Coping with Caustic Kids in Youth Ministry

Jacob Eckeberger
August 22nd, 2016

We’re excited to have Les Christie as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations he’ll be navigating in his seminar: Positive Discipline: Working with Rude, Obnoxious, and Apathetic Teens. Check out more information HERE

Like most other youth workers, I’ve been burned time and again by a certain kind of kid. These kids are difficult to love. They’ve got a calloused outer shell that’s difficult to penetrate. They don’t laugh or cry. They seem to have cut themselves off from all emotion. It’s hard to read what they are feeling at any specific moment. They’ve created a protective barrier around themselves, often because of emotional pain from past experiences.

I call such hardened kids “caustic kids.” The word caustic comes from the same root as the word cauterize, a medical term that means to burn until a wound is closed off. Caustic kids are those who have burned relationships with peers and those in authority to the point where almost all their relationships have been closed off.


If you’re one who shies away from kids like this, I don’t blame you. They’re hard to interact with and it’s natural to distance yourself from them—they give you lots of reasons not to like them:

  • They tend to be self-centered.
  • They defy you at every step, refusing to cooperate.
  • They can sabotage your ministry by talking bad about you to anyone who will listen—including their parents and other kids in the group.
  • They tell magnetic stories about the parties they’ve gone to, movies they’ve seen, the classes they’ve skipped, the people they’ve hurt, the guns they own, and the joyrides they’ve taken in stolen cars.
  • They bring the worst kind of music along in the church bus—and then they tune out everyone as they hide behind earbuds.
  • They sneak off to smoke cigarettes… or worse.
  • They’re strong-willed (just like most youth leaders!).


Though caustic kids offer us plenty of reasons to pull in the welcome mat, there are also a few compelling reasons we must minister to them:

  1. Jesus commands us to love the unlovable. He says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5:46). The true test of love is loving people who don’t love back.
  2. Few adults have the maturity and perspective to love unlikable kids. Those who have this ability are rare and precious. They can literally turn a young person’s life around. We need to be those adults.
  3. Your ministry is the last hope for many caustic kids. This is the truth: Whoever values your kids most, and shows it, usually wins them over. Eugene Rivers, an inner-city pastor hoping to rescue a Boston neighborhood from drugs and poverty, tells the story of a conversation he had with a heroin dealer. The heroin dealer told Rivers his key to success was simply being there. Rivers asked, “Being there?” The drug dealer went on to explain, “When little Johnny goes to school—I am there. When little Johnny goes to the store for food, I’m there. I’m there—and you’re not. I’m there, so I win.”
  4. Beneath the hard exterior of most caustic kids is often enormous pain and frustration.
  5. Kids who love you, hug you, and hang on your every word make ministry fun. Tough kids keep you digging, praying, reading books, and sharing with other youth leaders. Basically, they keep you growing.
  6. Jesus said he came “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Caustic kids are as lost as they can be. Jesus once asked the scribes and Pharisees, “Suppose one of you has 100 sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4).


Caustic youth require a long-term commitment and conditions might get worse before they get better. But, you really shouldn’t expect building relationships and communicating with these difficult students to be easy.

That’s why you also need the support of other adults to work successfully with caustic kids. When your efforts are continually frustrated, you may begin to lose your self-confidence and think that you’re a failure. You need people around you to show you that you’re not crazy and to encourage you in the truth that you can minister to these kids.

Finally, and most importantly, it’s essential to pray. In Mark 9:14-29, the disciples run into a situation that seems impossible. But in verse 29, Jesus reminds them that there is something they can do: “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

The hurt and hardness of caustic kids can be softened only by the tenderness of God’s Holy Spirit. And that comes by prayer. Pray that the kids in your group would experience the love and healing power of God.

Les Christie has been in paid youth ministry for 50 years. He chairs the youth ministry department at William Jessup University and has spoken at each YS National Youth Workers Convention for 37 years. He’s the author of seventeen books, including Best-Ever Games for Youth Ministry. Les has spoken in 19 countries and in every state but Alaska. Les loves God and kids and is a passionate, enthusiastic speaker. Hear Les speak at NYWC 2016.

Jacob Eckeberger

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.