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Your Youth Group Stinks! Building Rapport with Difficult Students

There are good reasons why competent adults find themselves uncommonly baffled when working with adolescents. As winsome as they may be at times, teenagers present youth workers and volunteers with challenges that other age groups do not.

First, teens are often an involuntary participant. They are in your office, groups, outreaches, programs, etc. because somebody else – parents, friends, grandparent, sibling – has thought it necessary that they be there. They often see their life as none of your business and their difficulties as not of their own making, and would much rather assign blame to the very people that make them attend your groups, to other’s misguided thinking, and to the wind and tides rather than assume accountability for their problems that you could assist them with.

Second, the symptoms with which reactive, angry, acting-out adolescents present can be very intimidating. They storm out of rooms, run crying into bathrooms with and entourage in tow, they cut their arms, punch walls, drink and drive, refuse to go to school, provoke arguments, and the like. If they’re really mad, they show it by locking themselves in their room, threatening suicide. Sometimes they don’t eat enough for their bodies to function. Sometimes they refuse to say anything at all. Adults often feel an enormous pressure to make the scary symptoms stop. Right away!

Third, teenagers – especially those who do not want to be in your youth group – don’t necessarily adhere to common social protocols that grease the sticky interactions that occasionally occur in first meetings between people. These students don’t care if you are more uncomfortable than they are in getting a conversation going. The look on their face just tells you that they think your youth group sucks. Some adolescents don’t want to make a good impression, or care if you like them (some would prefer that you didn’t), or be interested in what you have to say. This is in marked contrast to the encounters we have with more accommodating students, and it especially blindsides the adult volunteers who historically have banked on influencing students through the authority bestowed on them by age, status, or title.


“You go into this room with this person and a lot of kids you go to school with and you’re supposed to start telling them about your personal stuff. They always want me to talk about God and stuff but I don’t even know what I think about any of that stuff. I can barely get through each day. It’s so stupid, I mean, like, who is this person anyway? And they always act so caring and everything and they don’t even know you.” 

– Michael, age 16

“They’re always asking you things like, ‘Do you know where you will go if you were to die tonight?’ and ‘What would God think about that?’. Dumb stuff like that. I mean, what did they think I would say after I got into a fight with my mom this morning? God, it’s just so frustrating to be asked these questions instead of having a normal conversation.”

– Kim, age 14

“It’s like they try not to have any feelings themselves or something. I don’t know – it’s weird. It’s, like, they can’t just be normal people. I’ll be sharing something in my small group that was really funny and they will look mad because I’m not saying what they want to hear. Once, I was crying about when my boyfriend broke up with me and all she could say was how sad I must have felt. Yeah, like no kidding, lady. Couldn’t she have thought of anything better to say?”

– Angela, age 17

Fake. Not normal. Frustrating. Those poor youth workers probably thought they were doing a good job of being sympathetic and helpful and available. The students did not. Somewhere the connection was being missed. We need a more suitable matching between what we offer and what the adolescent needs and wants. There has to be a bridge by which we can walk across where trust can grow.

Trust is such a fragile thing in the beginning. Too often we lead with a punch (focus on behavior) and lose any chance we had at developing a meaningful rapport with the student.

We might do better at engaging the difficult student if we looked at our ministries from the other side. How does this particular adolescent experience our ministry from the beginning through his or her last connection?

Blaming teenagers for their indifference or negative reactions they have towards our Christianity is ridiculous and unfair. So many adolescents who are authentically curious and want help for whatever ails them can’t work within the interpersonal format offered and they are being dismissed as being unreachable. Some of these students are unworkable, at this time, but more are labeled that than need to be. Maybe it’s time to recognize that teenage resistance to Christianity is a reflection of our inability to provide access to our faith that is seen as attractive and useful.

I know this post has a harsh tone but I’m curious as to what your thoughts are…

Comment away!

by Chris Schaffner

Chris is a CADC certified counselor working with chemically dependent persons and those with co-occurring disorders. Chris has worked in the field for 7 years and has worked with children and teens for over 15 years. Chris is also the coordinator for The Shelter, a ministry of Group Publishing that provides support to children’s and youth workers from around the world. He has worked with individuals of all ages who struggle with addiction, abuse histories, self injury, depression and suicide. Chris has provided training locally on suicide assessment and on working with the LGBTQ population. Chris provides training at SYMC, KidMin, UYWI, Operation Snowball events, Chicago HOPES and Access Living, CCDA Annual Conference, OtraOnda Dimension Juvenil Conference, has taught parenting and Anger Management classes, and teaches a community-based series called ‘Coping With…” that equips adolescent with life management skills. Chris lives in Central Illinois and is married to Trudy. They have 4 kids; Blake, Charley Grace, and the twins Claire and Chloe.

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4 thoughts on “Your Youth Group Stinks! Building Rapport with Difficult Students

  1. Those are some interesting comments from teens that make me want to rethink a little about how I interact with teens.

    We need to be quick to love – instead of judge – kids who present with issues or resistance. That doesn’t mean we pretend sin is okay. And there may be emergencies that need immediate attention. And the Holy Spirit may prompt. Or they may bring it up. But it may be good in many cases to give some time to build a caring relationship and trust before we speak directly to them about many of their behaviors.

    • Christian – I remember hearing Chap Clark say one time that often when we attempt to reach kids we expect them to change (go from 1 – 10) over night. In reality students (and people) rarely change like that, it’s more like (1-2-3-4-5-etc.) progressive. Too many people, myself included, have had unrealistic expectations for students and have tried to “force” a change resulting in pushing student farther away. I’ve tried to move away from a position of power and authority to a position of influence.

  2. Oh wow, those comments from the youth bring me back to that age. I was flooded with angst just reading them. The one that struck me the most was from 17yr old Angela. As an adult, I am all too aware of controlling tendencies that I have developed so when I hear someone describing an upsetting situation I check myself before offerring unsolicited advice. It’s hard for me to switch gears when talking with youth because I’m so used to interacting with people who are between the ages of 21 and 40 (granted just because someone is an age that suggests maturity beyond high school doesn’t always add up). I find it difficult to balance giving guidance while making sure teens feel heard but I think the key is sharing my experience (sometimes filtered) of feelings and how I handled the situation. With teens I think it is super important that I do not tell them they should do this or it just needs to be a certain way. Normalizing their experiences and showing them its okay to have and express difficult feelings is so huge for them.

    I am experiencing a rather rowdy young lady in my churches youth ministry. I am humbled by her reminder of who I used to be when I was a teen and I look forward to encouraging and watching her grow.

  3. Vanessa – I’ve had to pull the plank out of my own eye many times before I earned the right to point out the speck in a student’s eye. Good thoughts.

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Your Youth Group Stinks! Building Rap...

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