T he day after Christmas 2011 was a holiday for most Americans. At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., however, the day was marked by violence as teenagers rampaged for more than an hour.
What sparked the melee is uncertain, but it was fed by rumors circulated by social media. “I would challenge you to find another mall as prepared as we are,” says Maureen Bausch, MOA’s executive VP of operations. “But when you tweet that Lil Wayne is going to be there …”
In response to the incident, mall security and local authorities stepped up enforcement of a policy — adopted after a similar incident in 1996 — that juveniles entering the mall after 4:00 p.m. on weekends have to be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Some observers have suggested other ways loss prevention and security executives can deal with teenagers acting up in shopping centers.
“It’s important to first understand the psychology of today’s teenager,” says Nicole Lipkin, owner and executive director of Equilibria Psychological & Consultation Services in Philadelphia. Peer pressure is a major factor, she says, but it “has an extended reach with social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube ... teens today are not only influenced by their immediate social group. They are influenced by thousands and thousands of other people.”
Developmentally, the teenage years are often a time when youths engage in risky behavior. And now that they can quantify the attention such behavior attracts through “likes” on Facebook and “views” on YouTube, “it’s even more motivating to do risky, crazy things and advertise it publicly,” Lipkin says.
A laboratory test conducted by Temple University developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg involved a simulated high-risk task while teenage subjects were lying in an fMRI brain-imaging machine. Results showed that the part of the brain registering social rewards was much more active when the subject believed another teen observed the activity.
“This is what I like to call the ‘new teenage invincibility,’” Lipkin says. “This is a part of being a teenager. Today, however, teenage invincibility lasts much longer, sometimes well into adulthood, and is much more intense because there is no automatic respect for or fear of authority.”
Knowing trigger points
Armed with such information, Lipkin says, security personnel can be better prepared to deal with unruly (and potentially unruly) teenagers. “We all make assumptions and we all have stereotypes,” she says. “The problem with this is that our preconceived notions, stereotypes and assumptions hinder our ability to effectively communicate with people.”
Lipkin suggests security personnel should be trained to ask themselves questions like “What are my triggers?” “What are my hot buttons?” Armed with the answers, she says, “You become more aware of your assumptions about people and you are better able to walk into potential ‘trigger’ situations with an open mind.”
Knowing one’s own triggers can help security officers from becoming angered to the point of losing control. “Once you identify [your hot buttons] and recognize them, you are able to walk into frustrating situations with much more power,” Lipkin says.
“Ultimately, you are much more effective.”
A security officer’s job is to protect people and property, she notes, and “it’s a teen’s job to save face in front of his friends.” She offers four points to remember in such confrontations:
▪ You have the power in the situation and ultimately the final decision.
▪ Don’t get into a power struggle.
▪ Ego assaults only carry as much weight as you allow them to carry. “This is a kid talking back to you, not your friend, not your boss, not your significant other and not your peer.”
▪ Shift perspectives and try to be empathetic. “When you are empathetic toward teens, they are more likely to respond to your requests. Ultimately, it’s not about you at all, it’s about teenage invincibility, teenage peer pressure and teenage peer pressure circumstances.”
Understanding ‘teenage weirdness’
Pre-teens and adults don’t present the same problems for LP and security directors, because adolescents are in transition from a prolonged and protected childhood through puberty to an adulthood that is socially being pushed back later and later, writes Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. The result, she says, is “a good deal of teenage weirdness.”
Behavioral scientists are working on the foundation of that weirdness by studying the neural and psychological systems that interact to turn children into adults. “Over the past generation, the developmental timing of these two systems has changed,” Gopnik says. “The big [challenge] for anyone who deals with young people today is how we can go about bringing these cogs of the teenage mind into sync once again.”
Communication can be an effective tool for security personnel. In addressing unruly people, Lipkin cautions, “never repeat a phrase over and over. Saying such things as ‘get out of here, I said get out of here, get out of here, move, get out of here’ reveals weakness,” she says. “Being flexible with your words and varying your approach shows strength.”
Lipkin also recommends communicating with, rather than at, individuals. “When you are constantly talking or yelling and not allowing the other person to get a word in edgewise, you are creating a no-win situation,” she says. “When someone feels like there is no ability to have a back-and-forth conversation, brains shut off the ability to hear ... making it impossible to get your point across.”
The best communicators, she says, read their audiences and communicate to them. “You can’t treat a teenager the same way you would treat an adult acting out and hope to persuade effectively,” she notes. “Using the right words, connecting sincerely to their pain points and stepping into their shoes is imperative.”
Personalize the situation
There is a strategy that should be employed when an authority figure — store manager, mall security, even just responsible adults — communicates with teens, Lipkin suggests. First, be prepared for attitude, since the teens will think “Why?” “Why you?” “Why me?” “What’s in it for me?”
In other words, personalize the situation, she says. “Rather than immediately yelling or arguing, explain why you are approaching them, what the rules are of the mall, why you are enforcing those rules, what their options are and how they can benefit from choosing the right option.”
Personalizing the situation helps teens understand how following the rules will benefit them — especially when benefits, such as avoiding legal entanglements and having continued access to the store or mall, are spelled out. “As humans, for the most part, we are really only interested in what benefits us at the time,” Lipkin says, “so offering solutions ... that allow for personal benefit is a win-win situation.”
Focusing on what teens will gain if they follow the rules will play to their egos rather than against them, Lipkin says. When the case is presented for why following directions will help, there really is no argument to be had.
Providing choices and alternative behaviors is an additional tactic in such circumstances. “Let people think they are choosing,” Lipkin advises. “Do this by being very specific with options. Specificity is a key to persuasion. Allowing people to make the choices also allows them to save face. If they are having trouble, help them make the right choice.”
Lipkin also advises not to mix emotion with punishment. Once an individual indicates she has lost respect for or is angry with someone, she stops listening. So, “Try to force yourself to do the opposite of what you feel in order to separate emotion from punishment. If you feel like yelling at the teens in question, speak to them in a relaxed yet firm voice.”