It’s the conundrum that every youth worker faces: the eternal balance between handling adults and teenagers.
It’s an odd balance, and one that we all struggle with–whether we’re newbies or old pros, male or female, or even paid staff or volunteer. On one hand, your job requires you to wear goofy outfits, sing karaoke and be familiar with hit pop songs so you can reach your students–and on the other side of the spectrum, you’re responsible for the safety and welfare (and usually the budget) of your youth. No matter where you are or what size church you may be at, you’re inevitably dealing with both youth and their parents or guardians at the same time.
So how on earth can you get along with both parents and youth? Here’s a list of some of my personal “do’s and don’ts” to help you navigate this tricky topic:
1) Don’t use words like “groovy,” “awesome,” and “totally” too often in adult conversation.
I know it can be tempting to speak like a 14-year-old since you spend so much time with them, but please remember…you are an adult. Sure, wear your trendy shirts and flip-flops and listen to your teenybopper music–there’s nothing wrong with striving to make teenagers feel like you’re not a stuffy adult that they can’t relate to.
When you’re dealing with other adults, however, remember that you’re one of them. As much time as you may spend with teens, it’s still important to maintain a professional and responsible demeanor with parents. After all, they’re entrusting their children–and their kids’ faith educations–to you. Don’t make them doubt that by your careless jargon.
2) Don’t ever say the phrase, “Don’t tell your parents this!”
I don’t think I need to elaborate much on this. Rest assured, it’s the guaranteed way to make sure that every kid tells his or her parent about it. And that every parent will be irritated with you, as a youth leader.
3) Do remember to equip adults and teens.
Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we’re working with entire families, not just teenagers. After all, you may feel like you spend a lot of time with your students–but parents and guardians spend vastly more time with their kids! It’s important for us, as youth leaders, to remember that we have a responsibility to equip parents just as equally as teenagers.
I’ve striven to provide parents with regular communication–so that they know what topics we’re talking about–but also with recommended resources, so they can have an active part in their children’s faith lives. I’ve given out lists of recommended books, websites, shows and pod casts often so that parents can be learning right alongside their kids. I’ve hosted meetings and training sessions to help parents understand and deal with their teens, and I’ve always tried to involve parents often so that they get the opportunity to partner with our ministries.
4) Don’t share personal stories or divulge confidences about their teens.
A big no-no in dealing with parents and teens occurs when you, as a trusted youth leader, flap your jaw about a student’s personal life without their permission. Even things that may seem minor to you–for instance, sharing a child’s crush with a parent without their permission–could cause a major rift in your relationship with your youth. It’s better to remain a caring, but trustworthy, adult that all your students can confide in–instead of one they think will blab to everyone.
Of course, if a student’s health, emotional stability or some other serious problem comes to your knowledge, you need to take proper steps to report or deal with the issue. Sometimes that requires connecting with parents or other family, Child Protective Services and other staff at your church or school. Problems like this might include self-harm, abuse, neglect or depression. Always seek counsel from other professionals in cases like these, and always err on the side of protecting children.
5) Do keep parents involved–especially through regular communication.
I’ve always found that parents were much more supportive and invested in our youth programs when I actively involved them. I’ve tried to send emails and newsletters, text messages and connected with parents face-to-face when they come to pick their kids up.
What we sometimes forget, as youth leaders, is that kids might open up to us but not necessarily to their parents at home. A few years ago, I had an incredible experience of witnessing five middle school boys share their faith with each other in ways that brought me unparalleled joy, as their youth leader.
When I arrived home from that experience, I realized that these boys’ parents likely didn’t know how proud I was of them, and what they said on this trip. I sent an email to the group of parents, very generically describing the experience but spending time detailing what I had appreciated about each student’s sharing. Every single parent ended up emailing me back, telling me that they had been in tears reading about their son’s experience–and thanking me profusely for sharing what their tight-lipped boys hadn’t bothered to tell them about.
6) Do have a transparent ministry.
In my opinion, one of the unhealthiest habits a youth leader can fall into is having an “us vs. them” mindset within his or her youth group. You’ve probably seen it, as I have–a youth leader who has pitted teenagers against everyone else and created an exclusive little “club” that seems to be against everyone else in the church and community.
Sometimes this can be as simple as a group of teens who only ever sit with each other in the back of the sanctuary, or it could be a youth group that never supports any other events or functions because they “do their own thing.”
Whatever habits a group might have, it’s important for leaders to strive for a transparent ministry–one in which events are open and inviting, leaders are forthright and communicate well, information is shared frequently and people are welcoming of strangers. The last thing you want is a closed-off group that sends messages of hostility and exclusivity, and indicates that you’re against families and friends.
7) Don’t try to explain inside jokes to parents.
Rest assured, no matter how tempting it may be to try to explain to parents what goofy jokes were told in the back of the bus on the way home from your retreat, it’ll never make sense to them. Just keep calling Tommy the “Poky Pickle” and don’t bother trying to answer his parents’ questioning looks. Rather, cast the bait and let Tommy himself do the explaining to his folks.
8) Do look for ways to creatively include parents in your program.
I’ve truly enjoyed involving parents and families in our ministry in many creative ways. I’ve had parents host prayer sessions while we’ve been away on trips, done live blogs and Twitter feeds of events and mission experiences and had parents host banquets and receptions for our youth–all with great benefit to our program.
Sometimes we’re tapped out of ideas, and it’s perfectly acceptable to let parents come in and think creatively about ways to be involved in ministry. Just discourage anything that has to do with “Messy Twister” and bottles of ketchup and chocolate syrup…trust me on this.
Now that you’ve reviewed my personal list, it’s time for you to do some reflecting of your own. How can you, in your ministry or volunteering, make a sincere attempt to balance both parents and teenagers?
Now that you’ve got your thinking cap on….get ready, get set….and balance!