working with teenagers: adults are boring

I have often lamented in life that adults suck, pure and simple. What I’m realizing as I grow older (biologically, at least) is that adults have innate perspectives that just come naturally from constantly shouldering responsibility. In working with youth, I have been lucky enough to catch myself when I realize some of the bad habits that adults use.

A great example is that the other day, I was out with Kevin and I mentioned to him how I totally had a brain fart. I had driven to the grocery store, happened to forget my wallet at home, had to drive home and then back to the store to pick something up. After telling my story, Kevin, in turn, started telling about how he got stuck at work one time because he forgot his bus pass. In true adult fashion, I thought about it for a second, and my first response was, “so how did you get home?”

The second I said that, it dawned on me that adults are boring. My immediate reaction was to examine the logistics of solving the problem instead of enjoying the story for the humorous life experience. I’ll admit I felt slightly deflated that I would do that. I realized, though, that I was asking that because in my adult mind, problems like that are commonplace — achieving objectives as efficiently as possible. A teenager would approach the problem from a totally different perspective than an adult would, and while there’s nothing strange about that, it shows off my character a bit that I was interested in the details of the experience more than Kevin’s viewpoint and how he felt about the whole thing.

Another thing that I have noticed recently is that I absolutely *freak out* when teenagers start talking to me about things they want to do, because I see them as long-term decisions that they are jumping into. The reality is often that, for them, it is either just a short-term decision or some options they are exploring in their head.

I’ll use Kevin as an example again (poor kid … he sure gets the brunt of my learning experiences). One time he told me that he wanted to work at a fast food joint. My adult brain quickly translated this to mean, “I’m considering an exciting life-long career in becoming a hamburger whisperer.” I remember that I was so shell-shocked that my brain locked up and I started staring off into space. I felt myself going into insta-lecture mode, which, I knew, would not be the best course of action. After a few seconds I realized I hadn’t said anything, and I just kind of mumbled an inquisitive “Okay …”. Internally my mind was racing and wondering how in the world I can immediately reverse this dangerous line of thought.

The reality was much different from my hastily-constructed vision. He wanted to find somewhere close to work to his house so that his mom didn’t have to drive him there. My crazy adult instincts, though, just jumped to the worst-case scenario and prepared myself to drop a bomb of logic and a long talk on the glamour of working with fattening foods as a lifestyle.

I believe responding with a lecture after someone tells you what they think is not good, because it’s not creating an environment where they feel like they can talk to you. The best thing to do, I’ve found, is to listen to them and not offer feedback until it’s requested — and even then, be moderate and say things like, “have you considered … ?” It’s incredibly hard to hold my tongue sometimes, especially when I think someone could be cruising straight down Dead End Alley.

One principle that I try to adhere too is that if I feel so strongly about something that I think is important, then it’s going to take time to craft a proper response. Flipping out is not going to help, because my initial reaction is going to be emotionally charged.

When it comes to responsibilities, I’ve always thought that adults always focus too much on how important they are. What I have noticed in my life is that while they *are* important, they are not *everything*.

Too often I completely ignore the simple things in life that make it worth living. Things like pursuing dreams, making close friends, enjoying autonomy and having a purpose in life. Adults seem intent to make youth realize the effects of their life decisions in the major areas, but totally ignore the secondary ones. And naturally, I forget those things as well. Frankly, the last thing I want to be is boring by focusing only on a few of the big things.

I found this great book recently, titled “Befriending Your Teenager.” I rolled my eyes when I saw the cover, because I was like, “Oh my froof, this sounds like some pootsie pants who thinks if you give them a hug and a smile, they will come to you asking for apple pie or something.” It turns out that the author has been a youth pastor for years, and that this is the most awesome book I’ve read yet. I think a better title is in order though … something like, “This Is Why Teenagers Think Adults Suck.” Maybe I’ll write a book like that some day.

There is an excerpt that I want to quote verbatim, because it is exactly how I have always perceived things when I was a teenager:

“As adults we often appear to have failed at happiness. We walk through our lives with a shroud of stress over our shoulders, talking to one another as if the goal of life was to stay busy and serious. We wag a finger in the faces of adolescents, telling them of the perils of the real world. We seldom talk to teenagers of anything but grades, drugs, sex, SAT scores, and how the human condition and world are deteriorating at an alarming rate. Oh, sure, we try to compensate with an occasional pep talk about how these youths are the hope of the future, or how they can be anything they want to be, but both adolescents and adults fail to believe this tired little speech.

Today’s teenager probably does not need to hear any wornout pep talk or any cliche that simplifies the staggering complexity of modern living. What today’s teenager needs is to know that becoming an adult is not some bland, bleak experience of boredom, intermittently interrupted by storms of grief or showers of joy. Is it any wonder so many youth question the value of life when we adults make adulthood a rat race, an endurance test of back-breaking, heart-breaking, spirit-breaking difficulty? Think about it. When was the last time your teenager, or the youth you work with and care about, saw *you* really laugh, really look happy? I have come to realize that I owe it to these young people to share openly my happiness; more importantly, the greatest gift I can give them is a happier me. If we want them to choose life, which I know we deeply do, we must make adulthood–the bulk of every lifetime–more appealing, much happier. We do not need to hide our struggles from them, but we do need to let them see our joy, our delight in being alive.”

What I got from reading this was basically, it’s okay to let teenagers see that I have emotions too, that I struggle with things as well, and that my emotions are the same ones that they have. Then for me to share those experiences with them — not putting the burdens on them to help me solve them, but rather let them know that life continues to be both challenging and rewarding … just in different ways.

The idea of sharing my feelings about how things were going in *my* life never occurred to me at all before reading this book. My general attitude has been, “I am here to teach you and ask you how you are doing, and focus on your problems. My life is totally perfect, so I am in a great position here to make this a one-way relationship.” I think, though, that as youth see me as a human, that they will be both impressed that an adult would open up to them, and also see that it’s possible to trust someone with your emotions.

I can say that it is really hard to apply these principles in working with youth. It’s hard to know what the best approach is all the time, and it’s a real struggle for me as I search to find some good methods that bring positive results. Anytime that I come up against some advice like this, though, that is counterintuitive to how adults naturally approach things … that’s when I think I must really be onto a good idea. :)

working with teenagers: not listening

I noticed something terrible about myself recently. I’m not always a good listener. Actually, now that I think about it … make that two things — I’m acting like an adult. Oh noes! Abort! Quick, look at lolcats! Watch cartoons!

I think I might be safe, actually. I’m eating Life cereal for dinner at 11p.m., spent most of my day at work drawing Christmas cards, then in the evening I was making dumb jokes with my little brother while we walked to the gas station to buy soda and Cheetos. There’s hope for me yet.

However, I have honestly noticed that there have been a few times recently, where my default mode has switched from listening to “Oh, since you’re talking to me, you must want my manly, adultly advice on everything.” Which really sucks. Because when someone confuses listening with asking for input, things are just going to go all sorts of wrong.

Listening takes work. Not because it’s hard, but because I have to be self-aware of how I’m talking. Essentially, it is real-time meta-talk analysis. Or, it can be, if I’m trying really, really hard to watch how I am paying attention.

I have noticed one thing that works for me, though. If I can just *realize* that someone is talking to me, and just wants me to listen, then I can kind of switch into this mode where I actually can do that, and politely extend an offer of giving feedback first. It’s a cognitive attitude shift. No watching myself with every single sentence, but just changing my mindset and then applying those principles of good communication.

The skills have to be already learned, though, and I’ve actually been working on that. I like that it doesn’t take a huge deal of effort to get into that mode, it just takes me having to notice that either the other person wants me to, or it’s a good idea to do it.

I read or heard this great quote the other day, or maybe I made it up, I don’t know. I don’t think I did, though. But it was “teenagers will gravitate to whoever takes them seriously.” If my life has been any indication, that is so true.

One thing I’ve noticed is that people love to talk about themselves. If you can get them talking about that subject, they likely won’t shut up. Which, if you’re trying to help out someone, that’s actually a good thing, since you want their perspective on stuff.

The trick is that your interest has to be genuine. Teenagers can smell someone being presumptuous like a donkey on waffle day. If your interest isn’t genuine to start with, then you’re heading down the wrong paths already.

So, my rude awakening of late has been that I don’t listen, naturally, all the time. In reviewing conversations from the past week, I’ve noticed that when some people are trying to collude with me, instead of saying “wow, that would [suck|be awesome|make me want to eat pez],” instead I jump into something like, “yah, you don’t wanna [do that|go there|drink mouthwash].” I’ve realized, with some horror as noted, that this is kind of just an adult instinct. And frankly, that drives me crazy. Not because it means an adult (something I’m struggling to accept anyway, because adults = boring), but that there is a natural drift that I was unaware of, that if unchecked, is only going to hamper my ability to serve. The whole thing has kind of put me on guard, wanting to review the past a bit more and see where else I could be putting people off when they are trying to open up.

To be honest, it’s hard. Imma keep watching out though.

talking with teenagers: some ideas

I wrote this opinion paper for my psychology class earlier in the semester. When I did it, I sat down and basically ranted in one quick session what I thought about stuff. I didn’t bother to save a copy of it at the time, because I kind of just banged it out.

I got my paper back today though from the professor, and reading over it, I kind of liked it. It could stand some editing and cleanup, but I think the message itself is worth something. So I decided I’d post it up here, and just share some of my ideas I have about working with teens. :)

Continue reading “talking with teenagers: some ideas”

working with teenagers

Even before I started going back to school and focusing on psychology, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with my life: working with people who had general life problems. But as I focus that even tighter, I realize that I’ve always wanted to work with teenagers. Why is that? The more I study psychology, the more I realize how fascinating the adolescent development stage is.

There are so many questions that I have, that I have to wonder how it is people deal with it. I’ll admit that part of the reason for my quest is to find answers that I myself, still struggle with. I think in a lot of ways I’ve always had a mental capacity of someone twenty years older than me. I’m not claiming a high intelligence or anything like that, rather that my mind was always churning out so many possibilities and trying to understand societal factors at a really young age. As an example, in my introductory sociology class, I find myself constantly getting frustrated at the material presented, because I understood this stuff when I was about ten years old. I just “got it” really early on. It makes me a little upset when doing the coursework, because I keep looking for deeper answers and insight to the issues, but this class is only going to be able to go into the basics, just because of it’s broad academic goal.

Anyway, the reason for all of that is that while I had a lot of external social factors figured out early on, I never really understood relationships myself growing up too well. In fact, it’s safe to say I still struggle with that a great deal. Which is one reason that studying to help out youth is so helpful to me as well.

Consider all the things that are being developed during adolescence. It’s a lot of firsts, and it can be a completely terrifying and crazy time. Teenagers start to develop real, deep relationships for the first time. In some cases, they are introduced to their first romances. They develop the skills to create real relationships that have meaning and structure, that are beyond simpler ones where in their younger years, they innocently played together. For the first time, they have peers that they can relate to on an emotional level, and share with them those unique perspectives.

I have *always* had the opinion that teenagers get written off way too easily, and that has always fueled my desire in part to be someone who gives them a listening ear for a change. Adults generally shrug off problems that teens have and either discount their issues (which, from their perspective, really aren’t that important) or just throw out platitudes like “You’ll grow out of it.” For someone going through that, at the time, making light of the situation just tells them that you are not someone they can discuss their feelings with. So, I try to listen, listen, listen, and hear what they are saying.

I’d like to say that I’m good at it, but unfortunately, I’ve seen myself doing the “adult” thing sometimes, and trying to jump straight to a lecture when someone tells me what they’re going through, or just thinking the whole “drama” is entertaining.

As adults, in retrospect, we think that the issues that youth are going through are trivial. And for adults, they are. But the problem for the youth is that this is the first time they’ve ever even had these types of issues.

What is it about growing up that makes us change so much? Yesterday I was at church, and I saw some little kid about four years old running through the halls having the time of his life. He would get stopped by some random elderly mother who would give him a pat, a hug, and a kind word. That’s your entire life when you’re a little kid. Having fun, running around, playing with toys, and everyone telling you how sweet and wonderful you are.

Then, as you transition into being a little older, people don’t constantly give you hugs. Instead, you start to look like an adult, so people treat you like one, whether you are emotionally prepared for that or not. Responsibilities are heaped upon you, procedures and details become more important as you gain emerging autonomy. Everything is just confusing.

Then there is the transition into adulthood as well. What purpose of life do teenagers have? Adolescence is a temporary lifestyle, and people do “grow out of it.” It seems to me in a lot of ways that the individualism that teenagers search for with such tenacity disappears as they enter school and the workforce and learn to conform to the status quo instead, and just disappear completely. What happened to those people who just a few years before, were so full of thoughts, and ideas, and dreams? Where do all those things disappear to? I think about that one a lot, in particular, because I, myself, have a bit of a Peter Pan complex, I suppose. As an adult, I’m just doing everything that I always wanted to as a teenager because now I have the means available. But in my perspective, I’m just trying to live my dreams that I’ve held on to all these years, and I don’t really see anything wrong with that. I’m happy following that path.

Teenagers just experience an interesting, unique time of life. They’ll never be the same way again. It’s a great time to really, have time, to explore life and it’s subtleties, and think about what it is they want to do. It can be pretty confusing as so many external factors suddenly become important socially and personally. It’s the time when lifelong perspectives and opinions can take seed. How could people discard and ignore those where when they are the most vulnerable and the most curious at the same time? That’s the kind of situations I want to work with, if only because I feel like I have an extreme level of sensitivity to what they are going through. It’s the chance to work with people before they’ve settled into their routines. It’s before they become bigots, poets, writers, workers, religious, biased, and whatever else you can think of. Fascinating time period, I think. Completely volatile and chaotic, but at the same time, it’s an awesome experience to talk with people who are still completely open minded and not settled in their ways.

Good times. That’s what I wanna work with. :)