International Youth Day is on August 12th and was First designated by the United Nations in 1999. This day is designed to both celebrate the role of young men and women as agents of change and development in the world and to highlight the unique challenges they face.
Those of us who work with young people are well aware of the challenges they face in our world today. Rare is the time that this isn’t a topic of much discussion at any youth-focused workshop I deliver. And when I work one-on-one with the youth on my case list, I am always surprised at the resilience they demonstrate as they navigate the pressures of their lives and society.
I think I believed for many years that once I reached a certain stage and age in my life, I would have the opportunity to become a wise teacher to young people. I would have accumulated a significant amount of life experience, and could calmly and warmly guide them through the challenges of adolescence.
And then the world changed!
More and more, I find it is the young people in my life who are in fact guiding me. From technology and social media to gender identity and sexual orientation, youth today operate in the “grey areas” of our world. Few things remain as black and white as they were once considered. The world has both shrunk and expanded, and young people seem to be leaders at adaptability and acceptance.
Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I don’t believe I have something to offer. While the rules may have changed, I have played the game, some might say quite successfully. But what I have realized that I offer is less brilliant advice and more an air of curiosity. I still believe in limits, respect for elders, and set high standards for behaviour and personal choices – just ask my clients (or my children for that matter) – but I no longer believe that I have the map they should follow to navigate the world we live in.
I have two guidelines I steadfastly follow when it comes to working with young people. Truth be told, they are good rules for me to remember when working with anyone, but I think they are especially crucial when I’m connecting with a teenager.
Be curious, not judgemental
Tattoos, piercings, goth, veganism, androgyny. . . the list of ways youth can shock or offend, confuse or frighten us is endless. It can be easy to label, categorize, and judge all that youth bring to the table that is different, limit-stretching, or even “offensive.”
Yet when we open ourselves up to being curious, we learn so much that enables us to at least accept, if not understand, where the young people we work with are coming from. “No one has ever asked me why I dropped out of school,” said one of my clients. “They were too busy telling me what a mistake it was and trying to scare me about my future to hear my reasons and my plan.” Shifting to curiosity – true curiosity – opens doors and builds trust.
Open-ended questions are the place to start. And making sure that you really are asking an open-ended question is a good idea. “Don’t you think you’re going to regret getting a tattoo?” or “Do you think you might like to go take off all that makeup before we go out?” are both judgemental statements carefully disguised as questions!
Listen, listen, listen
Here is a tip: once you have asked a question, really listen for the answer. How many times have you caught yourself rehearsing what you are going to say, or getting your rebuttal ready, or reviewing your grocery list when you have supposedly been listening? It is an art to shut off our brains and openly and deeply listen to a young person.
Listen for young people’s values, for clues about how they feel, for the underlying meaning in what they are saying. All of this lurks not so very far under the surface of their message. We have all heard the old expression, “You have two ears and one mouth; use them accordingly.” And another useful thing to remember is that when you rearrange the letters of the word LISTEN, it spells SILENT!
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, adults expected children to be seen and not heard. There was an understanding that the grown-ups made the rules, and the kids followed them, no questions asked. Command and control was the way it was, respectfully adopted from the military to the family.
The times they are a-changin’. Most of us have shifted to a more collaborative, authoritative rather than authoritarian model of child-rearing. And now the shift must come to lead from behind, to be present for the youth of today and invite and encourage them to take the reins. Be there, get to know them, and then stand back and watch them shine!
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