Reversing the Ratio: A Formula for Teenager Transformation

Intense kids elicit negative attention.  Full stop.  It’s no one’s fault, it is just the reality.

“Stop that!”, “Sit still!”, “Stop bothering your sister”, “Don’t touch that”, “Be quiet!, “Stop interrupting!”

Youth with trauma, other mental health issues or just have an intense personality naturally elicit these or similar responses.  In fact, they often marinate in these responses most of the day, every day of their lives from parents, relatives and teachers.  And when they aren’t being difficult we enjoy the break and we rest.  Being that they keep their caretakers in a state of vigilance and mild exhaustion, when they are doing well we rarely have the reserves to make a positive comments to them, recognize their success and what they are doing well.

The net result is that the positive to negative ratio of interactions is skewed strongly toward the negative.  Again, this is no one’s fault.  It’s natural.  This could be 1:5 or much higher positive to negative ratio.  When I ask parents to estimate their positive to negative interactions, some estimate as high as 1:25.  This ratio of positive to negative interactions forges beliefs about oneself that make up what we call their “inner portfolio” or self-belief.  Consider what you would feel like if severywhere you went, people were correcting you and telling you to act differently than you naturally inclined to act.    Consider just going out to eat for dinner:  “Drive slower”, “Look both ways”, “Hurry up”, “Slow down”, “Watch that car”, “Open the door”, “Hurry up and order”, “Decide what you want”, “Stop talking and focus”, “Don’t just sit there, C’mon!”, “Eat your food”, “Hurry up”, “Clean up your stuff”, “Wipe your mouth”, “You are making a mess”, “Pay the bill”, “Hurry up”, “Don’t forget your stuff”.

It would be exhausting and ultimately you would feel like you couldn’t do anything right and this person you were with was annoyed by you constantly.  It would not be healthy relationship and you certainly would not feel cherished, loved and adored, something we ALL strive to feel.

Now the problem is NOT that the parent shouldn’t say these corrective things.  After all, they are mostly accurate needed instructions and corrections to keep a child safe and to teach appropriate behavior.  The problem is the RATIO.

At River Stones Residential Teen Treatment in Redlands, California, we have treated teenage boys with trauma and other mental health issues for over 20 years.  One of our goals while a youth is in treatment is to reverse the ratio. If we can effectively reverse this ratio of positive to negative interactions, simply put, kids begin to feel differently about themselves.  Suddenly the world sees them as successful beings that are celebrated and enjoyed, often an entirely new and wonderful experience.  Again, it is no one’s fault that this is the case, they elicit it.  It is only when we take a different approach that they can start experiencing themselves differently and begin to feel valued on a new level.  We call this transformation of the self.  When a child is at River Stones and they are marinating in this ratio from all those with whom they come into contact, from cooks to clinicians.  We see the looks on their faces, “Who are these people who see me as so successful?  No one has ever seen me so positively.  Don’t they know I am a troubled, pain-in-the-tush kinda kid?”  This bypasses their defenses and directly translates into feeling loved and cherished. 

The experience of love is achieved by being seen and celebrated, something by nature of their personalities, diagnoses and behavior has been missing from their experience. I contend the greatest human need is not to be loved it is to be seen.  One can’t feel loved without being seen, and specifically seen in a predominantly positive light.  I believe this is why most kids who have been in our care describe the experience as “the best time of their lives” where they feel loved and enjoyed.  We see them, we celebrate them…they feel loved.

Our goal at River Stones with is to have a minimum of 3:1-5:1 positive to negative ratio.  Staff even wear bracelets that read “Scan for Success-5:1”.  When we talk to parents about this ratio, the response is often, “That is impossible! My kid doesn’t DO that many things positive!”  Well, empirically that just isn’t accurate.  For over 20 years we have dealt with some of the most challenging kids out there.  At any given time, if one is properly trained and attuned to the truth of the moment, there is far more success going on at any given time than there is failure…even on the worst of days.   Read that last sentence again.  

Consider this:  if I were to give you a counter to hold in each hand.  On one counter you click how many times the child is acting up, acting inappropriately and being unsuccessful and requiring redirection.  On the other, you click every time the child is not acting out, being appropriate and being successful.  Remember, not acting out IS being successful.  Not cursing, not yelling and not…is being successful.  At the end of an hour or a day, you would find that even the most difficult of kids are exponentially more successful than they were unsuccessful. The key is in the seeing and the noticing and then acting.  THIS TAKES PRACTICE!

At River Stones, we call this “lens calibration”:  the ability to constantly scan the environment for what’s going well, what the child is doing right, positive characteristics they are exhibiting.  Take for example something as simple as the child putting their dish in the sink or dishwasher when they are done with dinner.  How easy would it be for you to say something like, “Thank you for putting your dish away.  I didn’t even have to tell you.  That is very responsible of you and I appreciate that” following by a smile and a fist bump.  Or even after you give them a time out or a redirection and they respond, you could follow up with something like, “ I know you were frustrated when I gave you a time out, but you didn’t swear or break anything and you went to your room even though you didn’t agree.  That shows a lot of maturity and you managed your anger very well.  That was very mature of you son”.

We often teach lessons of honesty, maturity and responsibility when kids make mistakes in these areas, rather than when they don’t do these things and they could have.  This is a wonderful opportunity to energize them.  When does a child usually get talked to about anger management?  When they DON’t manage it well!  Yet so many times, they DO manage it well and they don’t get recognized for it.  How many times have you told your child, “Wow you managed your anger very well”?  Probably not very often.  This is a prime opportunity to energize them and get that ratio of positive to negative up closer to that 5:1 we strive for and to help them feel seen and acknowledged.

If you REALLY want to see this work, try seeing and energizing your special someone, or your relatives.  Drill deep and compliment a character trait that you see and appreciate and watch them light up.  Remember: SEEING someone in a positive light is LOVING them…and love isn’t love until it is shared!

The lenses through which you view the child are crucial.  Scanning for success and refracting the light of that success by pointing it out is the road to transformation of the child who has lived their lives marinating in corrections and negative interactions.  Even more importantly, the lenses through which you view LIFE and your ability to scan for success are crucial to your own happiness and life satisfaction…but that’s another article.  This process is transformative, not just for our kids, but for ourselves.  I could tell you that you need to notice, comment on and energize your child for being successful, but if your lenses are not calibrated correctly, you simply won’t see what is in front of you and you will miss an opportunity to give positive energy and recognition that your child so craves and get that ratio up to healthy levels.

I challenge you to pay attention to your ratio of positive to negative over the course of a day with regard to your both your thoughts and your words.  Shoot for 5:1 positive to negative.  In addition to transforming your child or the kids you work with, it will transform you!

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