“I Want to Be Somebody,” Ensign, Jan. 1975, 37
“Why don’t they accept me?”
“I hate them all!”
“No one understands me.”
“Why can’t I do anything right?”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Do you know how it feels to be a nobody?”
Such comments introduce us to the typical turmoil of an adolescent’s desires to feel adequate and accepted. As teens, we were just as confused. As parents, it still hurts to watch our adolescents struggle through the painful process of finding a positive self-image and peer acceptance. As each of our six children (plus a few “borrowed” teens) have gone through various difficult adjustments, we have routinely talked, pleaded, and reasoned. But inevitably we have come to realize that words alone don’t strike oil, so we have stopped boring!
Through study and prayer, trial and error, we found an exciting, productive approach to building the feeling, “I’m somebody!” It requires homework for parents, and possibly a few changes—but we like to share it because the results of people who have tried it have been nothing short of fantastic!
This approach not only builds a good self-image, but hastens the development of faith, self-mastery, responsibility, and independent thinking. Of course, it works easier if parents start when the children are small, but it’s productive at any age.
Here are the parent homework assignments—things we had to do before we could help our teens.
1. Establish good parent-child rapport. As parents, each of us needed to spend time alone with each child—respecting his ideas, laughing with him, appreciating his uniqueness, listening for the feelings behind his words, and sharing his world in a way that he considered meaningful.
Actually, we tried to establish a “citadel relationship” where each child feels loved enough and safe enough to lower the drawbridge and invite the other to share his private world. Such self-disclosure is risky. It takes a lot of trust to lay one’s dreams, mistakes, fears, hopes, goals, and ideals out in the open. But if the invited guest is more excited by the good within than the weaknesses, the teen can better see his own potential. He feels the supporting love of a very special “friend” who truly understands. From such a relationship is born courage, insight, perspective, and a focus on inner strength rather than weakness. This relationship requires constant special nurturing, but it is one of an adolescent’s greatest assets.
2. Establish a creative atmosphere. We had to change some of our attitudes and responses to try and give each child five essential feelings: unconditional love (even when his behavior didn’t meet our approval, he knew he was loved); healthy curiosity (we encouraged each child to search independently for new combinations of ideas, improved processes, and different solutions); freedom and its responsibility (we had to learn how to tactfully step into a learning experience to illustrate, encourage, or suggest—but we also had to learn how to step out before we gave pat answers or orders to a learner who needed the satisfaction of self-discovery and could take the consequences of his behavior); time (adolescents need time—time with a parent, time with peers, time alone—to meditate about life, values, goals, problems, decisions, and self-identity); and super-support (as our children sensed our positive responses, they seemed motivated to push ahead—but they needed two kinds of support: encouragement to reach out and try, and appreciation for an honest effort. Thus we became a kind of sounding board and private audience).
The inner warmth of such a creative atmosphere seems to give our teens the security and confidence they need to reach beyond their patterned world—without fear of rejection—to prove their adequacy among their peers.
3. Foster a good self-image. A teen’s self-image is made up of feelings about himself and how he relates to others. Most of his impressions come from others. We found we had to change a few expectations, learn to live with each child’s “normal static,” reinforce all positive behavior, and search for the feelings that caused any unacceptable behavior. Frustrated outbursts often pinpointed the spot where a child felt trapped by inadequacy in trying to cope with his world.
And we listened! This was his reality. This was the reality we had to work with when we were trying to help him feel like a “somebody.”
4. Try “enabling experiences” to build that “somebody” feeling. Enabling experiences are “rehearsal” situations or activities that teach a learner to practice behavior that will give him social approval and personal satisfaction without damaging his self-image.
Life does not give us the rehearsals we need to perform confidently and adequately in all its shifting scenes. Consequently, we often get trapped in a cycle where misjudgments lead to inappropriate behavior. Our feelings of being inadequate or unacceptable make us avoid similar situations in the future.
As a dramatist, I found it logical to look for ways to structure such rehearsals, or enabling experiences. If we, as parents, could tune in to little symptoms that indicated a child was having difficulty coping—and if we structured activities immediately to counter the negative effect of life’s experiences on that child—he could learn a more acceptable behavior without dimming his image of himself! Or we could structure experiences around social or emotional adjustments he would soon face in life. Or we could use enabling experiences to help him discover the satisfaction that comes when one is honest, responsible, appreciative, compassionate, unselfish, and spiritually growing.
Thus a child could internalize appropriate behavior before he had to perform on the stage of life. And the confidence that he could cope helped to maintain that feeling of “I’m somebody.” Using enabling experiences was the greatest “right” thing we ever did! Here are a few of the bonuses:
The responsibility for developing inner potential and control was now in the hands of the learner. We just provided the opportunity for them to learn. Teens loved this. Often some other teen would ask if we’d please teach his parents how to do “all those fun things you do.”
Self-images were not bruised. No one knew whose “symptoms” triggered the creation of an enabling experience. In fact, the older children often initiate them now: “Say, Mother, don’t you think we ought to have a Blue Fairy Day for Mickey? He’s been feeling unhappy lately.” This built responsibility and love between the children as well as between us and the children, and no one ever felt that he was being treated as a “problem.”
Learning was fun. Our children enjoyed the activities so much, they didn’t realize the values they were learning. A six-year-old in the neighborhood used to come over often, always explaining, “‘cause life is more funner at your house.”
They learned to enjoy doing good for the right reason—the warm inner feeling that comes when you know you are progressing in a way pleasing to Heavenly Father. Furthermore, sharing the responsibility of learning made family living much happier, even though the activities initially demanded thought and preparation.
All in all, we feel enabling experiences are great because they facilitate the development of banana personalities (ripening from the inside out) instead of apple personalities (focusing on a polished exterior just to impress others).
We learned some things through our trials and errors that might help other parents who want to try this approach.
1. Parents are guides. We found that if we regarded ourselves as talent developers, we could operate less emotionally in the home. We were most effective when we were examples of mature behavior and self-control, understood the developmental stages of our children, kept expectations attainable, lectured less and used enabling experiences more, and when we were enthusiastic about following any rules on enabling experiences that applied to us.
2. In establishing the ground rules: These rules for enabling experiences had to make sense to the children, so they helped make as many as they could. As they got old enough to recognize and articulate their own feelings of inadequacy, we invited them to help plan some enabling experiences and ground rules that would motivate them or younger children toward improved behavior.
3. On structuring the activity: We started with the symptoms:
Which area of personality development is he involved with? (Areas include social, emotional, spiritual, physical, or intellectual.)
What feelings are causing the misbehavior?
What experiences would benefit him most?
How can I provide this type of experience?
Usually our teens were most concerned with emotional and social adjustment, so we created a number of simulated situations and activities focusing on emotional control and social acceptance. It usually takes a variety of enabling experiences to give a teen confidence in handling his own emotions and finding peer approval.
4. On the follow-up evaluation: After each enabling experience, we had an evaluation ranging from an indirect, subtle, informal chat to a very objective analysis. But the important thing seemed to be the learner’s feelings about the experience. “What did you feel you enjoyed most?” “Least?” “What part did you handle the best?” “What segment was most successful for others?” “What changes would you like to try next time?” “What did you learn from any mistake you think you made?”
We discovered that each teen needed to have us reflect his feelings back to him—whether he felt happy or defeated, satisfied or self-critical. This made him feel understood, yet respected as a “somebody.” He also needed us to point out something we felt he had done well, or learned—he needed the reassurance that he was succeeding and progressing. We might toss out suggestions of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors or attitudes for him to consider, and we might talk about possible consequences of each one on him, as well as on others. Thus he learned to evaluate his own progress. And we received clues about other meaningful learning experiences that would aid his maturing.
By now you are probably thoroughly confused—right? Let’s walk through an enabling experience to see what actually happens:
Symptom: Ann, 13, slams her schoolbooks down on the table. With tears glistening close to the surface, she tells Mom the girls all ignore her, and she has no friends.
Analysis: Which area of development is she involved with? Social. What feelings are causing her behavior? She feels left out.
What experiences would benefit her most? Activities to give her self-confidence and help her to relate effectively to others. How can we provide such experiences? We could choose from several: Ann could invite a friend over for a special family trip; we could help her arrange more peer activities on a one-to-one basis; Ann could give a very unique and fun party; we could see Ann gets recognition for what she does well; we could help her brush up on etiquette and behavior; we could perhaps arrange a visit to a smart dress shop, hair stylist, or dermatologist, or provide a chance for music lessons, craft training, etc.
It wouldn’t help Ann to sit her down and say, “You have a problem. Here are the steps to follow to correct it.” Instead, at family home evening, we as parents identified a problem the whole family shared: “We aren’t very well acquainted in the neighborhood. What shall we do about it?” The whole family brainstormed for solutions. We as parents decided to invite different couples over after sacrament meeting to chat and have sundaes, and the children picked “Friday Night Toots.”
Experience: Ground rules for this enabling experience of “Friday Night Toots” are: each child, prepuberty through adolescence, may invite one of four peers he would like to become closer friends with into our home every Friday evening of the coming month. No television. The child plans the snacks and activities, issues the invitation, and indicates the amount of family help or participation desired.
Since learners need models, an enabling experience usually starts with a child who can successfully handle the situation. So Peter, the oldest, took the first month. Ann watched, learned, and eagerly awaited her turn the following month. She was scared, but she learned different lessons with each experience and was always eager for her next turn.
Evaluation: Informal evaluations followed each of the Friday evenings, but after the fourth “Toot,” she said, “Gee, Mom, I’m not so scared now—and I’m learning I can really talk to girls my age. But I still goof it all up sometimes—like tonight, when Peggy wanted to—”
Apparently Ann was learning. She excitedly planned and worked hard at submerging her own wishes at times to please others. About two months later, I asked Ann how she was coming with her friends. “Great, Mom, just great. Why?” Obviously, Ann had found the confidence she needed through this experience and others from the above list of suggested activities.
Once you understand how enabling experiences can be set up to meet a particular learner’s needs, you can create your own activities. But here are a few we’ve tried that show the range of possibilities for helping an adolescent feel like a “somebody.”
Honors Treat: In honor of a child’s achievement, reaching a goal, or overcoming a weakness, the family goes to the ice cream parlor or provides a surprise at home.
Blue Fairy Day: When one is discouraged, other family members agree to be his “blue fairies” for a day. Each does little things in secret to show love and appreciation for the discouraged one.
Good Manners Dinner: After carefully rehearsing proper etiquette, conversation topics, and guest and host roles, the family has a formal dinner at home.
Parent-Teen Square Dance: Invite teens and their parents to share a square dance in your decorated backyard. Hire the best caller available.
Good Sport Breakfast: Mom prepares different breakfast plates and numbers each. Each family member chooses a number before coming to the table, and each must eat everything on that plate without complaining.
Impromptu Speech Dinner: Mom slips a piece of paper with a topic and number of minutes under someone’s plate. After dinner each looks under his plate, and one gives the after-dinner speech for the specified number of minutes while the rest practice being a good audience.
Scripture Time: Save Sunday evening for study and games such as Holy Charades—an incident in the scriptures is acted out with only the book of scripture as a clue; 20 Questions—the group asks twenty yes-or-no questions to describe a character in the scriptures; and Challenge—two teams compete in making ten significant statements about a scriptural person given them by the opposite team.
Other fun activities to promote social adequacy might include tying a friendship quilt, holding a neighborhood car wash, forming a Prospective Eagles Club for Boy Scouts and then working on merit badges, or reading a hilarious comedy readers’ theatre style.
Parties that are unusual are always a big hit. Try: a “This Is Your Life” party to prepare a scrapbook for someone moving away; a Field Day Party to play on school grounds while eating box lunches; a Hollywood Party to write, stage, and film your own melodrama for a future Oscar Party, when the home films are played back and awards are given for each performance.
Enabling experiences are the most productive technique we’ve used to help our adolescents find enough faith to be genuinely themselves, enough courage to be different in productive ways, enough stick-to-it-iveness to develop their inner potential, and enough insight to realize that if they want to be treated as a “somebody” they have to act like a “somebody.”
The way I am treated by others depends upon the state of mind I bring to it.
If I feel others are superior, they will snub me.
If I am self-confident, I awaken confidence.
If I cringe, I make others want to step on me.
If I am grouchy and snappy, they will bite me.
If I am polite, I receive politeness.
If I am lonely, it was I who drove hearts away.
I am the harvester—I know what the harvest will be
For I selected and planted the seeds.
If I am bitter, it was I who skimped the sugar bowl.
If I am persecuted, it was I who brought it on.