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How to Connect with Teens (My Two Cents)

December 16, 2015


teen-issuesIt’s the white elephant in the room:  American community is no longer what it used to be.  All the ages are relatively segregated into their respective activities, with the exception of family.  Even in family, older members increasingly find it harder to connect with the younger generation.  In many ways we have lost our “village.” We care less about the children and teens in our community unless it is specifically in our line of work to care for them, or unless we volunteer in children and youth programs (if that’s you- good for you!  Keep reading).  Or, we may care, but we feel so disconnected from them we don’t know how to show it.  Increasingly, children and teens are seen as a nuisance.

I am by no means an expert on relating to teenagers, but I’ve been intentionally spending time with them for a number of years now formerly as a teacher and now as a church youth leader, and before college as a camp counselor for middle school girls. So far, I have picked up a few insights that I want to share with you.  I wish I could share this with every adult I know.

If there is only one thing you take away from this, here it is:

Just show up.

Show up where they are, especially if you are not being paid to do so.  My husband is a full-time youth director at a church, and teens have specifically commented before about how he is paid to hang out with them.  We make a lot of effort to show them our care for them is genuine, in spite of the salary.  So youth volunteers are crucial!

There are two men who serve as volunteers in our church’s youth ministry.  One of them has been there for at least five years or more, and is incredibly faithful.  He is in his 60s I think, and is one of the church elders.  I’ll call him “Tom” in this article.  The teens love him!  They trust him. We have an activity where the kids write a private prayer request on an index card, and my husband gives a card to each elder in the session (church leader board) for them to pray.  One of our girls specifically requested that Tom receive her prayer request, and even invited him to her birthday party last year!

Yet the remarkable thing is that if you asked Tom if he finds it natural and easy to show up at youth group, I think he would say no.  The teens are high energy and loud (especially our girls), and this can be rough on tired adults who are used to quiet.  Often, kids have their faces stuck in their electronic devices (sometimes due to insecurity, I think). It can be difficult to hold a conversation with the teens. So showing up is often “just being there.”  Much of the time he just sits or stands there, listening.  But time and faithfulness have shown the kids that he cares.  Don’t underestimate how important this is to them.

I also struggle to keep up a conversation with the teens at times, and I’m not even out of my 20s!  But I show up.

Besides church youth group, other places you could “show up” to be with teens could be, for example, sports events or concerts of teens you know personally.  You could volunteer yourself as a tutor for struggling students in your school system.  You may have other ideas of where you could show up.*

So once you show up, what do you do?  Here are some additional tips for showing the kids you care.  After the tips, I want lastly to share why showing the kids that you care is so important.

  1. Listen first. It is very tempting to judge teens and lecture them on appropriate behavior.  But you must show them that you love and accept them unconditionally before they will even care what you think.  Otherwise, they feel like they are on the defensive.  So for the first 6 months to a year of your relationships with them, correct them rarely, and listen and smile the rest of the time.** And even after a year, continue to make listening and understanding a top priority.  Typically, their main motive is to have fun, and I’m sure you can relate to that.
  2. Expose yourself to their world at least a little bit. I don’t watch all the movies or listen to all the music that they do. I don’t have time for that and I probably wouldn’t enjoy everything they enjoy.  But if they keep mentioning something a lot, I at least look it up on the internet and watch a trailer or listen to a song. Sometimes I will rent or borrow a movie they like.  I do this mainly for the purpose of understanding them, but it also helps with conversation.
  3. Ask them simple questions about their lives. If they are dancers, ask them what song they are learning a dance to right now.  If they play sports, ask them what their position is.  Ask them what they did over the weekend. Ask them how their day was, why it was good or what would have made better.    If it doesn’t start a 10-minute conversation, that’s okay.  Just the simple act of inquiring shows them you care.
  4. Realize that they are different from you when you were a teen. When I was a teen, I was very academic and actually enjoyed learning in school and church.  Several of the teens I know strongly dislike academics, and this can spill into their relationship with any advanced reading like the Bible.  There is nothing I can do about this, because I have no influence on their learning environment.  So in order to relate to them and help them grow from God’s Word, I have to think outside the box.  Your teens might be more academic, but my point is, they are probably different from you in some way and that is normal.
  5. But be yourself.  You don’t have to pretend to be like them.  Be genuine, that’s what they want.
  6. Pray for them. God has access to their heart and mind that you don’t.
  7. Persevere! Keep showing up. The kids are changing and growing. You never know when they will suddenly open up to you.
  8. Love them.  Show unconditional kindness.

So, why do they need to be shown that you care? This sounds like a tall order.  Why is it so important?

Teens need meaningful, personal relationships with adults. My husband has attended the Pittsburgh Youth Workers Conference for two years now.  In 2014, a “veteran” youth minister named Alex Ruzanic shared something very interesting:  In order for children and teens to stay in church when they grow up, they need to have relationships with at least five adults in the church while they are still young.  This makes sense when translated into communities in general too- in order for kids and children to thrive in a community when they grow up, they need a way to connect with their elders and gain wisdom, and this is done through personal relationship.  I don’t know where Mr. Ruzanic got the number “five,” but the assertion that teens need meaningful relationships with adults makes a lot of sense.  My experience as a homeschooler was that I had many meaningful relationships with adults, and very few of them were paid to have relationships with me (i.e. volunteer co-op teachers who were my friends’ parents).  This has enriched my life in countless ways and I attribute much of my growth to guidance and care from the adults who were able to speak into my life.  I am very grateful.  Teens need relationships with adults.

Furthermore, research shows that youth feel like they have been systematically, relationally “abandoned.”  This is evident in young adult novels that have made it into Hollywood, such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. These stories are very popular with teens for a reason. Chap Clark PhD, who formerly worked with Young Life and now teaches at Fuller Seminary, has done research on youth culture by spending time in high schools.  The result of this research was the book Hurt and its update, Hurt 2.0.  Published in 2011, Hurt 2.0 could be a little outdated now, but not by much.  What he found is that youth feel like they have been abandoned to the gods of achievement and efficiency.*** Teens are under a lot ofteenage-stress pressure. They need to know that we care about more than, for example, their academic, extracurricular, or even religious achievements.  They need to know and feel that we care about them personally.  The same also goes for children, obviously.

I’m not accusing you, the reader, of causing this cultural climate.  What I am doing is presenting the information I have received and challenging you to be the change!  Fun quality time is an important way to show you care.  This is why I said what I did above: just show up and be with them.  Most of this article is directed at adults in general, but if you are a parent, make quality time important for your family.  Eat meals together and put away the phones.  Give your children a sense of belonging by doing important things, like going to the Sunday church service, together as a family. If you don’t have children under your roof right now, go out of your way to show the teens in your community that you care about them.

Building relationships with teens is not easy, I know from experience.  Yet, they are our future, they are valued by God, and they need you!

*Of course, these days you may need clearances to show up in certain settings.  This is for the kids’ protection, of course.

**Obviously, this a little different in a teacher or parent’s case, since it is their responsibility to correct.  If you’ve read Anne of Avonlea, you know the story of how one student opened up to her after she gained his respect by disciplining him.  At the same time, listening is still crucial.

***I encourage you to read Hurt 2.0 for further information.  Another book with valuable cultural commentary is How to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Anthony Esolen.

Do you have any advice to share about relating to teens?  Leave it in the comments below!

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