Dealing With Problem Teens
The High Maintenance Kid
Based on our numerous conversations with youth workers, it’s apparent that almost every ministry has at least one teenager that we would term: a high maintenance kid. These are the ones who are energy zappers that suck the joy right out of your soul. A thousand leeches steal less life.
The high maintenance kid in your youth ministry could be missing a few crucial social skills or be ridden by deep insecurity and fear. No matter what is prompting the behavior, God has allowed them to be in your path and now you get to choose how you’ll respond and care for them. Here are some options worth considering:
Run For Your Dear Life
We’re kidding! But, let’s be honest, sometimes a youth worker does feel like running away from a high maintenance kid. It’s okay to admit that it’s difficult—actually, it’s healthy to begin with this admission. Once you’ve admitted it, then stop and also admit the reality that most adults within striking distance of a high maintenance kid also want to bail. This kind of continual isolation leads to a deeper loneliness, and as the church we must address this with compassion.
Engage With Wisdom
After you’ve found enough compassion to do something, make sure you’re doing the right thing. What does this unique teenager specifically need from you? As a leader and caring adult, how can you help him or her take their next faith step? Everyone needs attention and encouragement and wise nudges in the right direction…this teenager should be no different.
Understand That Enough Is Enough
Engaging the high maintenance kid also requires discernment: it’s not only possible to give too little, it’s also possible to give too much and drain yourself and have nothing left to give anyone. Jesus never said, “Pick up your cross until you get tired of that one high maintenance kid.” However, as a leader you have multiple priorities that you need to attend to. Prayerfully consider what boundaries you ought to have in your relationship with the high maintenance kid.
Look For Tag-Team Connections
This is one of our favorite parts of being part of a team—we can help one another. There may be another leader in your ministry (or your church) who would connect perfectly with the high maintenance kid. When I (matt) was in high school, I was a high maintenance kid for my poor youth pastor (Doug). Not only did I lack a few social skills (which I still haven’t found), but when I was a teenager I asked questions constantly (Doug said “constantly” is a strong enough word). I wondered about everything and I had no filter not to ask questions. I would ask questions about smells, carpet texture, the bible, people, and traffic patterns in Mexico (true story). Doug loved-on me as long as he could and then he wisely connected me with Scott, another leader who also loved questions and endured most of mine (the truth is that I drove him a little crazy too). I still spent a tremendous amount of time with Doug, but Doug and Scott definitely had a tag-team thing going with me. At the time, I thought it was cool to be connected to two leaders. Now, as an adult I better understand that Doug understood the leadership tag-team approach and handed the baton to Scott occasionally so Doug could rest and actually lead others…instead of that one high maintenance kid named Matt.
The Negative Kid
Does your ministry have negative kids?
Teenagers who are more cynical and critical than others are easy to spot but tough to change. Everyone in the room typically knows how the negative kid is feeling because he or she is willing to openly share their cynicism. Unfortunately, negative teenagers can negativity impact a ministry:
…the spirit can be quenched and the mood can be ruined
…teaching times can be derailed
…meaningful conversations can be cut short
…programs can be ridiculed
…negativity can become contagious and grow
If you’re like us, your natural response is to receive their negativity as personal attacks which trigger the desire to retaliate. While it may be a natural response, it’s obviously not a helpful response! Neither the ministry nor the negative teenager is helped by our counter-attack. Here are a few better options to pursue:
Go one on one with negative kids. Many teenagers can’t see the damage their negativity causes and can be influenced by a direct conversation. A negative kid may have negative parents and simply doesn’t know any other way to communicate. You may not be able to undo years of learned behavior, but when you go one on one you will have better chances to nudge them in the right direction.
Some negative kids may actually believe their negativity is simply them “trying to help.” This isn’t their excuse; actually it’s their genuine motivation. Challenge these negative students to go a step further and ask them to help solve the problem instead of just complain (anyone can complain, it takes leadership to solve problems). We believe God has created some people to see the “holes” so they can actually help by coming up with practical solutions. When a critical mind is connected to a pure heart, great things can happen (it’s the critical mind connected to a critical heart that’s really difficult to deal with).
Follow Up Consistently
Negativity is typically a deep pattern and one that’s not easily broken. Negative people find it easy to slip back into their old ways. Be sure to follow up on your “coaching” conversations on a regular basis before the negativity resurfaces. Positive encouragement and gentle reminders work great to help keep a student on track. Follow up is especially important if you’ve given a negative kid a new responsibility in order to help redirect their thinking.
The Trouble-Maker Kid
Imagine a youth ministry without trouble-makers? A magical place where every teenager followed the rules and authority was never challenged. A youth ministry filled with harmony and happiness and a sense of bliss. Okay, now erase it…it will only exist in your imagination.
Your ministry is like all the others and you’ve got at least one trouble-maker kid. Sometimes this trouble-maker is unsafe, but usually he/she is simply offensive and mean. It’s the one teenager who is committed to driving you beyond your extra-filling of patience, over the edge of reason, and plunging you into insanity. You don’t even need to take the time to think of whom that kid could be—a name immediately pops into your mind.
The result is usually the same: ministry is made more difficult.
Here are some thoughts to consider when handling the trouble-makers:
Few people really love rules or enforcing them. Regardless, make sure all your teenagers know what you expect in terms of appropriate behavior. The worst leadership mistake is keeping your mouth shut and assuming the trouble-maker kid will figure out the rules on his/her own. When you hold something in, it will eventually come out (usually in the form of an explosion). So, instead of having rules in your mind only, commit to clearly communicating your expectations from the beginning. One example of how we do this is prior to any trip we pass out our simple guidelines and consequences and briefly explain them. After everyone is clear on the rules and consequences we have every teenager sign the paper prior to leaving on the trip. This removes all of the mystery of what is expected, and it’s not hard-core-keep-these-rules-or-get-kicked-out-of-youth-group. We say something like, “we don’t expect any behavior issues at this trip, but we’ve done this enough to know that clarity is a good thing.”
Be Fair, Firm, Flexible
Rules need to make sense. Arbitrary rules are a magnet for trouble-makers. Ridiculous rules send trouble-makers into a fury and ignite their “revolutionary” spirit. You’d have better luck swimming with a school of hungry sharks in a blood soaked bathing suit than expect a trouble-maker to follow a rule that isn’t fair.
Rules need to be consistent and applied equally to everyone. This is especially true for consequences. For a legitimate trouble-maker, a rule is only as strong as its consequence.
Rules need to be flexible because it’s impossible to create a rule for every situation (although some have tried). An example of a flexible rule is, “use common sense all the time.” Flexible rules allow you to coach your trouble-makers when they cause a disruption. These kinds of rules are also empowering because they allow students think what it means for themselves.
Before you react, take time to reflect. Acting too quickly can push a kid away from your ministry (which, in the bottom of your heart, you may actually want) and limit your impact (which you don’t want). Here are a few reflection questions:
…how do I really feel about what’s happening? Am I taking it too personal?
…what rules are being broken?
…what is the impact to our ministry?
…do the rules need to change?
…what’s the best course of action?
What do you do with the trouble-makers in your ministry?
This article “Dealing With Problem Teens” written by Matt McGill was excerpted from www.youthministry.com web site. July 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes
“Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”