I met Dawn Spragg in 2008 when I asked to joined the board of the organization she founded. The Teen Action Support Center (TASC) is a state of the art teen resource provider in Northwest Arkansas. As part of a the curriculum for a local leadership program, I had been challenged to find a new way to contribute to the community--beyond my comfort zone of the Junior League.
What I could not have known then was how important Dawn would become to me and to my family. In addition to being a visionary leader, Dawn is a highly accomplished counselor, speaker, and pastor. Her unique insight into how to bridge the communication divide between "adults" and teenagers continues to find a larger and broader audience, and I am honored to call Dawn a friend, mentor, resource, inspiration, and a client.
I hope you'll enjoy this chat between Dawn and me!
Dawn, you have a unique perspective on teens and their relationship to the larger society. What is or was your inspiration to share that perspective?
My perspective on teens emanates from an understanding that things are not always what they seem. This insight is not only because being a teenager is a time of incredible transition but also because there's so much going on in the lives of young people no one even knows about or truly understands.
I was originally inspired to share this perspective because of my own teen years. There were so many things going on in my own life completely unknown to the adults around me. I didn't have the words to explain and I didn't have permission to really share what was going on. I was confused about how to navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood.
The modern claim, “the struggle is real,” defined my adolescence. I continue to be inspired, and also feel privileged, by having teens share their lives with me. They are continuing the generational desire to transition into adulthood in a meaningful way but they too live amid unspoken rules and unsafe environments. The struggle is still a real thing.
Working with teenagers and their families has affirmed my understanding that things are not always what they seem and there is much more behind behaviors then we could ever imagine. I obviously don't believe these struggles are limited to teenagers. I think we truly don't know what's going on in people’s lives.
Agree, we make a lot of assumptions about what motivates others' behavior. You've definitely taught me to question my assumptions. What have you found to be the most effective ways to connect teens and parents or other adults?
1. I teach them to break the rules!
Okay -not break the rules their parents or adults have laid out for them but the unspoken rules. Those stories they have created in their heads that keep them from being authentic and truthful. Teens often go by these set of beliefs which ultimately becomes “rules” for their behavior:
“My parents/adults don’t care how I feel so there is no point in telling them.”
“I have to be perfect”
“I cannot disappoint adults”
“Nothing I say/think/do will make a difference”
“I’m the only one who has to deal with …”
There are many more of these narratives that rule the world of teenagers but I invite them to challenge their own thinking so they can have healthy connections with adults.
2. I also encourage grace when dealing with adults.
I remind teens of the difficulty parents and adults have in relating to teenagers. It is not easy to be the parent of a teen just as it isn’t easy to be a teen. Parents have fears and often times they are not sure how to connect to their young people. Their fears can cause them to seem irrational and overbearing. Offer grace.
3. Don’t fuel stereotypical thinking.
If adults or parents think you are …… don’t give them a reason to believe that about you. Teens have more power than they realize to change the minds of others. I encourage them to utilize their abilities to connect with others in a positive way.
4. Treat adults like you want them to treat you (even if they don’t treat you as you want to be treated.)
I especially connect with #1 and #3. We truly do have the power to shape our own stories. Teenagers aren't the only ones who get stuck in false narratives. Parents could follow the same advice to question the stories they are telling or believing! What other advice do you have for parents struggling to connect with teenagers?
1. Partnership over parenting.
Consider your role as the parent of a teenager to be an experience of partnership over parenting. Often, parents have already done the work of instruction. Teens know about the perils of drug use. They know if they don’t study for tests, they will fail. They know how babies are made.
While they still need guidance to avoid risky and impulsive behavior, parenting a teen is more about walking alongside them while utilizing your influence as a partner in this last leg of the journey into adulthood. Dr. Ryan Rana, one of my favorite professors, calls this idea the balancing of relationship and discipline (which is about teaching not punishment).
Hopefully, the final years of adolescence will result in drifting to a full release of discipline and land us in a healthy relationship with our children.
2. Authenticity is important.
Our teenagers are still paying attention to what we say and do. Be authentic. Discuss how you feel about things. Talk about how you respond to others in particular situations. When you talk about yourself, you give your teen permission to borrow your ideas. It gives them permission to feel what they feel.
This kind of vulnerability and authenticity is not something teens get from others and so it is a positive opportunity for connection. This does not involve telling them how they should feel or what they should do- just you and your experiences so they can gleaned as needed.
3. Be prepared to forgive your teenager for doing things that seem irrational.
It is not easy to be a teenager. I cannot emphasize this enough. The current culture is a difficult environment for growing up. It is filled with mixed messages and many unspoken rules. Offer grace.
4. Treat teens like you want them to treat you (even if they don’t.)
Partnership over parenting-- that's a tough transition, but a mindset shift I've found to be invaluable.
How has founding and serving through Teen Action & Support Center changed or confirmed your perspective?
Founding and working at TASC regularly confirms my perspective of teens and the culture. I have always had a different perspective on how to work with teens. I have never been a fan of “scared straight” or highly punitive approaches to guiding young people into adulthood. I believe in restorative opportunities for discipline. I am a glass half full, believe the best about others -even teens, kind of person.
My nature is to expect that teens have amazing abilities that just need to be highlighted and encouraged out of them. At TASC these approaches to working with teenagers have had proven results not only for personal change but also for changing the way the community sees and understands teenagers.
TASC has given me a platform to advocate for positive approaches between other agencies, parents, youth workers, and legal systems and young people in our community. It is an amazing privilege to work to promote new ways to work in partnership with teens who are quickly becoming adults.
Switching gears a bit, would love to understand how you get things done. You have a LOT going on. How do you retain focus on the unique message you have to communicate?
I'm not sure that I do retain focus, but I do try to stay organized. I work hard to ensure ideas have a proper place to land. One way I stay on task with a particular message is by committing to immerse myself only in information that feeds my passions. I read things, watch things, and take interest in things that really focus on issues dealing with youth culture or are spiritual in nature.
I skim over news items, videos or shows that don’t help me understand teenagers better. That’s not to say that I don’t spend time away from my professional life but I try to not have idle time that doesn’t feed the things my heart connects with.
Another way I retain focus on the unique message I want to communicate is to ask questions of others who have a unique perspective on teenagers (which tends to be teenagers themselves) and look for inspirational leaders who have a strong professional link to teens.
Three cheers for skimming the news. In this age of infinite information, intentionally creating personal consumption filters is critical. Speaking of massive amounts of content, you are a prolific creator-- articles, talks, sermons, lessons. Do you have any advice for others who want to create content and push that content out into the world?
1. Seek inspiration from others.
I am an audible junkie so I listen to books on tape all the time. I make notes, send them to myself in emails, and organize them in their place (see #3). When a quote becomes available to me, I make note. When a teenager shares a poem, I make note (and get their permission to share.) I would encourage others to figure out what and who inspires them and plan for a way to capture the inspiration and use it later.
2. Create space.
It is hard to gather thoughts and ideas or be creative in sharing ideas unless I allow myself undistracted time to think. I personally need to create space that is quiet and comfortable but not boring. Sometimes I will prepare myself before I enter my “space” by reading material or writing down a few ideas and then I will spend some undistracted time with it. I walk, hike, bike, or sit quietly somewhere comfortable on a regular basis. I just let ideas come as they will.
3. Create a place.
I also need to create a place for my thoughts. When ideas come, I utilize technology as much as possible. I have cloud based files that can be accessed anytime and anywhere-when wifi is available- so I can be sure ideas land where they can be found later. I am terrible with paper. If I write something on paper there is a good chance it will end up in a recycle bin somewhere in one of my offices.
I keep digital folders or documents for each bit of content I need to generate or any new idea I have for future material. If you were in my cloud, you would wonder what was going on with all the titled pages without any content. They are waiting for my good ideas to land there. Everyone should have a place for material that will allow they to use it efficiently and share with the world.
LD: Your cloud sounds lovely. I have a similar system, but mine is full of spreadsheets ;) Many of my clients and students have a challenge choosing from among the wealth of technological tools we have available today. Sounds like you've found the right mix!
Thank so much to Dawn for taking the time to share her insights and advice!
For more information about TASC, or to volunteer, visit their website: Teen Action Support Center.
To connect with Dawn, see her LinkedIn profile.