If you have not read my previous two posts on Building Relationships with Teens, I encourage you to go back and read post one to get an idea of why I started this series. And you can find post two is located here.
This is the third 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 second post, I focused on the tip, “Spend time talking with us,” where I 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 #3.
Tip 3: LISTEN. Pay attention. Don’t multi-task or get distracted when you’re with us. Respond to messages and texts.
I shared these 10 tips with a group of teens I am currently working with and asked their opinions. Today, one of the girls commented that the whole list was right on. But she continued to say that the most important tip on the list is to listen. She said she is “always getting yelled at for being on her phone, but many of the adults around her do the same thing.”
In a culture where teens are often driven to see how many “likes” or comments they can get on social networks or how many people view their video, you would think everyone is listening to them. When I have talked with teens about this, they admit that they know social networks don’t replace real face-to-face relationships. They also know that often people are not being their true selves online.
Teens crave authenticity, and as adults, parents and youth workers, we can provide that.
This tip and tip one (look at us and make eye contact) have a similar message: Pay attention to me; show me that you are listening and that you care.
I can’t use the line, “Back when I was a teen director,” because it truly has not been that long. But a lot has changed. I did not own a cell phone or have a social network account. So teens were not connecting with me through digital devices, but we still had our fair share of distractions.
Rather than tell you of a time when I did listen to teens well, I want to tell you the ways I did not listen to teens well. In my role as the teen director at the local Boys & Girls Club, I had a lot of responsibilities. We often had 60–80 teens in our facility at a time, more during the winter months. This created distractions for me. Instead of focusing on the one conversation I was having with a teen or small group of teens I was constantly looking away, scanning the room to make sure the other teens were behaving or seeing who had just arrived.
I had a technique I refer to as “drive-by conversations.” I would circle the room stopping briefly at each group of teens to comment on a pool game, ask how school was that day or ask who was winning at Madden. I was making little connections but often I was not allowing for a true response. Often I was walking away as they were responding to my initial question. I was not listening to them.
Tips for Youth Workers and Parents:
- Don’t be distracted. Do the basics: look at the teen you are talking with, turn and face him or her, have an open posture and ask follow-up questions to show you are engaged. Model the behavior you want to see in them.
- Put your phone out of sight. They can be the biggest distraction we have around us. If it vibrates, rings or sings to you, do not immediately reach for it. Parents, create a cell phone parking lot in your home where cell phones go while you are in the house. This will limit your desire to look at it every five seconds.
- Respond. If they email, call, text, tweet, or send a carrier pigeon or smoke signals, make sure you respond in a timely manner. And this means knowing what a timely manner is for teens.
- Schedule follow-up conversations. If you do have to step away for a legitimate reason like a meeting or you have to use the bathroom, let them know when you will be back or schedule a time to finish your conversation. Be proactive and seek them out to follow-up and re-connect. I worked with a staff member who was great at this. Often when she would have a task at hand, she would ask the teen to walk and talk with her as she moved about the teen center.