Sometimes parents answer questions their teenagers aren’t asking. Often it
turns into a one-way conversation where the young person’s mind is off someplace else, but he nods his head at the appropriate time to keep the adult happy.
Adults feel as though they’re offering wonderful and wise advice—or at least spending tremendous amounts of energy. I recently heard a simple statement that shines a light on why this kind of interaction usually backfires: Unsolicited advice always comes across as criticism.
Everyone must have spare change, because we’re all trying to put our two cents in, with Christians being ranked at the top of the advice-giving chain. Giving unwelcome counsel can become such an automatic response—we’re often not even aware we’re doing it.
Of course, adolescents are notorious for not listening to wise counsel—in fact, it’s written in their job description. At this stage of life, seemingly everything is up for grabs. And maybe that’s where the rub comes for us adults, because their decisions matter so much. This reality jump-starts our helpful suggestions. Yet one of the best ways to reinforce their cynical questioning or know-it-all behavior is to give uninvited advice.
Responsibility is “caught not taught,” yet the first thing we do is open our yappers and start dispensing truth (which often goes unheard). When adults do this, it can come across in a way that triggers feelings of powerlessness, shame, or guilt. These feelings then cause the youthful chain reaction of defensiveness, distance, distrust, and that familiar faraway look and sarcastic blank stare.
The opposite of being a dispenser of advice is being a person who relates in a way that causes people to ask questions. The Jewish Passover meal is observed in a way so rich in symbolism that it causes young people to ask questions. What would it look like in youth ministry to speak, lead, or relate in a way that causes our kids to ask more questions? How often in a regular meeting do you create an atmosphere that promotes questions rather than gives advice? While counseling teenagers, I’m constantly challenged to try and raise questions or issues they haven’t thought of yet, and then let them wrestle with choices these new perspectives bring.
Seeds are wonderful things; they just seem to do much better when we plant them in rich, ready, tilled soil. Ask yourself: Who influenced me the most? My guess is that what changed you was their life, not their answers.
Steve is a longtime contributor to group and a counselor whose practice focuses on teenagers. He lives in Washington state.