How to Build Positive Relationships with Teens Today: Tips from Teens

The goal of my blog is to help adults understand teens today in order to build positive relationships and assist them in navigating the crazy, unpredictable, emotional time we call adolescents.

I like to engage teens in the conversation for most topics and discussions rather than come at it from the point of view of a bunch of adults sitting in a room assuming we know everything there is to know about teens today.

With this in mind, I recently asked a group of teens the following question:

How can an adult (teachers, coach, parent, teacher, youth minister etc.) build a positive relationship with a teen today?

adult and teenTo avoid feeling like the picture above, follow the tips provided by teens below regarding how to build a positive relationship with teens today:

  • “Adults need to have empathy and try to understand what it is like to be a teen today. Don’t assume everything is the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago when they were teens.”
  • “I think in order to form relationships with teens, adults need to give up some of their power. Adults need to show that just because they are older doesn’t mean that the teen and the adult can’t be “equals,” they need to trust the teens, and trust them a lot. And if something does go wrong the adult needs to walk through the situation and talk about what the teen needs to improve on. Adults shouldn’t be using their age or job as a source of power, we’re all human, we all make mistakes and everyone comes from different backgrounds. Adults should show respect to teens and vice versa.”
  • “Simply be honest and put yourself out there. Don’t sugarcoat things to the teens and be honest. Honesty and being open has always been the most appealing traits that I see in counselors/mentors when consulting one.”
  • “I think the best way is to understand that neither the adult nor teen are better than each other. Also, they need to be accepting that both people make mistakes.”
  • “The adult must be willing to listen to what the teen has to say. Also, the adult must be able to create safe boundaries. Then, the teacher or advisor should spend time with the teen on a weekly basis, this will help the teen become more comfortable with the advisor making it easier for them to open up with the adult.”
  • “the easiest way to communicate with the teen. Teens want someone they can open up to. It is relaxing. They can proceed to talk with the teen without becoming to formal, as we still are younger. It helps the most when they can personally relate to something you are going through or need help with. It gives off a comfortable vibe and the teen is more likely to open up.”
  • “I believe the best way for a positive relationship between teens and adults would be for their to be trust and a lack of judgment coming from the adult. Teens need someone to trust with their problems and need to know there is no judgement afterward.”

I want to reiterate that the statements above are direct quotes from teens when asked the question, “how can an adult build a positive relationship with a teen today?”

One point I would make after reviewing this list, is to take a moment and think about the questions from the teens perspective. For example, we read the statement “adults need to give up some of their power” from one of the teens. That statement causes the hairs on the back of our necks begin to stand as we say, “but I am the parent, the teacher the coach and you are the child.”

When I speak with teens I do not get the sense that they want us to abandon our authority and just be their friend. What I hear them saying is include me and ask me my opinion. Let me teach you something that I enjoy or let me help solve a problem. Often I see adults who only lecture and never listen or only tell and never ask. I am not saying you need to give all decision-making power to the teen, but including them in the process can go a long way in building a relationship with them.

What tips do you have for building positive relationships with a teen today?

Building Relationships with Teens: Be Dependable

If you have not read my previous posts in this series on Building Relationships with Teens, I encourage you to go back and read my first post to get an idea of why I started this series. (Here are links to posts two and three)

This is the fourth post in a series on how to connect with teens based on the Teen Voice 2010 study from the Search Institute and Best Buy Children’s Foundation. In this study, they shared a list of “10 tips from Teens to Adults” that outlined how to best connect with teens and what they look for in a caring adult relationship. In my third post, I focused on the tip, “Listen,” and shared examples of how I did this (or, in some cases how I failed to listen) in my work with teens. Today, I will share practical examples of how to connect with teens using Tip #4.

Tip #4: Be dependable. Do what you say you’re going to do.

In preparing for this series, I reached out to several teens I used to work with. They are all adults now, some with their own families—many are now working with youth. I shared this list and asked them if any stories came to mind about how I displayed or did not display the behaviors listed.  Matt, who I have known since he was around 13 years old, told me this story.

He said that one day he and I were sitting in the computer lab talking about religion, one of Matt’s favorite topics. I was sharing with him some of the principles I learned from the pastor at my church and the daily implications of this teaching. Matt was engaged in the conversation, asking questions and, if I remember correctly, challenging or debating me. He had a tendency to do that. But I remember that he was very interested in what we were talking about.

I mentioned that our church had created a bumper sticker with one of its key principles on it as a reminder or display. Matt casually mentioned how he would like one of those stickers to remind him of these principles, so I told him I would see if I could get one for him. When I was at church that week, I picked one up for him and gave it to him the next time I saw him.

Here is what Matt had to say about this interaction: “I remember one day we were discussing church and you were telling me about Mars Hill and the concept of “Love Wins.” I was completely amazed by the idea and asked you to get me a bumper sticker. The next time I saw you, you had my bumper sticker. Throughout my time under your leadership you were always adequately prepared and dependable. I can’t think of a time where you didn’t keep your word.”

To tell the truth I had completely forgotten about this encounter with Matt, but for some reason it has stuck with him all these years. I have talked to countless teens just this last year who have told me stories of adults asking for their feedback and then doing nothing with it. They share with me how an adult says they will provide something, like a field trip, as an incentive. But once the teens accomplish the task set before them, they never get the field trip.

Through my experiences working with teens, I quickly learned the importance of keeping my word and being dependable. I noticed this when teens would light up when I remembered a promise I made regarding a new game I bought for our teen center. I began to realize that many of the teens I was working with were promised stuff by adults all the time. By their teachers, their parents and other youth workers. But often those adults made up excuses to why they could not fulfill those promises. They began to expect that a promise or an adult’s word was not worth much, and they wouldn’t hold their hopes on it. Because of this, I made it a priority to never make a promise I could not keep and to follow through on what I say I am going to do for them.

Tips for Parents and Youth Workers:

  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you have any doubt that you will be able to do something be honest. Teens will value and trust you more if you are open and tell them something might not happen (and WHY when possible) than if you just fail to produce.
  • The small stuff matters. More than five years later, Matt still remembers about a sticker I brought him.
  • Be an example. It has been said many times that teens watch what you do more than they listen to what you say. I found this to be very true in my experiences working with teens. Lead by example and be dependable. If you say they need to meet you at 8 a.m. you better be there at 7:50, waiting.

Building Relationships with Teens: Spend Time Talking with Them

One of my main goals is to help adults better understand, relate to and connect with teens in order to positively impact their lives. Because of that, this is the second post in a series focusing on how to connect with teens based on the Teen Voice 2010 study from the Search Institute and Best Buy Children’s Foundation. In this study, they shared a list of “10 tips from Teens to Adults” that outlined how to best connect with teens and what they look for in a caring adult relationship. In my first post I focused on the first tip, “Look at us,” and shared examples of how I have done this in my work with teens. I also provided some tips for youth workers and parents. Today I will share practical examples of how I connected with teens using Tip #2.

Tip #2: Spend time talking with us. Ask open-ended questions. Build conversation.

I have to admit that when I first started working with youth, asking open-ended questions was very difficult for me. I was comfortable with the “How’s it going?” type questions or “What are your hobbies?” but getting deeper than that was tough for me. When I was serving as an adventure guide out in Washington, I had fellow guides and counselors that could ask just the right question that would lead to an hour-long conversation with a teen. I often sat by quietly in amazement at what seemed to come so naturally to some of the other guides.

But, like anything, practice and a few good resources helped me grow and become more comfortable asking questions of teens. What worked for me was a game called The Ungame. It is the simplest game in the world and turned out to be one of the best games to get teens talking in groups. You pass the deck around and each person picks a card. Each card in the deck has a simple question on it. Then you go around and each person answers the question. Simple right?

the-ungame-300dpiThe deck of cards is divided into two categories. Category one cards are more lighthearted questions such as “Talk about your favorite sport and why you like it” or “In what ways does TV influence your life?” Category two cards are a little more deep or serious, such as “Which of your senses do you value the most?” or “What kind of emergency scares you the most?”

I would always keep The Ungame on my desk and use it as an icebreaker with various small group meetings. Starting with the category one cards was a great way to begin to get to know each other better and form connections. I would find that these random questions would allow teens to then open up about their passions or their deepest fears. And because the questions came from a deck of cards and not me, they were more likely to answer.

I remember one time in particular when I was taking a group of teens to a leadership conference and we had a four- to six-hour van ride. After a few rounds of arguing over what music to play I mentioned that I had The Ungame in my bag. The teens, probably 8–10 in all, were very excited and started facilitating the game by themselves. They decided that since they had played the game previously as a group that they would change up our rules: for every card that was drawn, we would go around and each person would answer the question. They played the game for what felt like three hours. It was great because I barely did anything but drive and listen. It was the quickest drive with teens in my life and I felt like by the time we arrived at our destination, the teens truly knew each other and had developed a deeper appreciation of and trust for each other.

The cool thing about a game like The Ungame is that you can set it up how ever you’d like. If the group is still relatively new, start with category one cards and not allow any questions or comments. If the group has been around each other and demonstrates that they are comfortable with each other, use category two cards and allow people to ask follow-up questions to others’ responses.

Using a tool like The Ungame helped me become more comfortable asking teens questions that truly mattered. I ended up realizing that many of them were waiting for someone to ask them deeper questions and allow them to share their thoughts, feelings and struggles. I realize now that I had more anxiety over asking these questions than they had in responding to me. Now I really enjoy asking teens questions.

Tips for Youth Workers and Parents:

  • Be prepared. Some people are great at asking questions in the moment, but if you are like me this can be difficult. Spend time thinking and even writing down open-ended questions and conversations starters for the groups or teens you interact with. Now, I don’t recommend changing a conversation just to ask your question. Try to fit questions in the conversation or use them when there is a lull.
  • Listen to what they are saying and follow up. Once the conversation ends, think about a follow-up question you could ask next time you see them. This shows that you were listening and that you truly care. I sometimes dealt with over 100 teens a day and would often jot down little notes of conversations I have with certain teens to help me remember them later.
  • Have a favorite or go-to question with a purpose. I was mentoring a teen through the court system and found it hard to create conversation, especially around some of the issues he needed help and guidance with. So I began asking him “What good choices did you make this week?” each time I saw him. At first he had trouble answering and I would have to dig a little deeper. But after a year of weekly meetings he would come up to me answering the question before I even had a chance to ask it. This guided our conversation and also brought his positive choices to the forefront of our conversation and his mind instead of the negative choices that he was accustomed to talking about.

Building Relationships with Teens: Make Eye Contact

One of the main goals I have is to help adults better understand, relate to and connect with teens in order to positively impact their lives. I have seen first hand and talked to a lot of teens who have overcome great obstacles in their lives because of one caring adult. So it was very exciting when I stumbled upon the Teen Voice 2010 study from the Search Institute and Best Buy Children’s Foundation. What I found most exciting about this survey is they had a list of “10 tips from Teens to Adults” that outlined how to best connect with teens and what they looked for in a caring adult relationship.

I have said in numerous blog posts that one of the most important things you can do when working with teens is to listen to them. I am going use my own advice and begin a series of posts walking through each of these “10 tips from Teens to Adults.” In this series I will be sharing practical examples of how you can use each one to build a positive relationship with teens.

Tip One: Look at Us. Make eye contact.

This sounds simple enough. But think through the times you are talking and engaged with teens and try to remember what else you may have been doing at the time? I can remember countless times where I was around teens and I was multitasking. I would look up from my computer and say hi and how was your day? To then turn back to my computer while they answered. In that moment I was not focused one hundred percent on that teen.  I had missed out on an opportunity to have a deep connection with them.

table_tennisOne of my favorite games to play when I worked at a local Boys & Girls Club Teen Center was ping-pong. I was a tennis pro at a local country club through college so ping-pong came very naturally. Because of this I taught myself to play ping-pong left-handed to make the games more competitive and fun for the members. Sometimes I did not even tell them I was right-handed. But back to building relationships with teens.

I used ping-pong as a way to engage in conversation, especially with teens that were not likely to just sit down and open up. While playing I continually asked my teen opponent questions. It could have been as simple as “how was your day” or as in-depth as asking about a struggle they were working to overcome. One specific method I always tried to practice if a conversation went to that deeper level was this: if I really wanted the teen to know I was listening, I would simply hold the ball between points and wait to serve until we had finished up that part of the conversation.

I knew some of these teens did not have many adults truly listening to them. I wanted to show them that there were adults who cared about them. I had one teen in particular who was a member of one of the local gangs. He would come in everyday after school and immediately challenge me in ping-pong. He had a hard exterior but after weeks and weeks of playing and using this practice of asking questions and listening to him, he began to open up to me. He never beat me in ping-pong and was pretty ticked when he found out I was not left-handed, but he kept coming back. I like to think he did not keep coming back to try to win but to talk with me.

Youth Worker and Parent tips:

  • Don’t multitask while trying to have a conversation with teens. We don’t like it when they multitask while we are trying to talk to them. So don’t do it to them.
  • If a teen asks you a question, no matter how small, turn to look at them and give them your attention.
  • If you do have to step away from a conversation, set a time to finish the conversation.