Did you hate school when you were growing up? Did you like certain subjects and not others? What would have made school easier for you? Candy? Cookies for every assignment completed? A truly caring person who honestly gave you feedback whether good or bad? For most people, especially young people with severe mental health concerns or learning disabilities, require a special type of educational experience and we (teachers, mental health professionals, parents, family, etc.) must figure that out.
A “life teacher” is someone who teaches about life and helps an individual in need develop skills to survive in life. This can be a parent, mental health professional, teacher by trade, family member, caregiver, friend, etc. We are all “life teachers” because we share our experiences with each other, seek advice about life from others, or learn by experience and watching others. As “life teachers” it is important that we understand how to reach those with severe mental health conditions, behavioral problems, or special needs. There is indeed an art to communication.
As a therapist to teenagers with a host of mental health needs (severe, moderate, and mild), I am learning the “art” to teaching and encouraging them to be taught. We will always have to teach because life is simply an educational lesson all in itself. Furthermore, most kids and teens require frequent teaching to keep them on a concrete path toward positive discovery of life. For individuals with severe needs, they will require the same thing. Learning is an everyday endeavor, but some people hate it with a passion and will avoid it at all cost. We see this quite a bit with individuals who abuse substances (illicit drugs), those who exhibit oppositional or rebellious behaviors, those who avoid the truth, or engage in other similar behaviors. So it is important that we figure out how to help individuals with mental health needs, behavioral problems, or special needs “learn” what they need to survive in the world.
There are 5 important steps we should all use when trying to help someone make appropriate decisions, follow rules, or get help:
Find a common ground: Most human beings respond to people they can understand, relate to, and potentially like. Finding a common ground, something you and the other person can find in common, is important for caring for, working with, or living with someone who has a severe or untreated mental illness, behavior problem, or special need. A recent family shared a story about how difficult it has been to get their son to accept medication for his severe depression. The mother explained that it took years and it wasn’t until she shared her own experience with severe depression and taking medication that her son broke down and accepted treatment. Use this tool as much as you can, it is powerful.
Don’t be a lecturer: Lecturers are great for people who like listening to them, but not so great for people who hate them. Children, teens, and adults hate being lectured to, it can be demeaning. Some people require lectures because all other ways of teaching have failed. But in most cases, strive toward building a relationship of trust and care before lecturing. Even more, tell that person why you are telling them what you are telling them and make it clear that you care. For example, a mother of a son with oppositional defiant disorder should explain why she is punishing him for hurting someone else. Obviously most mothers love their children and what the best for them.
Be creative: Some individuals only respond to certain types of information or “information-givers.” For example, young people with oppositional behaviors are not going to sit and listen to you lecture them about their behavior or why they should be better. However, some kids might if the right person does it. Use games and activities, movies, or real life situations to help teach the person what you want them to learn. For adults, find what motivates them and use that to help them learn.
Set boundaries: Boundaries are very important for all of us. Without boundaries, we wouldn’t know where we belong or how far to push someone. For individuals suffering from mental health conditions, behavior problems, or special needs, it is important to lay the groundwork early by explaining what you expect and will not tolerate. You don’t have to be mean, bossy, or controlling, just firm.
Be compassionate: This is one of the most important things we can do with someone who has a mental health condition, behavior problem, or special need. Many individuals with mental health conditions require someone in their lives who care enough to take them one-step-at a time or who will not get easily frustrated with them. For youngsters with extremely challenging oppositional behaviors, showing compassion can seem almost impossible. For someone with a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia who refuses treatment, this can also seem impossible. But it is important to remember that the foundation of all communication is what typically motivates people to listen. What are you trying to convey? Do you really care? Can they sense that you care? In other cases, resistance is much more complicated and may require professional intervention.
These tips can be applied to most situations: strangers, co-workers, your child, your husband or wife, your students, and your patients or clients. There is indeed an art to communication and once we understand how to use communication appropriately, we can help those we care about make the right decisions. Of course, proper communication is only one piece of the puzzle, but it is a very good piece!
Feel free to contribute your experience. Have you ever been in a crisis and someone who didn’t know how to communicate with you made everything worse?
As always, I wish you the best