There are good reasons why competent adults find themselves uncommonly baffled when working with adolescents. As winsome as they may be at times, teenagers present youth workers and volunteers with challenges that other age groups do not.
First, teens are often an involuntary participant. They are in your office, groups, outreaches, programs, etc. because somebody else – parents, friends, grandparent, sibling – has thought it necessary that they be there. They often see their life as none of your business and their difficulties as not of their own making, and would much rather assign blame to the very people that make them attend your groups, to other’s misguided thinking, and to the wind and tides rather than assume accountability for their problems that you could assist them with.
Second, the symptoms with which reactive, angry, acting-out adolescents present can be very intimidating. They storm out of rooms, run crying into bathrooms with and entourage in tow, they cut their arms, punch walls, drink and drive, refuse to go to school, provoke arguments, and the like. If they’re really mad, they show it by locking themselves in their room, threatening suicide. Sometimes they don’t eat enough for their bodies to function. Sometimes they refuse to say anything at all. Adults often feel an enormous pressure to make the scary symptoms stop. Right away!
Third, teenagers – especially those who do not want to be in your youth group – don’t necessarily adhere to common social protocols that grease the sticky interactions that occasionally occur in first meetings between people. These students don’t care if you are more uncomfortable than they are in getting a conversation going. The look on their face just tells you that they think your youth group sucks. Some adolescents don’t want to make a good impression, or care if you like them (some would prefer that you didn’t), or be interested in what you have to say. This is in marked contrast to the encounters we have with more accommodating students, and it especially blindsides the adult volunteers who historically have banked on influencing students through the authority bestowed on them by age, status, or title.
THERE IS NO INFLUENCE WITHOUT A RELATIONSHIP!
“You go into this room with this person and a of kids you go to school with and you’re supposed to start telling them about your personal stuff. They always want me to talk about God and stuff but I don’t even know what I think about any of that stuff. I can barely get through each day. It’s so stupid, I mean, like, who is this person anyway? And they always act so caring and everything and they don’t even know you.”
- Michael, age 16
“They’re always asking you things like, ‘Do you know where you will go if you were to die tonight?’ and ‘What would God think about that?’. Dumb stuff like that. I mean, what did they think I would say after I got into a fight with my mom this morning? God, it’s just so frustrating to be asked these questions instead of having a normal conversation.”
- Kim, age 14
“It’s like they try not to have any feelings themselves or something. I don’t know – it’s weird. It’s, like, they can’t just be normal people. I’ll be sharing something in my small group that was really funny and they will look mad because I’m not saying what they want to hear. Once, I was crying about when my boyfriend broke up with me and all she could say was how sad I must have felt. Yeah, like no kidding, lady. Couldn’t she have thought of anything better to say?”
- Angela, age 17
Fake. Not normal. Frustrating. Those poor youth workers probably thought they were doing a good job of being sympathetic and helpful and available. The students did not. Somewhere the connection was being missed. We need a more suitable matching between what we offer and what the adolescent needs and wants. There has to be a bridge by which we can walk across where trust can grow.
Trust is such a fragile thing in the beginning. Too often we lead with a punch (focus on behavior) and lose any chance we had at developing a meaningful rapport with the student.
We might do better at engaging the difficult student if we looked at our ministries from the other side. How does this particular adolescent experience our ministry from the beginning through his or her last connection?
Blaming teenagers for their indifference or negative reactions they have towards our Christianity is ridiculous and unfair. So many adolescents who are authentically curious and want help for whatever ails them can’t work within the interpersonal format offered and they are being dismissed as being unreachable. Some of these students are unworkable, at this time, but more are labeled that than need to be. Maybe it’s time to recognize that teenage resistance to Christianity is a reflection of our inability to provide access to our faith that is seen as attractive and useful.