The Art Of Provocation: Influencing Teen Behavior

Posted: February 2, 2013 in For Educators, For Parents and Guardians
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The word “provoke” is usually heard as a bad word… something to avoid.

“Don’t provoke me”.

“One of my students provoked another… and they ended up fighting”.

“It wasn’t my kids fault… they were provoked”.

The truth is, if we want to inspire lasting, meaningful change in the children in our lives… we need to learn how to more intelligently provoke them.

Take our over-confident, seemingly arrogant and entitled children. The ones who talk about achieving more than they actually achieve. The ones who look down at others or disregard rules and authority. The ones who want a lot and make endless demands, with no thought of their roles as children or what’s expected of them.  Ask yourself what might be missing in that child? Think about what quality or feeling might bring that child into a healthier state of mind and lessen, or even extinguish the less attractive, more disruptive qualities of over-confidence, arrogance and entitlement?

It’s humility. And if we want to get them to behave differently and respond to authority and rules differently… and if we want them to work harder, see themselves more honestly and interact more appropriately with others… then we need to be the ones to provoke this humility. True… felt… slightly uncomfortable humility.

And now think about the children who cut themselves. The kids who are clearly struggling with their emotions, feeling overwhelmed and wondering if all the thoughts and emotions they’re keeping to themselves make them “crazy”. Imagine how lonely they must feel in their own minds, how self-conscious, untrusting and how desperate they must be to feel differently from how they do. And now ask yourself what feeling(s) might balance out the panic, anxiety, self-doubt and desperation that’s feeding their self-injurious behavior?

It’s reassurance. It’s calm. It’s acceptance and fearlessness. And if we want to help rid these children of the urgency and isolation that’s compelling them to cut themselves… and if we want them to feel safe enough to talk with us about the thoughts and feelings that are driving them to feel so “crazy”… then we need to provoke in them the feeling of calm. We need to provoke in them the fearlessness to speak openly and freely. And we need to provoke in them the feelings of reassurance and acceptance so that their insecurities and loneliness give way to courage and trust.

And what about our aggressive children? Our bullies? What feeling is missing from them that allows them to be cruel to others? What quality is absent from these children that allows them to cause others physical and emotional harm? And what quality would STOP them from feeling comfortable enough to justify their hurt of others?

It’s compassion. It’s not punishments that will stop the aggressive and bullying behaviors, although punishments and consequences can be a part of the rehabilitation process, it’s compassion that will get these children to be less mean… and more kind.  And we have to provoke this compassion. Somehow, even after they’ve irritated, disappointed and even angered us with their mean-spirited actions, we have to provoke in them the feeling and quality of compassion. We have to provoke in them this quality  which they’re most likely extremely unfamiliar and uncomfortable with… a feeling which they’ve most likely been taught to view as a weakness. We have to somehow find the words and convey the sentiments that will get them to feel bad, even awful, about hurting others. We have to find a way to stir them away from thoughts about themselves and the justifications they have in their minds… and teach them how to think about others. To get them to FEEL the pain that they caused another human. To get them to FEEL the sadness and self-hatred THAT THEY caused another child… because this is the only way to get them to WANT to stop being violent.

As with any behavior, there’s an underlying emotion, or an absence of an emotion, that drives, or allows that behavior. Too often do we, as adults, get caught up in our reactions and needs to visibly do something (like assert our authority with consequences, outrage and punishments).

But when we stop and really reflect on the specific behaviors of our children that are causing us so much pain and confusion… when we deeply think about the nature of learning, and of influencing others… we’ll see that inspiring change in our kids is less about what we DO, and more about how we can make them feel.

Which is why we want to learn the art of provocation. Because if we want our kids to work harder in school, we will need to provoke in them some fear… some genuinely felt anxiety… of the consequences of continued apathy. But we don’t want to end our provocation there. What we want to do is provoke a series of feelings that ends with them feeling the benefits of change. We want to shake our apathetic underperforming children out of their complacency… and into some fear and anxiety of continued failure… to the shame of disappointing themselves and others… to feeling supported and cared about… to excited by the prospects of improved performance… to the pride of growth and accomplishment.

And this path goes with any behavior. First to shake and stir and provoke our kids from whatever state of mind is allowing them to do harm or feel paralyzed… and then, when they’re feeling open, and yes, vulnerable… to provoke in them the feelings or qualities that will allow them to feel motivated to do better and be healthier. Like compassion. Like connection. Like excitement.

But this will only happen if we’re deliberate with our words, purposeful with our decisions, aware of our mannerisms and gestures… and more determined to provoke in them the emotions that will drive healthier behaviors than we are reflexively driven by our own disappointments, desperation and outrage.

Sure, we can continue to feel overwhelmed by all the news reports and statistics illustrating the growing frequency of teen violence, bullying, school failures, suicide and risky behavior… and we can continue to look outside of ourselves and our children for answers… but the simple truth is that emotion does drive behavior, and if we want our kids’ behaviors or performance or moods to change, then we need to get them to feel something other than what they’ve been feeling. Which means quite simply… we need to be better provokers.




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