“Parent info: Chelsea’s mother, Jill, is 15 years old.”
Reading that tiny bit of info on the referral form can spark different reactions from early interventionists, ranging from those who see working with teen parents as a great opportunity to others who just sigh, expecting a huge challenge ahead. Perhaps the best approach to meeting Chelsea’s mom is with an open mind…and some information about the development of adolescents who are also mothers.
Chelsea’s mom is negotiating two huge roles in her life: she is a mother, which is unlike anything she’s probably ever experienced. She’s also still a child herself, still moving through her own stages of development before becoming an adult. As a 15 year old, Jill is likely to be a concrete thinker, taking things literally and quite seriously. Her capacity for abstract thinking is developing but still limited. She’s also probably most interested in the here-and-now. Both of these facts can affect her ability to plan ahead for Chelsea’s development and think creatively about how to problem-solve. It doesn’t mean that she’s unable to plan or think abstractly, just that these are developing skills for her too. Jill may be trying to distance herself from her parents in her quest for independence, at a time when she likely needs adult support more than ever. There may be struggles between Jill and her own mother about how to parent Chelsea, and the early interventionist may find him/herself caught in the middle. It’s a delicate dance, working with a teen parent, but when done well can help parents like Jill get off to a great start!
Check out this resource for more info: Stages of Adolescent Development (PDF, New Window).
Strategies for Working with a Teen Parent
Respect Jill’s role as Chelsea’s mother – Let Jill know that you respect her and her opinions. Look to her for guidance about Chelsea’s behavior and foster her expertise about her child. It can be so easy to look to the adult (the grandparent), but always look to the parent first when gathering information.
Build trust and rapport – Teens need to feel important. Ask about Jill’s interests and her life. Check in with her regularly and help her find supports and resources when she needs them.
Schedule visits after school hours – If Jill is still in school, schedule visits when she’s at home.
Avoid parenting Jill – Approach her as a partner, not as her parent. Teens may be more likely to collaborate with adults who view them as having equal importance in the relationship, as opposed to adults who they feel treat them like children.
Coach Jill as she interacts with Chelsea – Use coaching strategies that help Jill problem-solve and build her own sense of self-worth and capacity as a parent. Help Jill see the effects her interactions have on Chelsea. If you do the work with Chelsea, you can undermine Jill’s budding sense of who she is as a parent…and cause her to pull away from you as another adult in an authority position.
Be concrete and use simple, direct communication – Use simple, direct language when problem-solving and developing strategies with Jill. When you model a strategy, do so purposefully, preparing Jill for what to watch for and talking her through your actions. Keep it short and be careful not to be too technical or prescriptive, telling Jill what to do. This can be a tricky balance because teens can often benefit from direct guidance in things like child safety, feeding, child care, etc. It’s a fine line, and figuring out how to walk it can start with a few simple questions like: “Jill, what do you know about…” and “How can I help you with…”
Be patient with planning – Since Jill is likely more focused on the present, work on shorter-term goals. Help her see how intervention activities connect with her goals for Chelsea. Write down the joint plan each week with 1-2 activities of Jill’s choosing. Keep it simple and understand that longer-term planning may be hard for Jill. For instance, expecting her to plan for preschool transition when Chelsea is 10 months old may be unrealistic.
Understand Jill’s need for peer relationships – At 15, Jill needs her friends and may find herself isolated by being a mother. If she has friends over during your visit, invite them to get involved. If she’s interested, offer to link Jill with other young parents for support.
Celebrate small successes – Teens are often criticized by adults for their behavior, the way they dress, and, in a teen parent’s case, the way they parent. Build Jill’s confidence and praise her efforts for following through on the joint plan, for helping Chelsea achieve a new milestone, etc.
If you partner with Jill in a way that honors her development while building her capacity to be a wonderful mother, you will be making a difference in the lives of both her and her child. Remember, you will only be in their lives for a short time, but Jill will be Chelsea’s mother forever. Seize the opportunity to help both of them grow!
What strategies do you use to support teen parents? What challenges have you faced with young parents and how did you navigate them?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Working with Teen Parents and their Children (Center for Assessment and Policy Development) (PDF, New Window).