Watching your teen struggle is a unique challenge. Even when your teen is ready to change, it can be challenging to know what you can do to help. One technique that you can use to help your teen is using cues.

When your teen is struggling, the situation can seem impossible. One of the most common ways of describing a struggling teen is “out of control.” And that is exactly what it can feel like. Your teen’s behavior is out of your control. It might feel out of their control too. 

Your teen might be willing to change but not know-how. However, they can change. There are strategies that you can put in place to help your teen. One approach involves using effective cues.

A cue is a signal to begin a specific action. The right cue given at the right moment can trigger a whole chain of actions leading to the desired outcome. The challenge is in providing the right cue at the right moment.

Different Types of Cues

There are many different types of cues. For example, cues can be nonverbal or verbal.

A nonverbal cue could be as simple as not immediately trying to solve a problem for your teen. Not fixing things for your teen will prompt your teen to think of their own solution.

A more formal kind of nonverbal cue would be a gesture that you and your teen agree on in advance. For example, a nod of your head could signal your son or daughter to take a deep breath and consider their next action.

Verbal cues can come in different forms, too, such as Direct and Indirect Cues.

Direct Cues are specific prompts. For example, if your son was having difficulty calming down, you might suggest, “Take a deep breath, then stop and think.”

Indirect Cues are general prompts, such as, “What can you do to help yourself calm down?”

Another type of cue is a Self Cue. Self Cues happen when teens prompt themselves. An example would be a teen questioning, “What can I do to feel calmer?” When teens learn to Self Cue, they become more self-reliant.

When teens are given cues consistently, they develop their ability to Self-Cue. So, by providing your teen with appropriate cues, you are helping him to become more independent. For example, if your teen has handled a situation poorly, you could ask, “What could you do to help yourself next time?”

It is important to avoid asking questions that do not help solve the problem, such as, “Why did you do that?”

Use The Right Cues To Maintain Momentum

You must understand where your teen “is at” if you want to start a chain reaction of behavior change. Your teen must decide to make a change. You can choose not for them.

The first step is to get your son or daughter to feel invested in the idea of changing their behavior. Engage your teen by strengthening your relationship. Demonstrate trust and empathy. Whenever possible, try to make the behavioral change fun.

At times, this cannot best be done at home. Attending a therapeutic boarding school, such as Discovery Academy, will allow caring professionals to encourage your teen’s self-awareness. Practicing Mindfulness training, participating in Motivational Interviewing, and Reflective Listening are three methods that professionals may use to improve your teen’s self-awareness. Once your teen is self-aware, they will see the need for change. 

After your teen has developed a degree of self-awareness, try to help them internalize the need to change. Help your teen to rewrite the story of his or her life. Counseling techniques like Narrative Therapy and Visualization work can help.

Continuing the Chain

When your teen is finally ready, your first job in creating the cueing event is not to change your teen’s mind or behavior but to create a situation where your teen wants to change their own minds. When your teen starts thinking differently, they will want to act differently, too. Act as a guide. Create conditions through verbal cues or nonverbal cues that can guide your teen to the next step.

Decide on a task or behavior that you want to happen. There may be more than one behavior that you would like to see. Try breaking the task down into a series of small actions.

Get your teen to do the first behavior in the chain using cues. Then guide your teen to the next step in the chain. Help your teen reflect on their actions as they move through each step in the process.

Start with something small and easy. Continue until you see behavior change. Many parents make the mistake of asking teens to perform a complicated behavior. A corresponding mistake is packing too much into a single cue. Neither path works well. Simplicity changes behavior.

At Discovery Academy, we have seen how giving the right cue at the right moment can make a dramatic difference in a teen’s behavior. 

For example, a teen who is given cues during the first ten feet of climbing a rock wall may climb another ten feet without prompting. The effective use of cues can lead to a variety of other behavioral changes. 

The Right Tools Can Provide The Right Cues

Even after a teen is ready to change, it can be difficult for parents to know just how to help. There are many different tools that parents and support professionals can use that can provide teens with effective cues. 

Role Model

One of the most effective means of giving a cue is to provide a model for the behavior you want to see. Most parents try to be a good example for their children, but finding a role model is somewhat different. 

When choosing a model, it’s essential to find the right person. The right role model will likely be close to your teen in age and ability. Doing so will help teens to see themselves in their role models.

Discovery Academy often uses mentors and appropriate peer support to provide students with role models. Finding a role model that your teen can relate to is vitally important. 

For example, when young women are taking part in a hike and see an active, fit man completing the hike, the young women are more likely to give up! However, if a young woman sees another woman complete the hike, then the young women are more likely to finish the hike.

When the young women see another woman succeed, it helps the young women believe that they can succeed.

Make Adjustments

While you are working with your teen, remember that changing behavior can be an emotional process. Strong emotions cause real physiological responses.

For example, fear elicits an increased heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Anxiety can even cause people to sweat or start shaking.

Most of the time, these physiological changes that come with strong emotion can make it more difficult for your teen to be receptive to cues. However, if you are aware of what your teen is feeling, cues can be made more effective.

Similar emotional and physical responses can be interpreted differently. A racing heart and raised blood pressure could be interpreted as excitement rather than fear. Guide your teen to seeing change as exciting rather than frightening.

Use Metaphor

The last tool that can help your teen is using each success as a metaphor to build future successes.

Imagine that your teen learns a new skill, for example, how to build a bow fire. They actually learn more than the skill itself.

By learning this one skill, your teen develops a meaningful sense of mastery. This experience can increase their efficacy, not just regarding making a fire but also in their lives in general. 

A single change can create a chain reaction that can lead to increased confidence and self-reliance. Use metaphor to extend the reach of any positive experience.

Create Behavior Change

When teens are struggling, there is not only one cause. When teens are ready to accept help, there is not only one thing that will help them get back on track. 

However, using appropriate cues, along with other behavioral strategies, can be part of the process of helping your teen succeed.

You might be asking yourself if something as simple as cueing can really make a difference to an “out of control” teen. A well-executed cue can not only trigger the desired change, but it can also lead to a whole series of changes.

Our in-house researcher, Brett Talbot, Ph.D., has observed this phenomenon in his experiential work with youth. For example, a teen that is asked to climb 10 feet on a rock wall but is given cues during the first 10 feet, such as, “I wonder how high you can go,” often will climb up to 20 feet without further prompting. 

Dr. Talbot said, “This is elegant persuasion because the client doesn’t feel like he’s being forced to climb further. It’s a natural chain of events that an effective trigger puts into motion.”

Knowing how and when to use a cue effectively is one of many strategies that can help you and your teen regain control over your lives.