Young Not Dumb

Youth Specialties
May 10th, 2016

The Teenagers Guide To Helping Friends In Crisis is built on the premise that teenagers are young, not dumb. 

Youth workers who don’t believe teenagers can learn to help friends in crisis are not likely to connect with this. And if that’s their reason for opting out … I can imagine other reasons, but if youth workers simply don’t believe kids have what it takes … I’m gonna say that’s the youth workers’ problem not the problem of the vast majority of teenagers.

I mean, I get it: If folks remember high school in the early 90s, chances are, if they weren’t bad people themselves, they certainly knew bad people. But just look at how much better most teenagers are today than their parents were at the same age. Most of what plagued us in the 80s and 90s—teenage violent crime, pregnancy, alcohol and substance abuse, dropping out, running away … all those negative social behaviors and outcomes reached high-water marks by the mid-90s and then sunk like rocks. Look it up … it was in all the papers.

On the whole, contemporary teenagers are doing so much better than those who came before. And … if only because they live side-by-side … teenagers are well positioned to help each other. This capacity may also be helped along because, if the stories are true, they’re all made in God’s image. There is so much compassion, empathy, and engagement between teenagers … even when there’s also an element of dislike that feeds off competition and social, political, economic, gender, racial, and ethnic differences (they’re still people, after all). Taking the bad with the good, they get along remarkably well, and they deserve credit for that.

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We’re seeing much lower rates of serious crisis among school-age Americans … again, that’s in the public record, even if the news hasn’t made it to every church pulpit. But, make no mistake: When a crisis rears its ugly head, it’s still a big hairy deal for everyone close enough to feel the heat. 

Putting these two notions together … 1) Teenagers are young, not dumb, and 2) a crisis is still a crisis, no matter where and no matter when… the method and madness of The Teenager’s Guide to Helping Friends in Crisis takes advantage of the simple fact that teenagers are positioned to help each other in ways no adult can. 

At the very least, they share the spaces where, if they know what to look for, they can spot problems and offer help sooner than an adult might … if she were paying attention … if she were sharing the carpool, the locker, the chemistry lab, the rehearsal hall, the practice field, the after-school workplace, the youth group … all the spaces and experiences teenagers share with each other every day of their lives. 

I’m in the club that believes we shouldn’t leave compassionate action solely to professionals. Rich Van Pelt is in the club too. Rich wrote a super-helpful book for youth workers dealing with crisis called, Intensive Care. Later, Rich and I worked together on The Youth Worker’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis, The Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis, and The Volunteer’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis. We did all this because we believe that, with the right resources—well-researched, up-to-date, field-tested, and user-friendly—ordinary people can help teenagers in crisis.

The missing piece, Van Pelt and I thought for a long time, is something that does for teenagers what those other books do for youth workers, parents, and volunteers. Now it falls to me to complete what Rich began, and what we pursued together for many years.

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Just to be clear: I’m not offering medical or legal advice. I’m not a licensed medical, mental health, or legal professional. If you need medical, legal or mental health services,  you’ll need to look for help in your community. You’ll find a section in The Teenager’s Guide to Helping Friends in Crisis called “Ask for Help.” You’ll find guidelines there on where to look, and how to request support for yourself or a teenager in crisis.

I learned a lot of what I know about helping teenagers in crisis during two decades as a church-based youth worker in a tradition that celebrates the good people do, no matter how young they are … 

• Joseph comes to mind from the book of Genesis

• later, Miriam, the sister of Moses, in Exodus

• then Samuel, Ruth, and Esther

• David (no surprise there … he’s famous for being better as a teenager than he was during his notorious warlord period

• and, much later, Mary, who became the mother of Jesus

• and Jesus himself, whose character as a 12-year-old was so vivid in Luke’s narrative

• and Timothy, Paul’s protégé, who was identified in a dozen books, beginning with The Acts of the Apostles

People in our tribe have never agreed that you must be at least this tall to get on the ride.… On our best days, we don’t join the chorus of adults who say, “Yeh, well, really you just need to wait until you’re a bit older … ” or, “Wait until it’s your turn.…” Of course, this waiting for their turn thing is not happening … young people don’t wait. And why should they? Most youth workers didn’t wait. We joined with others like us, taking matters into our own hands, reaching out to teenagers, hoping we could do at least as well as was done for us … and maybe better.

All this stepping out of line may seem subversive to the oldsters, but there’s nothing sneaky about it. If the circle of people Christians refer to as the body of Christ is in fact a body, and not just a conglomeration of 501(c)(3) corporations, then how can we not be invested with each other and for each other?

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I think most teenagers try to do the best they can to help their friends. My modest proposal is simply that I believe they can learn to do better at what they already want to do. 

I think they can learn to see what they’re seeing, instead of looking the other way because they feel helpless, or as if it were none of their business. They, as much as anyone, see people coming off the rails … and if they don’t know what to do, just like adults, they turn their attention elsewhere. Sometimes we all feel like, “Man … wow … I really hate to see that … but it’s not my business is it … ” Which makes total sense—unless we’re in this together.

So … are we in it together: Do we trust each other? Look out for each other? Respect each other? Pursue the best for each other? Or do we compete? Take advantage of each other? Resent each other? Use each other? Withhold from each other? Devour each other? 

Let me just say this right out loud: Teenagers, if they want to, can learn to help their friends in crisis.

• They can learn to SEE when a friend is in crisis.

• They can learn to BE the sort of people others turn to in a crisis.

• They can learn to DO the things that genuinely help friends in crisis.

• They can learn to STAND by friends in crisis longer than most adults expect, and help more than most adults imagine.


That’s the map we’re following in The Teenager’s Guide to Helping Friends in Crisis.

Up next: Did you know crisis comes in three unique flavors?

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jim hancock

@JimHancock writes books, designs curricula and makes digital movies for youth workers, parents and teenagers. A lot of his work is at thetinycompanycalledme.com. Jim attended his first National Youth Workers Convention with Youth Specialties in 1980. Since then, he’s missed just three conventions.

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