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.
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