Teens Just Want to Be Heard

Do you remember being a teen and just wanting to be heard?  Maybe you had a great idea or a new way of looking at life and you just wanted someone to listen to you?  This notion has been enhanced by social media where teens can share thoughts, opinions and other randomness (like their most recent meal or favorite music video on YouTube) to hundreds of “friends” at any given moment.  Now not only do teens still want to be heard but they feel others want to hear from them.

A recent survey from tru shows 61% of teens feel that “their peers look to them for advice and their opinions.”  Many may look at this as a way social media has turned teens into a selfish or narcissistic generation. And that my be true on some levels. But I feel that instead of always looking for the negative with teens using Social Media that we should look how we can use this to our advantage as youth workers.

One of the most important pieces of information I tell youth workers who have programs serving teens is to give the teens a “voice” in the program.  What I mean by that is ask the teens questions about the current program, what they like about it, what they would change, how you can better serve them etc.  I have been in several settings where I have been visiting a youth program that is struggling and the staff have asked me for advice on how they can improve. I usually ask to talk with a small group of teens and within 30-60 minutes the teens have helped me identify basic things the youth program could improve.   Often the issues that are hindering the program from growing are minor (such as the setting is not teen friendly) but sometimes the issues are larger (such as the staff do not respect the teens). The problem is the staff never asked the teens for their opinion or thoughts.

I think we can take advantage of the fact that teens feel their opinion is important to others.  The problem is often times as adults, when we ask a teen for their ideas we shoot them down with a quick “No” or “we cannot do that.”  Instead I want to encourage you to try not to say no, but instead have a conversation with the teen and identify what you can say yes to.  For example if a teen complains that the space is not suitable for teens and you should build a new space. Instead of saying a flat no, you could say, ” we may not be able to build a new space right now, but what can we do to the current space to make it more appealing to teen?”  You would be surprised by the creative and simple ideas teens can come up with given the opportunity.

How can you put this into practice as a youth worker?  Here are a few tips:

  • Have a standing council of teens that the staff goes to for advice on how to recruit teens, ideas for new programs, how to improve programs or ask them to help plan and facilitate programs/activities.
  • Regularly survey teens and facilitate focus groups (two to four times a year).
  • Do not plan a new program without asking a few teens for their feedback on how to make the program fun and appealing to them.
  • Involve the teens setting up the teen space. Allow them to help choose the furniture, paint colors, make bulletin boards etc.
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