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How to tame a teenage tearaway

Want to persuade a stroppy adolescent to talk nicely, do their homework and get up in the mornings? Try calling Sarah Newton, police-officer-turned-life-coach

It was when the young offender killed himself that Sarah Newton realised that the system wasn't working. He was a young man – just a boy, really – and Newton, then a police officer for London's Metropolitan force, had arrested him nearly 30 times. "He was a good kid, underneath," she says. "One day, he had breached his bail and I was taking him from his cell to court. I'd got to know him pretty well by then. 'Why are you doing this?' I asked. 'It's my job,' he said. 'I don't know anything else.' And then he started to cry." Later, he took his own life.

"That had a profound effect on me," says Newton. "I felt guilty – could I have done or said anything to make a difference to that choice? I knew I had to change. I started asking my young offenders things such as 'Who are you?', 'What do you want from life?' and 'What do you think you can give to society?'. I didn't realise it at the time, but I had already started life-coaching."

Teenagers have never been particularly easy but right now they seem out of control. From rocketing knife crimes committed by teens to the suicides in Bridgend, Britain's young people have rarely seemed so troubled.

Out of this dark landscape has emerged a sub-strata of charities, organisations, programmes, books and life-coaches such as Newton, all directed to solving the problem of the troubled teen.

At the extreme end, the psychotherapist Camila Batmanghelidjh runs the charity Kids Company, which provides therapy to the most disturbed and violent teenagers in London; while other companies, such as the Verbal Judo Institute, train people to redirect the hostility of difficult teens. Organisations that turn difficult teens around are well-established in the US, as epitomised in the Channel 4 series Brat Camp, where teenagers are sent to the Utah wilderness to have their corners rubbed off.

It's clearly a growth industry; when Newton started offering coaching (to anyone, not just teenagers) she was a one-woman show. Now she works with seven other people and has starred in her own TV show, My Teen's a Nightmare – I'm Moving Out! and is the author of the book Help! My Teenager is an Alien!.

Her services range in price from £25 to £600 a month. But, she says, clients pay for a "solution" rather than on a monthly basis: Newton provides help for as long as it takes to achieve a result.

"Coaching helps people to self-critique and self-regulate their behaviour to achieve the things they want," she says. "I've had everything from children who won't get out of bed to children not wanting to go to school for nine months [transformed into] wanting to do better in a certain exam. I've certainly also dealt with violent children who have been hitting their brothers, sisters and parents. I don't find it intimidating, though – probably because of my police background."

It's not all screaming and shouting. In one instance, Newton found herself with a girl who was failing chemistry and wanted to do better. Newton identified that her client learnt best using rhythm and she began learning by composing songs on a guitar. In her next exam, Newton's client got 99 per cent.

"I never give up on a child, no matter what that child is throwing at me. That's how you get through to them.

"All the problems are different but the one thing I have found time and again is the phenomenon of 'helicopter parenting' – that is, the habit of modern parents to hover over their children and do everything for them. It is terrible and creates unhappy children who can't make decisions and find it very difficult to take on life and responsibility because they've never had the opportunity.

"I call it 'OK parenting' because the parent will say to the child, 'I've made this for your dinner, is that OK?', whereas what they should be saying is 'Dinner is ready, come and get it – or not.' Parents have stopped being direct because they believe that being direct is the same as being bullying or authoritarian."

Another hurdle for Newton is to get parents to understand that parenting is not just about getting children to do what their parents want. "In fact, I often have to say to parents, 'Your child is just not going to do that – get over it.' I do get a lot of situations where the teenager is unco-operative. But usually if the child won't talk to me I can coach the parent in how to coach their child.

"When their children become teenagers, a lot of parents think, 'Phew, that's that. They're grown-up now and I can stop.' But actually, teenagers' brains go backwards. They're just like they were when they were two or three, just in slightly bigger bodies."

Most of the time, all Newton has to do is to view an area of conflict and replace repetitive cycles of arguing with friction-free systems. One mother she helped had constantly argued with her teenage son about dinner times. The boy didn't want to say when he was coming home and his mother didn't know how many people she was making dinner for. Newton's solution was that there should be an agreement that the teenager should call his mother if he was coming home for dinner – if he did, she'd make something; if he didn't, she wouldn't. And the arguments stopped.

A key to Newton's coaching method is the process of setting up these "agreements" with teens about their goals and behaviour – something that Newton does with her own two, pre-teen children.

"Whenever I've given anything to one of my children, such as a videogame, I set up an agreement between us there and then about how long they're going to use it for and what it all means. I don't want to get to a point where I'm arguing with my child simply because I haven't laid down ground rules."

In most cases, Newton sees progress within three sessions. "If there's no forward movement by then, then there's usually some deeper problem, perhaps past abuse," she says. "That then becomes a therapy issue, not a coaching issue. Coaching works on the assumption that the person being coached is whole, that there are no fundamental problems. It's support – not rescue." n

For more information on coaching teens, visit www.sarahnewton.com

Coaching changed my life

By Rachel, 13

I was being bullied at school and not doing well in class. I'd come home upset and never wanted to go in the morning – I'd pretend that I was ill. Someone at school had been coached by Sarah and her mum recommended her to my mum.

In the first session with Sarah, we wrote down all my problems and did a "vision board" about all the things I wanted to achieve, by cutting pictures out of magazines making a collage. I put on "happiness" and "better marks".

After that, I would talk to her once a week for about an hour and a half about what had happened that week. Then we'd do exercises, such as a confidence wheel, where you divide a circle of paper into what's important to you – personality, abilities and what you stand for. Then I would look at what I wanted to happen and what I needed to do to make it happen. For example, I was trying to be friends with a girl who was nasty to me. My confidence wheel helped me realise what I wanted in a friend – honesty or kindness. We rated her qualities on a list and I realised she was not the sort of friend I wanted. Now I spend my time with friends who scored highly.

It was fun and I think Sarah's helped me. I don't pretend to be ill in the mornings any more and I'm standing up to the bullies; I just walk away if they're mean to me and they're leaving me alone more. I also went from 62 per cent to 78 per cent in my school tests, which I'm really, really happy about. EW