Rookie Mistakes (Pressuring Students to Change)

NEW SERIES:  I am going pull the curtain back on my failures over the years in youth ministry in an attempt to serve as a warning to those just entering the field.  I have made my fair share of mistakes for all of us and wisdom often comes from reflecting on those mistakes.  So, here we go with blog post one of Rookie Mistakes: Pressuring Students to Change.

If someone besides a teenager wants them to change (e.g., stop a particular sin, get a job, hang out with different friends, read their bible more, etc.) that idea immediately becomes contaminated and runs the risk of getting rejected – even if it is desperately desired by the teenager himself/herself.  Now there are always exceptions of completely compliant teens but if that’s the case you likely have very little to change.  This one reason is why it’s rarely productive for adults, parents, youth workers, or anyone else to need changes to happen more than the teenager himself/herself.  We may want it desperately, but once we try to get the teenager to make a different move because we desire it, we run the risk of making the prospect of change vastly less appealing to the teen.  Some of us are tempted to simplify this into “oppositionalism”, but it’s really something different, more connected to issues of a budding desire for autonomy and propriety than to a frank need to play opposites for their own sake.

Is it ever productive to invite a young person like these to examine why they so defensively view their parents’ concerns as an offensive commandment to change – e.g., “Why do you think it’s so hard for you to do something just because others would like you to do it too?”, “Why don’t you just do it and be obedient to your _________ like the bible says?”  That kind of questioning will likely be met with resistance or a simple, “I dunno.”  It may be more profitable to get kids interested in their own “change style” before being asked to do anything with it.  This allows them to converse about it without feeling as if they are soon going to be told they must get rid of it.  What would we do if we thought that talking about a subject meant that we were going to be asked to take action on it based on someone else’s preference?  We be careful about what we talked about, wouldn’t we?  So is the teen who feels we have an agenda for them.  That’s what teenagers in our ministries do when they feel that bringing up a subject (i.e., cutting, sex, doubt, etc.) will mean the adults will ask them to make an immediate change, minimizing the complexity of their situation with an over-simplistic directive.

With pressure-free conversation in the works, however, opportunities appear for the adult volunteer, parent, or youth worker to address the “advantages” and “disadvantages” of the students style with him/her without sounding as if the conversation was a bait-and-switch tactic.  “Are you sure this works for you this way?” is one such example.  This time, when the student looks down and responds softly with “I don’t know”, he/she has not closed off the discussion but instead extended a quiet and beautiful invitation for us to help.

Some kids will only change when the change is mandated by an adult, but even then, in an attempt to maintain a sense of autonomy they may still support the behavior even if unable to participate in it. (smoking pot, staying past curfew, etc.).  We will serve our kids and their faith if we can teach them how to think rather than just telling them what to do.  I was almost always surprised that when I allowed room and time for a kid to make a decision they usually made the right one more often than not.

2 thoughts on “Rookie Mistakes (Pressuring Students to Change)

  1. Might this be different for different age groups? I worked a lot with high school youth and definitely saw the “joining” them in reflection rather than challenging/directing/questioning worked much better. But in the little work I did with middle school youth, it appeared as if some of their thinking processes made this technique less effective and a simpler explanation of where the adult wanting to change their behavior was coming from worked (an explanation of where they were coming from and why they were concerned rather than why they should change).

    • I agree Jerry that in younger kids their cognitive development may hinder their ability to “connect the dots” themselves so we must adjust our expectations accordingly. I think this idea should be more of a long term goal when interacting with kids, to stimulate their cognition and ability to think abstractly. This serves them in regards to faith and life. Too often in YM we just spoon feed kids everything and when they leave they have struggle to embrace what we’ve taught them because they’ve never “owned it” themselves.

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