how to positively engage young people

bruce perry quote

I walked quietly into the room and sat down on the far side of the couch. One wrong move and I would spook a very fragile teen girl I was going to be spending a bit of time with over the coming months. That could take a while to recover from and trust was the goal. I kept my head down, my body turned slightly away and just let her get used to me being there. I made no demands and didn’t ask any questions. The next move was up to her. We sat like that for 20 minutes.

This sounds like the opposite of what it looks like to engage a teenager. Logic might tell us that engagement requires eye contact, conversation or doing something together. That might be the end goal but the journey is not always as simple. Trust needs to be built first and trust takes time and some key components. Working on trust is worth the effort though. Trauma specialist Dr. Bruce Perry writes, “Relationships matter: the currency for systemic change was trust, and trust comes through forming healthy working relationships. People, not programs, change people.”

Trusting relationships alleviate pain. And let’s face it, most people experience varying degrees of pain in their teen years! Two of the main building blocks of trust, patience and faithfulness, have worked miracles in alleviating pain in many young people’s lives. They are some of the best things we have to offer teens who are feeling pretty raw with hurt. This might seem like common sense and yet it is amazing how quickly we decide that a young person is not deserving of patience and faithfulness when they come across as disrespectful or downright rebellious. If we are not patient and faithful, it will be unlikely they will truly engage with us. Pushing our buttons or refusing to play by our rules is their way of testing how trustworthy we are. Patience and faithfulness prove that we can see through their behaviours and actually see them – not for what they can do for us but for how much they can really entrust us with.

In case you are wondering what this looks like in real life, patience looks like watching them make the same mistake … again, while genuinely encouraging and cheering them on. It looks like knowing when to challenge them and when to hold off a little. It looks like sitting in silence sometimes. Faithfulness looks showing up over and over again even if they don’t. It looks like only making promises you can keep and then keeping them – every time. It looks like staying focused on them when you are meant to spend time with them. Faithfulness is holding to the consequences, good or bad.

Today I will be leading a mini-workshop on Engagement with Young People as part of Solas Project’s Step Up mentor training (I have been a mentor with them for a year and a half now). As well as speaking about persevering in building trust we will also cover some very practical things we can do:

Use intentional body language. Be aware of what you are saying to a teen without saying a word at all! How close are you standing? Sit down or lean against something so that they get a sense that you aren’t there to dominate them. Think about all the things you think are great about them (if you are struggling to find good things, it will nearly be impossible to engage them!). Your thoughts about them will come across in your facial expressions and the feeling of the air around you.

Find out what they like and do that together. First you need use creative investigation to find out what they like! Some teens will take some time to pry this out of. Easiest way is to just ask. If they don’t tell you, try a few things out and watch their response. There will be time to challenge them to try new or difficult things but start with the easy stuff first!

Tell them the good things you see in them. This might send them running in the opposite direction at first – especially in an Irish context. When they do a good job at something, even if it’s small, tell them and tell them why it was good (i.e. “The snowflakes you drew were so creative. I love the colours and different shapes”). If there isn’t really time or if this is something new and you have to think about it, find a way of writing it down and giving it to them. A journal that you share. Sticky notes that you put up in random places for them to find. Whatever you do, make a habit of it! They will get used to it.

Be real. A friend who worked with teens dealing with addiction and/or mental illness once said to me, “they will smell it if you’re not.” Don’t put on a show for them or try to act super nice – just be super nice if that is who you are. If you are having a bad day you don’t have to look like everything is rainbows and sunshine. Just make sure that your time with them doesn’t become about you and your issues. Let them see who you are over and over again. The real you is the best thing you have to offer them. If you don’t like the real you, then make the changes you have been wanting to!

With some young people, building trust has taken two years. With others a level of trust has been built within an hour. For it to go deep though, it will take time. And that is where the healing is.

Read on for group discussion questions.

Discussion Questions:

1.What things have really worked for you already? Breakthrough moments? (try doing those again)

2. What does your young person like? How have you used these things to your advantage? How could you use them to your advantage?

3.What good do you see in your young person? How have you told them? When was the last time? How could you do this without making it too weird for you or them?

4. Discuss ideas that you might like to try to build trust and engage with your young person – even if they sound crazy.

2 thoughts on “how to positively engage young people

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