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Adult guidance for adolescents

Feb 23, 2012 : 18:11 IST

Should adults deal with a child’s fears and complexes at adolescence? Sonali Bhatia explores an initiative set up by two doctors who are trying to reach out to disadvantaged children in India.

HELP IS AT HAND Dr Fiona Kennedy and Dr David Pearson, who conduct Dream-A-Dream’s Mentoring Program. PIC COURTESY/ Sonali Bhatia.“To help find a solution to a problem, we start by banning solutions!” says Dr Fiona Kennedy, as she talks to us about Dream-A-Dream’s Mentoring Program.

The Dream Mentoring Program pairs a volunteer adult mentor with an adolescent from a disadvantaged community. “Providing instant solutions is not a viable, long term answer for the mentee. Instead, mentors are encouraged to help their mentees find solutions within themselves,” elaborates Dr David Pearson, clinical psychologist in the UK. “This is a carefully-structured process, requiring some training,” he adds.

Dr Kennedy and Dr Pearson are both clinical psychologists in the UK. They have been visiting India for ten weeks a year, for the last six years, to develop and conduct Dream-A-Dream’s Mentor Training Program. The programme is specially designed with Indian culture and conditions in mind, and has so far benefitted 250 pairs of mentors and mentees.

So how does a mentor help an adolescent find his/her own solutions?

First, mentors must understand normal childhood development, and how obstructions at any stage of development impact the person’s future growth. Needs include physical and emotional needs — ‘love’ is as important as ‘food’ as far as development is concerned.

“Mentors are often astonished when they are presented with growth charts during the first session,” says Dr Pearson. “It’s only later that they understand the importance of an adolescent’s childhood on his/her present problems.”

Present problems could include confusion in ability, maturity, information processing, recognising and handling emotions, understanding and nurturing relationships and attachments.
These, then, are the steps in searching for a solution:

Validation

“Listen, listen, listen. Then listen some more,” says Dr Kennedy. “Adolescents haven’t had the experience of an adult actually listening to what they have to say. Just knowing that they are important enough to be noticed and heard goes a long way in helping them solve their problems.”

Validation includes listening combined with reflection — that is, confirming what the mentee has said, without adding to it. This is followed by guessing what the mentee must have felt, thought, or wanted to do in the given situation. For example, if the mentee does not wish to get on the school bus, the obvious solution seems to be to persuade him/her to do so.

However, upon listening, the mentor may find that he/she has a mother who is ill at home, or is being bullied by someone on the bus. Once the mentor has established this, they might say, “Oh, you must be scared, you probably just want to stay at home.” This gives the mentee the space to explore his/her feelings toward the situation. Upon doing so, the mentee may come up with solutions like getting a neighbour to drop in on the ill mother during school hours, or confronting the bully on the bus.

Validation could also include ‘normalising’ in terms of past or present — “of course, you are scared when someone pushes you around on the bus, since your cousin bullied you when you were very small” to make the mentee feel comfortable enough to deal with her reactions to a situation.

Finally, validation includes an honest response - ‘oh – how sad’; ‘wow – you did it!’ – to let the mentee know the mentor is human, and not an answering machine.

Reinforcements

Positive and negative reinforcements are both designed to increase a particular behaviour. A positive reinforcement involves ‘receiving’ something; a negative reinforcement involves ‘avoiding’ something.

“We need to understand why a particular behaviour occurs. Let us say an adolescent has gone into a shop and tried to steal an expensive handbag. Instead of lecturing her about the evils of thievery, we could listen to her and understand what motivated her to steal.”
The positive reinforcements, leading to shoplifting, could be — admiration of the peer group, owning an expensive item, a feeling of power, and so on.

The negative reinforcements could be — avoidance of feeling inferior or friendless. Once these are identified, the activity of ‘stealing’ could be replaced with a more acceptable activity that meets these needs. The child could join an activity that enhances his/her talents — like sports, art or music. If the acceptable activity meets the same emotional needs as the unacceptable one, the unacceptable one will most likely be abandoned.

Formulation

Formulation simply means defining the problem, and Dr Kennedy and Dr Pearson strongly emphasise that it is not essential to get it right the first time.

The questions to be asked are: What caused the problem? What is maintaining it? What is the history of the problem? Is there a possible action plan to solve it? Did the plan work?

Taking the example of the child who wouldn’t get on to the school bus because her mother was ill — the cause of the problem was the illness of the mother.

However, the child might refuse to go to school even after the mother recovers. It could be that she is worried that she has fallen behind in her work and will be laughed at by her classmates. Thus, the problem continues because there is negative reinforcement maintaining it. ‘History’ could include earlier instances of the child being ridiculed by her peers. An action plan could include getting a classmate to help the child catch up. If the action plan fails, various steps need to be re-formulated to come up with a new action plan.

Dream-A-Dream’s Mentoring Program comprises twenty-one hours of training for the mentors, over seven three-hour sessions.

Sessions include theory and role-play, and mentors meeting for reflective practice gatherings once they begin working with their mentees. Mentors make a commitment of 12 weeks to 52 weeks with their mentees — but on several occasions, mentors and mentees have become friends and formed a long lasting bond.

“It’s wonderful to see young adults committed to making a change in India,” says Dr Kennedy. “We hope that Dream-A-Dream’s Mentoring Program will be taken up by many more organisations in future.”

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