of the table about four feet away. He’s resting his chin in his hands, and he looks tense. She goes on, “He has had his moments of teenage angst, but that’ll pass." My son’s eyes freeze over with resentment. There it is, I think to myself. There’s the tension. I look back at the teacher, who continues to talk, oblivious to the chasm she’s just carved between herself and her student.

This experience reminded me what an impact our thoughts have when we're working with youth. Using positive youth development in our work is supposed to help us recognize and build the strengths in young people.

But what happens when our thoughts get in the way of effective practice? Am I viewing this young person as an incomplete adult? Am I viewing them as a cute little thing who has a lot to learn? Am I seeing them for what they cannot do? None of these reflect a positive view of a young person's assets.

Or the other hand, am I seeing and banking on the things they can do? Am I seeing them for who they are, right now, as a human being? If not, why not? Could it be because I’m annoyed by something they just said or did or didn't do? Am I annoyed because they had the nerve to defy me? Or am I just amused by their childish behavior?

Because thought impacts action, it’s important to make sure it’s our conscious thought and not our subconscious thought that drives that action. When a conflict comes up between us and the youth we work with, what if we could ask ourselves some of the questions I pose above? What if we could set aside our own emotions, in the moment, and yield to our better sense of what’s right? What if, in doing this, we could retrain ourselves to truly respect the youth we work with? I can see the answer to this question, and it looks like true positive youth development.

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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  1. "Teenage angst" - I can barely get past that phrase. It is so loaded with negativity. Thanks for this thoughtful blog and for the compelling questions that help us readers examine our thinking and language more deeply.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. Though I wrote about this subject, I can't say I always keep my thought clear. But awareness is key in changing behavior. Do you agree?

  2. Indeed, Jessica--this is so essential for us to be self-reflective about. I also find that it can be helpful to have other adults as "critical friends" who can offer us feedback when we might be saying or doing things that reflect our unconscious thoughts. I find the research on implicit bias and on mitigating implicit bias to be really helpful because we all carry these unconscious judgments, and we can actively work to challenge them within ourselves. (Shameless plug--I did a related blog article:

    1. Thanks for the reminder about your blog, Kathryn. No need for shame! I agree that research on implicit bias is helpful to keep in mind as we wrestle with this topic.


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