Dealing with Disrespectful Teenagers

Youth Specialties
November 12th, 2012

Youth workers shouldn’t operate under the assumption that young people will automatically respect adults. Respect is so… yesterday.
Young people today call it “keeping it real.” They just say it how it is.
“This is boring.”
“Whatever, fat dude!”
“I’m outta here. This blows.”
So how can youth workers command respect in a world that is growingly disrespectful and rude?
Youth worker Laura, from Pennsylvania just asked me that same question a few weeks ago. Her ministry reaches to some church kids, but predominately unchurched kids. She quickly learned that respect was hard to come by, and talking with parents didn’t seem to help the problem, because in many cases… they were the problem!
This is a tough situation, and I can relate. I worked for a campus ministry a few years back with very few church kids, plenty of gangs and drugs… and very little parents that cared. I remember one of the first times I had to confront a kid. He ran off and told his dad that I threatened him. His dad assured me that if I did it again he would come over and “kick my…”
Nice, huh?
Discipline is one of those fine balances. If we're too lenient, teenagers will walk all over us. If we're too strict (especially with “hard” kids like this)… they'll just walk away.
The answer is tough love. It's love and grace, with clear boundaries.
Youth workers always ask me, “What rules should we actually enforce in youth group?” I’ve seen them all. No cell phones. No PDA. No fun!
I don’t like getting caught up in a bunch of rules. I’ve always had a lotta luck saying it like this:
“I have one rule, and that is respect. I'm here for you guys. And I'm happy to give this time to you because I respect you. So I only expect one thing in return: respect. That means when you are here, you respect me, the other adults, each other, and the facility.” (purposely all-inclusive)
Then I always ask them for an agreement.
“Are you guys okay with that?”
Then, if a kid violates that, I pull them aside and say, “Chris, you looked me in the eyes and told me that you have no problem with my one rule: respect. What's going on?”
Then I listen.
Sometimes, if a kid is acting up, the best response is to just wait and endure his or her antics (to a point) that one evening, then pull the kid aside for a one-on-one time later in the week.
One-on-one correction is way better than public correction. Public correction can sometimes provoke a public retort, so a kid can save face in front of all his or her friends. So pull the kid aside when convenient and talk with them. Or even better…
“Taylor, let me take you to ice cream.”
This is a double bonus.
1. You get to spend some needed time with Taylor.
2. You can ask him for his help.
“Taylor, I need your help. I'm trying my best to provide some real and relevant help to young people. In order to do that, I can't be babysitting. You can help me by being a positive example and showing respect. Is that going to be a problem?”
And the “tough” part of this love is, if a kid, after all this, looks at you and says, “You can't make me leave!!!” Then you pull them aside and calmly tell them, “Sorry, you obviously aren't cool with our one rule, respect. So you need to spend a week at home. If, after a week, you're ready to show respect… then you're welcome to come back.” (You're making it clear that it is THEIR choice.)
Quick side note: I’m assuming you and the rest of your adults volunteer leaders are already spending time hanging out with your students outside of youth group. It would be a shame if only those who misbehave get to go to ice cream.
If it gets to the point of kicking a kid out, then you need to involve the parents.
Sadly, many youth workers don’t communicate with parents until a problem surfaces.
I’ve made that mistake. Morgan gets busted, and we call his parents for the first time… “Hi, I’ve never met you, and I haven’t felt the need to talk to you until now… now that I have to… so please don’t think I’m a tool!” (yeah… not a pretty phone call) And we wonder why parents get defensive?
Meet the parents before there is a problem. This is something I really emphasize in my “boundaries” chapter in my book CONNECT, simply because clear communication with parents will steer you from a world of trouble.
Once I’ve met parents, I don’t necessarily use my kids’ parents as a threatening tool—especially with unchurched kids. If you try the… “Be good or I'll tell your parents!” Many kids will respond, “Tell my parents! I don't' give a &$#@!!” (Because many of their parents don't.)
So I don’t run to parents every time a kid acts up. Parents might get defensive, immediately siding with their kid, while perhaps subconsciously considering your confrontation as an attack on their parenting ability.
So try pulling them aside and talking with them one-on-one first. If the bad behavior persists, then visit the parents and talk with them about the situation. This visit will go 100% better since you already know them and have visited before on a positive note.
But all these little efforts will be futile if we are irrelevant and aren’t meeting the needs of the young people we’re ministering to.
It’s like this. Whenever I am training a group of youth speakers, I always remind them when they are speaking to a group of teenagers, they have about 30 seconds to answer the question that is on every kids’ mind: “Why should I listen to you!” We need to consider that question in any youth ministry venue. Name it: a bible study, a small group time, a large program, a fun event. Teenagers will ask themselves, “Why do I want to hang out with these people?”
So we better be ready to answer that question.
Look at Jesus’ model of ministry. As Jesus went around meeting people’s physical needs, that opened the door to meeting their spiritual needs. Jesus understood the needs of the people, and crowds couldn’t get enough of him.
Our ministry needs to be real, relevant…. and with today’s generation… it never hurts to be fun. We’ve all probably all witnessed a situation where the leaders were constantly, “Shhhhh! Be quiet! Come on!!!” In all actuality, if kids aren’t paying attention to us, then that might be an indication that our venue is boring or irrelevant.
Do you know the felt needs of the students in your community?
How can you provide those needs?
How do these opportunities open doors to meet their eternal needs?
When you can answer the big question in their life… you won’t usually have to worry about discipline problems.


Youth Specialties

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