# 1 Tip to Engage and Connect with Teens in 2015

Even before 2015 started, my inbox and Facebook newsfeed began to be inundated with articles and links to promises of a better year.

“30 days to a better you.”
“Get fit and feel great in 60 days.”
“10 Tips for being the best you in 2015.”
“How to Start Over in 2015.”
” 4.7 ways to have more pillow fights in 2015.”

Ok I exaggerated on that last one, but you get the point. These are not bad in and of themselves. In fact I signed up to receive emails or PDF’s on how to better myself in 2015 from three authors I enjoy.

Seeing all of these made me wondering, how many people actually finish or follow the 30 days, 60 days or 4.7 tips? I personally have not cracked open one of the three PDF’s I received promising to better my life in 2015 and it is already mid January.

When I think about building positive relationships with teens, or improving your teen program in 2015, I have just ONE tips. One idea. One thing you can do each day that will make a difference.

Be Intentional.

Thats It, it is that simple.

Let me give you a few examples of being Intentional:

If you volunteer with a youth program, do not show up thinking this is just another volunteer opportunity. Before you even arrive think about what you want to accomplish during your time, what you want to talk about, which teen you might want to follow up with. Be Intentional. Develop a plan for how you are going to serve and connect with teens during your time. “I am going to follow up with Johnny tonight because he was having a rough day last week.” “I am going to learn 5 teens names tonight and something they are interested in.” “I am going to help greet and sign in all of the teens tonight.”

If you run a teen program, do not let the days fly by and fall into the same old routine. Be Intentional each day. Plan a new fun activity each day or week to engage the teens. Think about the teens you have not seen in a while and give them a call/text/email to see how they are doing. If a teen tells you about a TV show, movie or song they like, intentionally take time to check it out. Next time you see them mention it and start a conversation about why they like it.

These are little things that show the teen that you were thinking about them. Not just in that moment but before you even saw them. Before you or they even arrived.

If you are a parent of a teen, don’t just react and hope your teen will attempt to connect with you. Be Intentional. When you first see them after school, Instead of getting on them right away to do their school work, take time to ask them how their day was and truly LISTEN. Surprise them with their favorite snack or trip to their favorite restaurant. Ask them their opinion on topics ranging from daily news to decisions you are making that effect the family. Instead of harping on them about the music they listen to, the show they are watching or game they are playing, take time to ask them why they enjoy it. Sit down and have them teach you the game or watch the show with them.

Just doing something together, something they enjoy, can be a great bonding experience. It is an opportunity to come down to their level for a change and intentionally engage with them.

It shows that you truly care about them and that you are listening and paying attention to them. This is HUGE with teens and they love it.

Over my years of working with teens and consulting on teen programs, I have been blown away by the positive changes that occur when staff and volunteers choose to Be Intentional each day. One of the coolest, sometimes unexpected benefits of this practice is the effect it has on the adult. When you have a specific intention in your mind and you accomplish that, it makes you feel more engaged. It turns your volunteer time from, “I am spending an hour a week serving,” to “I just made an impact.”

In our busy world with tips and tricks to do everything, just chose to do this one thing this year. Be intentional in building relationships with the teens in your life and see where it takes you.

Oh Crap: The Fears of Teens Today

Have you ever seen a teen hesitate to do something you knew they were good at? Paint a picture, participate in a sport, speak in front of a group, be a leader? More than likely they hesitate because there is a fear holding them back.

I would bet very few of us, if any, made it through our teen years without some fears deterring us from participating in an activity or working to accomplish a goal. I remember being in class and not completing an assignment because I was afraid I would get it wrong. Logically, I thought it was easier to just not do the assignment than to get it wrong. I even recall deciding not to attend certain events in college, out of fear I wouldn’t fit in.

In my previous post I talked about the hopes and dreams teens have today. When asked, teens expressed dreams of graduating high school and making a difference in the world. With that same group of teens, I also asked them what fears they have.

I learned teens today have a lot of fears. In fact when I asked about their hopes and fears, they responded with considerably more fears. This was true in both the sheer number of responses, and also the diversity of responses.

This did not surprise me too much, as the teenage years are filled with change. The world around them is changing as they grow up and gain more responsibility. Their bodies are changing. Their brain is allowing them to digest the world in ways they previously have not been able to. Many adults experience fear in the midst of change, so it is no surprise to learn teens are filled with fears and anxiety.

scared teenHere are some fears teens have today:

  • Not being good enough (in their own eyes & their parents eyes) or that they will fail
  • That they will be forgotten, not noticed or alone
  • That they will not do well in high school or college
  • That they will not achieve their dreams or accomplish their goals in life
  • Fear of death
  • Stuck doing something they do not enjoy
  • That college will be totally different from their expectations, and that it will be difficult
  • How society will view them, and what others will say and think about them
  • That they are a waste of space and cannot do or achieve anything in life

As I read these now, they make me sad. I can remember having some of those exact feelings as a teen and young adult. I had my whole life in front of me. It was exhilarating and scary all at the same time, and I was still trying to figure out how to navigate it. To top it off, everyone expected that I would be successful and do great things. At times I believed this and at other times I didn’t.

We need to realize that while teens may seem relaxed and carefree at times, there are very real fears that exist within them. I have witnessed guys graduating from high school go from goofing around and playing basketball one minute, to having a blank stare on their faces as they realized their fears about their uncertain future.

Parent and Youth Worker Tips:

  • Ask them what their fears are and don’t criticize or belittle their responses. As adults we may know the fear is irrational, but it is very real to them and the world as they see it.
  • Provide them opportunities to experience new things, especially as young teens. We often fear the unknown. If we provide opportunities and experiences in a safe group setting, this may help to decrease their anxiety of the unknown.
  • Share the fears you had as a teen. Talk about how you overcame those fears, or what opportunities you missed out on because you let your fear control you.
  • Focus on their hopes and dreams and help them to be action-oriented in striving towards their goals. It is good to acknowledge the fears but we don’t want to dwell in them.

Teens today need people in their lives rooting for them, supporting them and cheering them on. Not crushing their hopes and dreams. Allow your teen(s) dream big and help them overcome their fears on the way to achieving their dreams.

Oh Joy: The Hopes and Dreams of Teens Today

What do you see when you look at a teenager? Do you see a goofy kid lacking responsibility? Or do you see an aspiring young adult who wants to change the world? Or maybe something else?

Often, we see an element of the first. We witness a young person navigating their way through uncertain times – not a kid, but definitely not an adult.

Often this emerging, vulnerable person has a lot of passion! Although it may be for something seemingly materialistic, like the latest movie or a pair of shoes.

hopeful teenHowever, my experiences have shown me there is more to teens than this. I believe they have untapped passion. They have dreams and goals for their life, even if they have never spoken them out loud before. They are there, sometimes deep down inside.

I remember as a teen I dreamed of hitting the winning shot in the championship basketball game. I had goals to become a police officer, to serve others and help those in need. I had hopes of just fitting in. If we think back to our teen years, the majority of us had hopes, dreams and goals too.

Knowing someone’s hopes and dreams can tell you a lot about that person. I have been blown away by some of the deep thoughts teens and friends have shared when I’ve taken the time to ask about their hopes, and listen to their answers. I still remember a friend who told me about his dream to open up a sock store in the mall. It was a weird idea, but he was passionate about it.

If you work with teens or have teens, I encourage you to ask them what their hopes and dreams are. Like any relationship, having a positive bond established will contribute to the quality and depth of the conversation.

I recently asked a group of teens what their hopes and dreams were. Here are some of their responses:

  • To achieve greatness
  • To be a role model for younger kids
  • To be successful
  • To be happy, achieve my dreams and be stress free
  • To graduate high school and go to college
  • To be happy in my career, what ever it ends up being
  • To be successful in college
  • To fit in and be the best I can be
  • To choose the right path
  • To help make a difference in the world
  • To be a teacher and impact future students lives

Many of the teens I spoke to had a level of uncertainty about what exactly they wanted to do or be when they got older, but they did know they wanted to be successful. They defined success as making a difference, being happy and persevering when dealing with challenging situations or failure. None of them defined success as being rich.

Parent and Youth Worker Tips:

  • As you build a relationship and get to know your teens, take time to ask them what their hopes and dreams are. You can do this in a small group setting or one on one. If they don’t know that is ok. They may be embarrassed to say, or may have trouble articulating their thoughts. In a small group setting, writing, drawing or creating a collage out of magazine clippings can be a meaningful way for them to express their passion.
  • Share what your hopes and dreams were as a teen with them, no mater how silly or far-fetched. If you did not achieve those dreams, or perhaps went down another path, take time to explain that process. Teens will likely be comforted to hear how common it is to change course. Many teens fear their current dreams will not be satisfying in the long run. If you accomplished your dreams share with them how you did it. It can be helpful for teens to hear what steps you took, failures you experienced along the way, and how you overcame adversity.
  • Make a point to practice sensitivity with teens, and do not laugh or poke fun at their hopes and dreams.
  • Encourage them to pursue their dreams and to embrace their passions. My parents knew of mine and my brothers dreams of becoming police officers and connected us with a local law enforcement explorers program. Find opportunities to explore, experience and dive into their passions and dreams.

The next post in this series will focus on the fears teens experience today. Stay tuned!

One Simple Thing You Can Do to Make a Big Difference in Teens Lives

Every time I speak with youth workers or parents, I continually share the one idea that I feel will make a difference in teens lives today. One concept that if you use it with your teens over time, you will see a difference. A difference in your relationship. A difference in their respect for you. And a difference in the impact you can have on their lives.

The great thing about this ideas is how simple it is. Are you ready for it?


Simple right? Let me unpack this concept for you.

If you work with teens, before they even arrive for your program, have a plan in mind. I don’t just mean your program plan.

For Youth workers it looks like:

  • Having intentional plans about specific youth you want to connect with. Maybe a teen who you know had a bad day the previous day. Or one who had a big test today. Or had a court appearance. Seriously make a list of the teens you want to connect with and keep it in your pocket.
  • Have specific conversations in mind that you want to have with teens. About character traits. About events happening in pop culture that might connect to elements of your program.
  • Think about teens who you can complement them on what they have been doing well recently. Or just share how much you appreciate them.
  • Intentionally plan fun! We often get stuck in our program goals and forget to have fun. Teens want to have fun. Plan jokes, fun Minute to Win it games, Minute mysteries, icebreakers etc.
  • Be intentional with your staff and volunteers.
    • Have staff review a list of teens in your program. Identify which ones you know well and which ones you don’t. Then intentionally make efforts to reach out to the ones you don’t know as well. Make it your goal that day to learn one thing about one of those teens. If you continually do this, over a month you will know a decent amount about that teen.
    • If you volunteer with teens make sure you connect with the staff or other volunteers briefly to develop a game plan for the day. Who is going to lead discussions, who is leading activities, what topics may have been discussed on days when you were not present.

For Parents it can look like:

  • Intentionally make plans to hang out with your teen and do something they want to do. Schedule dates with them. My father-in law did this with all four of his daughters. He frequently made time to connect with each of them one-on-one, to listen to them and to connect with them. I have already started building daddy-daughter dates into my routine with my two girls even though they are not teens yet.
  • Write down the values and characteristics you want your teens to have and then figure out creative ways to introduce those to your teens. If you want them to be problem solvers invite them to help you the next time you have to fix an issue in your house, but let them come up with the solutions and try them out. If you want them to have a giving spirit, include them in conversations about what charities your family gives donations to. Even better, give them a set amount of money that they can donate to a charity of their choice. Walk alongside them as they investigate which charity they want to support.
  • Pay attention to what their favorite snacks are, TV shows, Movies or magazines. And when they are having a rough day or week, surprise them with their favorite snack or magazine.
  • Ask how their day was and truly listen. If they don’t respond be more specific, ask about a certain class, or teacher, or test, or activity they participate int.

Chap Clark in his book Hurt makes a powerful statement regarding adolescence today. He says, “we as adults who care have a long way to go to penetrate the layers of protection that keep us from being one more disappointment (to teens) in a world filled with them. But I am convinced that we are welcome there, if we mean it. And they need us to mean it.”

Do whatever you can not to be a disappointment to the teens in your life. I believe it all starts with being intentional.

How to Connect with Teens

Working with teens for the last 13 years, I have learned something very important. No two teens are alike. Therefore we can’t use the same tactics in dealing with every teen.

Here is one example.

Think about your youth group, your teens or teens you work with. You probably have a teen or two that are very talkative and will answer any question you ask (even if they don’t know the answer). These are the teens that you know when they are in the room because they are very engaged and active. In contrast you probably have a few teens that are more quiet and reserved. The ones that would not answer a question if no-one else was in the room let alone a large group. These are the teens that if they don’t show up for an event, you might not realize that they are not there.

I recently heard two great ideas about how to engage and connect with this second group of teens.

The first idea comes from two ladies I volunteer with at my church’s youth group. Shout out to Andi and Nicole! During our weekly youth group, they meet with a small group of high school girls to discuss the message shared that evening, chat, ask questions and support each other. They know not all of their girls feel comfortable asking questions in a group setting and have come up with an awesome option to connect with them.

We have assigned lockers for each of our high school small groups, and Andi and Nicole keep a journal in that locker. At any time their girls can grab the journal and write a question in it, share a prayer request or just write down their thoughts. Andi and Nicole will check the journal periodically and respond to what the girls have written. This provides space for the girls who might not feel comfortable asking a question in the group environment. Great Job Andi and Nicole! Parents, I think keeping a journal in your home to converse with your teen would also work well.

The second idea I heard from several sources including conversations with parents of teens.

Have you ever seen a teen blush when you try to say something positive to them? Or when you ask them a question that might embarrass them? Yes and Yes. The thing is, teens want to know someone is proud of them and teens value the opinions of their parents and adult role models. They just might not show it or know how to accept it yet.

Most teens today own a cell phone and love to text. Use that to your advantage. Text your teen encouragement, that you are proud of their accomplishments or to continue making good choices. Have short conversations via text with your ten. This should not be an end all but it is a great way to let them know you care and start the conversation.

These are just two ideas that I have heard recently and wanted to share. The important message to take away is keep trying. If the method you are using to communicate with your teen is not working, try something else, be creative, ask your teen(s) how you can communicate with them and make sure you are creating opportunities to connect with all of your teens.

Teens are Getting Their Shake On!

If you have had access to the internet or a teenager in the last two weeks, by now you have probably heard about the Harlem Shake. It is the latest viral video craze that is sweeping the internet teens are getting in on the action.

Here is the basic context. You and your friends put on the song, Harlem Shake by Baauer. For the first 15 seconds one person dances awkwardly, often times with a mask or something covering their face, and everyone else pretends they do not see the person. After 15 seconds (when the songs beat changes) you cut to everyone dancing and going crazy. I know, complex isn’t it. If you have a few minutes or hours to spare just type Harlem Shake into YouTube and you will be amused for as long as you can take it. Here is one of the more popular ones on You Tube that currently has over 22 million views.

I talked to teens across the country and found that almost all of them have been in a Harlem Shake video (or several) with their school, team, youth group, Club, family or friends.

When trends or viral videos like the Harlem Shake pop up, and they pop up almost every month these days, some will say that they lead to negative behavior. This week I heard of two cases where teens were suspended from school for their roles in creating or attempting to create a Harlem Shake video. One case involved teens lying to their teacher about what they were doing and pushing the limits on the appropriateness of the dance moves they were doing.

Overall viral videos like the Harem Shake can be a lot of fun for teens. But we have to remember that teens are still developing and sometimes may not make the best decisions. This is often the case when viral videos or trends get teens in trouble. They see a video like the Harlem Shake and think about what they could do to be more outrageous and get more views or likes on YouTube. This thought can outweigh the logical thoughts they have and cause them to push the limits.

What do I suggest when it comes to trends like the Harlem Shake? I will give you an example. A friend of mine who is a pastor made the following tweet tonight: “Who’s up for a Harlem shake video at mid-week tomorrow night? Bring props and we’ll do it.”

I love it! He is recognizing the trend and engaging with teens in making their own video. This means they will have appropriate supervision and guidance but will also have a great time. It can also bring the group closer together through a fun mutual experience.

Youth Tip: Keep your eyes and ears open for the latest trends and figure out how you can engage with your teens in the latest trend. Also, have conversations with them about how far they are willing to go to get likes and views on social media.

Teens Don’t Value Human Interaction, Or Do They?

“Teens are constantly texting or on social networks and don’t value human interaction anymore.”

I have heard this and similar statements numerous times in the past few weeks from adults. Many of them are angry and down-right mad when they make these statements to me.  Although there is value to their frustration, (13-17 year olds exchange 3,417 texts a month on average according to a report by Nielson), I think we need to look a little deeper and understand what is going on from a teens perspective.

When I talk to teens regarding their preferred methods of communication I am blown away by how detailed and sometimes complicated it is. It goes a little something like this:

“If I need a quick response I will call the person and text if it is something short like can I get a ride to the football game. I post on Facebook to inform and update my friends and family on whats going on and if I need to “vent” or “go on a rant” I head to twitter. Small talk with my friends is definitely a text, but if we want to have a deeper conversation then we call, Skype or talk face-to-face. If I am working on the computer, I will IM with my friends instead of text. And if I am not real close to the person I will always text them over call them. Oh and email, that is only for school and sharing documents.”

Did you get all that? What teens are saying is they use different forms of communication depending on the content and who they are communicating with. Where adults might question the redundancy of a teen needing to text, tweet and post to Facebook all with in a 2 minute time frame, teens don’t see it that way. They see it as communicating different things to different groups of people. So there seems to be some thought put into this madness.

When I was a teen I only had the options of calling someone on the phone, talking to them face-to-face or sending them a letter. I personally did not like talking on the phone and still don’t. Even to this day I get anxiety over calling to order a pizza. I wish I had other communication options while I was growing up and I can see how youth who may be more shy or timid can benefit from being able to text or IM their peers.

But back to the statements about teens not valuing human contact. This is one of the biggest myths I am seeing regarding teens right now. It simply is not true. When I was talking to teens about this topic, almost all of them said that they prefer face-to-face interaction over any other form of communication. They did not even hesitate or think twice to say it. One teen even commented that he enjoyed human interaction “because you could see the other persons emotions and expressions.” And this made him happy.

This is backed up by a recent study from Common Sense Media titled, “Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives.” They asked teens about their favorite way to communicate and found that 49% of teens favored “In Person”, followed by 33% “Texting”, 7% “Social Networks”, 4% “By Phone” and 1% “Twitter.”

This is Great News! Teens do in fact desire human interaction. In fact I dare to say they Crave human interaction.

What does this mean?

For Parents:

  • First of all, look at any form of communication coming from your teen to you as a positive thing.
  • Set up times to do things as a family. Eat dinner together, go on a hike, watch a TV show or Movie together. Set up rules during these family times so no one uses technology or is distracted.
  • Your teen might not want you to show that you care about them in front of their friends. Nothing is as embarrassing to a teen as a mom yelling, “I Love You Honey,” as they drop you off at school. But a quick text saying you appreciate them, are proud of them or can’t wait to hang out with them is a great way to use the various forms of communication to your advantage.
  • Put your own phone down, get off the computer, step away from the TV and just be around your teen. Look them in the eye and show them you are listening to them.

For Youth Workers:

  • Show you value teens by making space for face-to-face conversations with them.
  • Create opportunities for teens to be in community with each other. Create small clubs and groups around common interests.
  • Make your time with them so much fun that they will not want to stop every five seconds to update their status on Facebook. Teens want to be in the here and now.

71% of Teens Hide their Online Behavior from their Parents

As long as there have been teenagers, there have been teens hiding stuff from their parents. They try to hide their behavior, their report card, something illegal they should not have etc. In today’s technology age teens are also hiding what they are doing online.  McAfee, the world’s largest dedicated security technology company, recently released findings from the company’s 2012 Teen Internet Behavior study showing what teens are hiding and how they are doing it.

The study found that over half of teens (61%) feel confident that they know how to hide what they do online from parents and 71% (Up from 45% in 2010) of teens have actually done something to hide their online behavior.” How are teens hiding their online behavior? Here are the top ten ways teens hide their online behavior as identified by the study.

  1. Clearing the browser history (53%)
  2. Close/minimize browser when parent walked in (46%)
  3. Hide or delete IMs or videos (34%)
  4. Lie or omit details about online activities (23%)
  5. Use a computer your parents don’t check (23%)
  6. Use an internet-enabled mobile device (21%)
  7. Use privacy settings to make certain content viewable only by friends (20%)
  8. Use private browsing modes (20%)
  9. Create a private email address unknown to parents (15%)
  10. Create duplicate/fake social network profiles (9%)

Youth Worker and Parent Tips: If you work with teens or have teens in your home, here are a few practical tips to help you navigate your teens internet behavior. (Note: some of these tips were taken directly from McAffee’s report)

  •  Have “frequent one-to-one conversations with teens to get through to them about the choices they’re making online and the risks and consequences of their choices.”

  • “Be diligent about setting parental controls, which includes keeping a watchful eye to know if/when teens discover ways around them, as many already have.”

  • “Be upfront with teens about monitors and controls implemented on their internet devices, as half of teens say they would think twice about their online activities if they knew parents were watching.”

  • Check the history on your computer. You can see past pages that have been visited, if you do not recognize a site, check it out and become in the know. If you notice that there is not a lot of history, this alerts you that someone is deleting the history after their use and maybe trying to hide something.

  • Place all computers in an open space where the screen is visible from a distance and keep a watchful eye when teens are using the computer. Parents, allowing a computer in your teens bedroom is not a good idea.  Same with allowing them to take their cell phone into their room at night. This allows unsupervised use and creates temptation for teens.

  • Stay in the know. Follow news/media/blog posts on internet behavior and what you need to be aware of.  A couple good sites/resources are Mashable.com or the MSNBC Science and Technology section (sign up for the e-newslettter). On twitter? Then here are some great follows that will keep you in the know @Mashable @SueScheff and @CommonSenseNews just to name a few. Fact is there are many great resources available today, it may take a little bit of work but it is better than throwing your hands up and giving up.

The McAffee study has a lot more interesting findings than just what I covered in this post. Such as what are teens actually accessing and hiding, a look at what’s at stake, the disconnect between what teens are doing and what parents are aware of and much more. I encourage you to check out the full study located here.

What are Teens up to, or Not up to, this Summer?

Summer time has always brought about the “J” word for teens. I am speaking of the summer “job”.  It is an opportunity for teens to earn some spending cash, possibly help support their family and to learn skills that will help them later in life. But it is not as easy these days. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment levels for teens is the lowest it has been since World War II and that 44% of teens who want a summer job won’t get one this year. That means only less than 3 in 10 teens will be working this summer.

With this being the case, we need to make sure teens are prepared for even the smallest job and help them stand out amongst the crowd.



Youth Worker Tips:

  • Provide teens opportunities to gain skills that they can add to their resume. Ideas include volunteering on a regular basis; something long-term where a staff member could provide them a reference. Let them apprentice a role within your program; have them help facilitate activities/programs for younger members or take leadership on projects. Set up job shadowing opportunities in your community where teens can interact with potential employers and show their interest in obtaining a job.
  • Provide job readiness workshops for teens and invite local businesses to facilitate sessions. Teach basic work ethic, how to interview, how to interact with customers, how to write a resume etc.
  • Be an advocate for your teens. Take opportunities to ask businesses if they are hiring and let them know about the great teens you work with. *If possible do this before summer to catch managers before they have begun their hiring process.
  • Help teens explore entrepreneurship opportunities. More teens are starting their own businesses from fashion accessories to tech based businesses. We hear stories of teens starting businesses based on interests and hobbies that end up turning very profitable. Provide opportunities to teach teens the basics of creating their own business.
  • If teens you work with cannot get a job this summer, make sure you are providing more opportunities for teens so that they are being productive and setting themselves up for success in the future.

Tips for Parents:

  • Follow the same tips for youth workers
  • Realize that it is more difficult for teens to get a job today and work with your teen to brainstorm opportunities and ideas for where to apply.
  • If they cannot get a job make sure they are being proactive to set themselves up to obtain a job in the future. Have them participate in summer programs, workshops, volunteer in the community etc. Anything to build their resume or expose them to potential employers.

One of my Top Tips for Working With Teens

Have you ever been in a conversation with a group of co-workers, and someone makes mention of a story in the news or a song by a new band, and it seems that everyone in the group knows what they are referring to except you. What do you do?  Do you ask, do you follow along with the groups reactions and later use Google to find out what they were really talking about? How do you feel in that moment? Torn between wanting to know what they are talking about and feeling a little embarrassed that you don’t know what they are talking about.

I have been caught in this situation when someone throws out words that to me sound like they came out of the latest Harry Potter movie. I have no idea what the word means but often I feel dumb asking.  Sometimes I ask but on many occasions I later Google the words.

It is human nature to feel insecure in these situations. Now changed the scenario from co-workers to a group of teens you are supervising.  You are supposed to know more than them, you are older, you have had more education and life experiences.  I found myself in this situation daily working with teens. They would mention a band, song, TV show, celebrity, slang word, new style of dance, alcoholic drink and a list of others things that I had no clue about.  In my early years as a youth worker I sometimes would ask the teens what they were talking about, but more times than not I would just pretend I knew or just pretended I did not hear what they said at all. Often I would write myself a note to look it up later, but between clobbering teens in ping-pong and doing my best Matrix moves playing dodge-ball I would lose that note.

I quickly learned that the pretending game was not getting me very far, and decided to go with the motto of “just ask.”  If I heard a teen mention a new artist, saw them browsing a website I did not recognize or use a slang word. I asked them what it meant, who the artist was or what site they were checking out.  I was amazed by how open and willing the teens were to share with me.  What I gradually realized is that teens actually liked that they knew something that I did not.  It made them feel good to share with me and in many cases they enjoyed teaching me.  It was like the roles were reversed and they were the teacher and I was the student.  This actually helped strengthen many relationships with teens.

Just asking has become one of the most important lessons that I share with youth workers.  Not only does it help you stay knowledgeable and relevant, it shows the teens that you really do care about them because you are showing interest in something they are interested in. Now two points.  One, you have to come at them in a non-judgmental manner.  The more you can show that you are truly interested the more likely they will be to open up.

Second, it also takes knowing the teens you work with.  For example, I worked with a lot of teens that were involved in gang activity.  If I heard a teen mention something and he was around his peers I may not ask right then.  But I would seek him out later, one on one, and ask about whatever it was he was saying.  More times than not I would find out about who was involved in what gang, what the latest beef was and once I even learned about the meaning of new graffiti popping up in town before the gang team for the local police department did.  The guys would not want to share in front of their peers and be seen as a snitch, but I was amazed by how much they would share when they were not worried about someone over-hearing.

Maybe you don’t have the same struggle I did as a young youth worker and it comes easy for you to ask teens questions.  Either way, I encourage you to keep asking questions and  keep showing the teens you care about them.

Youth Worker Tips:

  • When you don’t know, ask.
  • Have a formal teen focus group to ask teens what is new in the community, what issues they are dealing with, what trends are out there etc.
  • Identify the teens that you know will always share the latest trends (good and bad) with you and seek them out. Soon they will be coming to you asking “Have you heard about…”
  • If you have a computer lab, at the end of the day look at the history on the computers.  If you do not recognize a site, make note of it and ask some teens about the site and why teens frequent it.