I was asked a question today about how to engage young people. They are so vibrant, so creative, so full of potential, yet some of us who are a bit older feel disconnected from the youth in our families, neighborhoods, and cities. Years ago, I sat on the board for a not-for-profit agency dedicated to engaging youth through volunteering. The caliber of ideas, suggestions, and programming initiated by the youth that were discussed at our board meetings put our city hall’s program providers to shame. They were coming up with ways to include even the most disengaged, disadvantaged, and disillusioned amongst them. And they were doing it in fun, creative, and out-of-the-box ways. Young people have the ability to think innovatively and to challenge what the rest of us take for granted. And yet so often, we shut them up or shut them out. Below are my thoughts on how to engage the young people in your life, not only for their sake, but for yours. You will be amazed at how deeply your life will be enriched once you really give them a chance.
One of the most disempowering things you can do to a teenager or young adult is assume you know what they are going to say before they say it. Let them speak so they can sort out their ideas. I remember one of my less-liked teachers from high school would say things like “Everybody thinks they can change the world when they are young, but you will grow out of that”. How is that helpful? Let the young people in your life express what they need to express. If you let them tell you what bothers them and what they find unfair, if you let them vent about the state of the social programs and environment, you may actually be reminded of a time you were that passionate about change. Listen. Underneath their words, they are telling you something deeper, something about their own values, their own fears, their own dreams. If you can be attentive, caring, and genuine, they will start speaking more, and as they speak, they allow you into their world.
Teenagers can spot fake-ness much quicker than adults can. When working with young people, you have to be real. If you are feeling bad about yourself or feeling insecure, they will notice, and probably call you out on it. Youth live at that beautiful crossroads of adulthood, where they are intelligent enough to read people and young enough to have limited filters. As such, when you are real, they will notice, and they will appreciate you for it. Don’t try to be the authority or the expert on something you know little about, even if you happen to be the teenager’s parent. Let them know the authentic you, and they will quickly show you the authentic them.
It is vital that you take a step back and let the teenagers in your life have lives of their own. This is an age where they need to know that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that there is a strong safety net in place in case of emergencies, but you are going to let them sort out their own messes. This means not grilling them on every little detail of an event, but building a trusting relationship so that they want to tell you themselves. This also means not swooping in to save them every time they get themselves into difficulty. I have seen parents, especially mothers, who become so engrossed in their children’s lives that they will put their own lives on hold until the child is successful. Here’s the bad news: you cannot live his life for him. He has to make his mistakes and learn from them, or he will never really enter adulthood. Take a step back, let her fall once or twice, and she will learn a better way to deal with the inevitable challenges of life.
From a developmental perspective, adolescence is a lot like turning two. The body is changing, the mind is developing at a rapid pace, and there is an urge for independence. To really support the young people in your life, you must understand what is happening to them biologically. Their brains are being marinated in hormones. This sometimes makes them act in extreme ways. This is so normal! So many parents come to me when their daughters turn 14 with questions about where that sweet little girl went. Boys may become more stoic, withdrawn, or confrontational. You would be acting strange too if your brain was being washed with intense levels of estrogen or testosterone over a period of five to seven years! Be sensitive about their hormones, but do not turn it into a reason for ignoring the outbursts. Just like a two year old needs special care and nurturing during the delicate time of breaking away, so does the relationship you build with the youth in your life while they are in their teens will help form the kinds of adults they will one day become.
If the teenager in your life is your son or daughter, make sure there are other reliable adults in his or her life besides you and/or the other parent. Young people need a variety of adult role-models to show them different ways of being in the world. It helps to challenge their beliefs and to expand their minds when they are close to other adults outside the home who you know and trust. There will be things about them that they will never tell you, and that’s ok, as long as they are telling someone who you trust will direct them in a way that aligns with your values. While I am not an advocate of hands-off parenting, I do know that sometimes the parent is not the most effective one to get a message through. Let your children form deep and trusting relationships with other adults as an alternative to you, so when they need to work something out, they have someone else they can trust.
Teenagers often tell me that they find adults boring. Why? Because generally, we are! When is the last time you did something just for fun? And I don’t mean eating out or going to a movie. I mean turning up the music and dancing around or kicking a soccer ball around the back yard? What about a sleepover with an old friend? Adults sem to have important lives and packed schedules that don’t allow us the unwinding time to just have fun. Let the young people in your life teach you how to have fun again! My mom used to try to learn the gritty lyrics of the newest songs so she could watch our amazed faces when they came on the radio and she sang on during the bleeped out part. There are lots of ways to bring fun back into your own life, and doing that will help the young people around you not fear adulthood so much.
You were a young person once too! Youth is an opportunity, a special time that only comes once. What if you could stretch your youth, keep the enthusiasm, optimism, and imagination that you had when you were sixteen? Many of us try to look younger, but just because you can fit in to your daughter’s jeans, doesn’t mean you have internalized the vibrancy that actually helps people feel young. Practice the ideas with the youth in your life, and watch as you reclaim your own youth and learn from the wisdom that the young have to offer.