Three tips for working with teens

Adolescence is a time of great change and positive development. In turn it requires us to be open to change and development in our own faith and lives.

OK, working with teenagers is not easy, even someone with the leadership skills of Scott of the Antarctic, the personality of Oprah Winfrey and the moral authority of Nelson Mandela would have a hard time convincing adolescents to get up on time in the morning or tidy their room. As an adolescent even Jesus made his parents angry. But working with teenagers is good for you and great for your faith too as we will see.

So where do you start? Here are a few tips that might help:

Actually 'like' teenagers

Yes I know this is difficult. Some days (weeks) I don’t even like my own children let alone other peoples. If you are a teacher you can’t like all of them and certainly you can’t like all of them all the time. But if adolescents don’t actually feel we view them positively we will have little favourable influence on their lives.

It is highly unlikely that an adolescent is going to remember even 1% of what you teach them, but they are going to remember how you made them feel.

This doesn’t mean you have to be nice to them continuously but they have to understand that you have their best interests at heart. In his book ‘Brainstorm’ Dan Siegel warns that we must be careful of seeing adolescence as a time just to be endured and instead appreciate the importance and value of this age and stage. The good news is you can practice liking teens (try it) and improve your ability to do this. If you really don’t like them and feel you can’t get better, then don’t work with them.

Argue with them

In their book ‘Nurtureshock’, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman expressed the following sentiment that I believe is more often true than not.

“If your teenager isn’t arguing with you then they are lying to you.”

From my perspective, if a teen takes time to argue with you it’s a sign of respect. You are significant enough to them that they want your approval or permission and they value you enough to seek your validation of their opinions or behaviour. You don’t have to, by the way, but if we don’t allow space for this dialogue then our teens are going to politely lie to our faces as we read them the rule book and quietly get on with exactly what they want to do (actually not so much quietly, just out of earshot). I hate to say it but the primary school days of control (if they existed at all) are over.

Be wrong (some of the time)

An adolescent is in the important business of establishing their identity, working out who they are. A big part of that involves establishing their difference and in turn a big part of that involves distancing themselves from the views of the adults in their lives. Disagreement is natural and necessary. Because of this dynamic, if we insist on always being right we risk driving our students further away from us. The following quote expresses this well,

“Parents who have taken up all the space of moral rightness should not be surprised when their sons find their only space by living in immorality” John and Paula Sandford.

Of course this applies to girls as well and also to all adults working closely with teenagers. It’s important to give adolescents their ever growing say, this is one of the reasons why student voice is so important in school. We need to give our teens a little leeway while maintaining appropriate boundaries.

God's gift

What do these three things mean for you? I would suggest that each point in turn requires us to be loving (1 Corinthians 13:1-7), courageous (Joshua 1:7) and humble (Philippians 2:1-8), exactly what we are called to be. Adolescence is a time of great change and positive development. In turn it requires us to be open to change and development in our own faith and lives. Teenagers may think they are God’s gift to the world, well perhaps they are. The opportunity for us to grow is the gift teens give to us, let’s enjoy it and them.

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Author: Tim Jarvis
Tim is currently the Senior Master: Pastoral Care at Michaelhouse where he has been since Easter 2004. He is the author of the blog, ‘There’s a Hadeda in my Garden’ which considers educational issues, teen wellbeing and life on the campus of a rural boarding school.
Published: 22 May 2023
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