We Don’t Give Up

We Don’t Give Up

Recently I concluded a guys only Support Group at a local high school which, at the time, I thought was pretty successful. I had built some strong relationships with those young men, found common ground, and seemed to gain their trust. A measure of success for me with teenagers is their willingness to talk about the real stuff – and these guys had no problem telling the truth, even to the point of being uncomfortable. 

Fast forward a few weeks. I walked into another group which is at a local drug rehab for adolescent boys. One of the guys from my previous group was there. He had broken his probation for drug use and was mandated a treatment program. I had also found out two other boys from my previous group got caught up in some heavy drugs and kicked off their school campus. So, what I thought was a successful guys group turned out, at least on its surface, to be a bust. 

If you work with teenagers very long, you will face some disappointment. Really, it’s part of signing up. But, it isn’t why we get into it. 

I got into working with teenagers because I felt like they were a lot of fun to hang out with, I could relate, and maybe I could contribute to their growth in some way. That’s why most people get into a helping profession involving kids. We just love being around them. 

But we aren’t always motivated by what it really takes to be successful with teenagers – the long haul. This is especially true in cases involving teenagers in crisis, that is, students who have significant risk factors at play in their family and development. 

Part of leading a group with those guys helped me understand more about their background. They all had at least one parent who had either rejected them or was no longer in the picture because of prison or by choice. Their systems failed. People failed. Bad choices were made. Labels were applied. They were now “bad kids”. 

Then, one by one, the adults surrounding these guys gave up on them. These boys in return gave up on the adults around them. Everyone just gave up. 

And, after working with these guys for a long time and watching them just fall back into drugs and bad choices, made it tempting for me to give up on them too. They knew what I hoped for them. They remember our conversations. It was really discouraging to see their choices and what path they traveled. 

But here is the thing. At the drug rehab, my young friend lit up when he saw me. I was a familiar face in a difficult situation. We got to talk, and he expressed to me his desire to get things together. My other two friends connected with me as well, and we were able to process the consequences they were about to endure and what they could do differently in the future. 

I chose not to give up on them. And, that is a choice I will likely have to make a few more times before the story is complete. 

Why am I writing this? Don’t give up. That’s what I’m saying. For those of us who work with teenagers – we don’t give up. It isn’t an option. So many others will give up. You don’t have to. 

If you are an adult in a relationship with a teenager who is disappointing you – don’t give up. 

Keep the relationship first. 

Set realistic expectations. 

Keep your eyes on the future. 

Process mistakes and set different goals. 

Don’t give up. 

We don’t give up. 

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
The Things We Want

The Things We Want

Each year, the staff here at Teen Life go on a short planning retreat to take stock of the previous school year and make plans for the next. Our fearless leader, Ricky Lewis, always sets up a framework for the staff to work through that not only helps us look back, but also helps us to look to the future and dream a little. I always look forward to these retreats as an opportunity to sort out what we want as an organization, to take a breath, and center ourselves on our work.

This year, Ricky threw us a little curveball and asked us to take a few minutes to write down some of our big picture dreams for what we want to be doing, not only in our work lives, but in our personal lives as well. Taking the time to work through some of my true desires for work and home reminded me of another really helpful exercise I will sometimes use with the teenagers we serve in Support Groups.

As a part of our groups, I will have the students imagine what it would be like if their life story was written as a movie or tv show. In other words, if we were to watch them as a character in their own story, how much would we be interested? Would we stay to watch it until the end, or would we give up on their character?

Donald Miller has done a lot of work in the area of story and helping people understand the different narratives that can be at play as we make decisions. Part of his writing looks at characters and how they are defined. According to Miller, a good character can be described this way:

“A good character wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it.” 

So if you can think of any good character, we can identify clearly what they want and the sacrifices and struggles they go through in order to attain what they covet.

As we worked through our dream list, I found it helpful to remember what I truly desire out of this life. As one who loves and cares for teenagers, I feel compelled to do the same with them.

Too often, adults have dreams for the students they help but often do not know what they really want. If you don’t believe me, you should see the blank stares I get from teenagers when I ask them what they really want out of life. It’s not that they haven’t thought about it, but more that the adults in their lives have never asked them – or at the very least helped them think through what they want.

It is a powerful exercise to write down the things you want, even if it seems a little crazy (trust me, my list seems a little crazy). But when you write it out, you are forced to consider what needs to happen to accomplish those goals. What if we found creative, yet practical ways to help the teenagers around us to identify what they really want?

Here are some questions to ask:

– What do you want to be happening in your life around the age of 20? 30?

– If you woke up tomorrow and felt like you accomplished something significant, what would you want it to be?

– What is something you want to be different in five years?

– What is one job you would not consider to be work?

– What kind of people would be in your life if everything was good?

I’ve had some of my best conversations with teenagers talking about what they really want. It’s all really just in how you ask the questions. I know how great it feels to think a little about what I want. You get the chance to do the same. Give it a try!

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
A Few Words on Courage

A Few Words on Courage

The older I get, the more I think it’s all about courage. When we find new and creative ways to instill courage into the lives of our kids – they win.

And, I’m not really talking about “getting ahead”. I’m talking about the small things of life.

Tests.

Telling the truth.

Looking out for the little guy.

Trying something new.

Saying you are sorry.

And, meaning it.

Putting the work in.

Taking responsibility.

Showing up.

Leaving.

Failing.

Getting back up.

Trying again.

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Teenagers, of all the people in this world, are positioned well to live with courage. For the most part, people don’t depend on them for their livelihood, so they can explore, make mistakes, and pivot when necessary. Within the bounds of the law, the consequences for failing tend to be less than adults who have families and careers. Teenagers tend to see the world with more naive and hopeful eyes – issues that can be solved or addressed with just one good idea. While those who are older roll their eyes and pat on the head – teenagers seem to expect their actions to actually make a difference and change environments.

The adolescent years are the perfect space to live courageously and with meaning. Those who do gain experiences and tools to do so as adults with families and careers. They know what it means to try and fail, doing so with the protection and support of the loving adults in their lives.

That’s where you come in. When the teenager you love comes to you with a wild and crazy idea – help them figure it out. Support them. Ask good questions. Help them take it a step further.

What would things look like if we lived with a little more courage? What would it look like for the teenagers in your life to be more courageous?

I think we can all agree on that answer.

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
A Helpful Metaphor

A Helpful Metaphor

In the fog of family life, sometimes we need good language and descriptors to help us best understand the challenges of parenting. Sometimes being told what to do directly from another parent isn’t that helpful and might even cause some resentment. You know how it is – if you are really struggling to find clarity in the midst of juggling parenting, career, family life, finances, and community involvement, someone telling you the exact way to deal with all of that seems at the very least…detached.

I am a Christian, and as a follower of Jesus, one of the aspects of his teachings that are the most helpful are his parables. These stories capture timeless truths about how people interact, relate with each other and God, as well as provide a better way to live. The fascinating thing about these parables is how they tend to hold up and provide a solid framework to live in our postmodern world. I love how stories, images, and metaphors seem to cut through to the heart of things and give us the perspective we need.

One of the common anxieties of adults who work with teenagers revolves around the teenager’s tendency to distance themselves from their parents and other close adults as they explore what it means to be an individual. So many take this personally and don’t deal with it very well. Sometimes the rejection is met with rejection, and relationships are fractured. Other times, the “pushing away” is met with a lack of trust and increased skepticism, further driving a wedge in the relationship.

Dr. Kara Powell wrote a really helpful piece on this subject last year (you can find it here) and used a quote from the book, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour:

“Your daughter needs a wall to swim to, and she needs you to be a wall that can withstand her comings and goings. Some parents feel too hurt by their swimmers, take too personally their daughter’s rejections, and choose to make themselves unavailable to avoid going through it again…But being unavailable comes at a cost…Their daughters are left without a wall to swim to and must navigate choppy—and sometimes dangerous—waters all on their own.”

This metaphor perfectly illustrates what it means to be an adult in the life of a teenager. To be the wall you must:

– Choose to be the adult.

– Understand your role in the life of a teenager.

– Be steady, ready, and available.

– Communicate constantly your availably and readiness when they choose to return.

Teenagers need solid adults who stay in place for students to “kick off” of to explore what it means to be human in sometimes dangerous waters. Parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, mentors, and counselors play a crucial role to create safety and boundaries as students figure these things out.

What do you think about this? What other helpful metaphors work for you to describe working with teenagers? 

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
The Outsider/Insider Parent

The Outsider/Insider Parent

This is one of those blog entries which could be filed under: “Chris, you don’t know what this is like.” While I have kids, they are all little, and we are dealing with very different issues than parents of teenagers. And when you are in the thick of battle, often times perspective isn’t an available tool to explain certain behaviors of your child.

 

Outsider/Insider

My wife works in pediatrics at a children’s hospital. She really gets kids. So when my kids meltdown or do something that is “kid appropriate” but doesn’t mesh with my adult sensibilities, she is calm while I lose my mind. Being around little kids all day long has taught her what to expect developmentally, socially, and behaviorally. To boil it down, she is just a much, much better parent than I am to little kids 🙂

She kind of has an outsider/insider perspective of children. Being around kids all day long gives her enough perspective for when she comes home to the chaos of a house with three kids ages six and under. It doesn’t make the job any less difficult, but her perspective acts as a separating tool, giving enough space to know what is normal kid behavior and what crosses the line.

 

The denial problem 

I’ve worked with teenagers a long time and to be honest, working with their parents is much more difficult. I always love the parents I get to work with, but I’m also a little shocked (and I don’t use that term a lot) on how little perspective parents of teenagers can have. Or at least, there tends to be a lack of mindfulness when it comes to how parents are feeling about the whole teenager thing.

From my perspective as an outsider/insider, I see some parents of teenagers take this path:

Parents are not ready for their kids to enter adolescence.

So they…

Go into denial about their kid going through the adolescent journey.

Then they…

Spend too much time agonizing over/fighting with their kids through adolescence.

This can be really sad to watch. When the kid starts pushing their parent away as they enter adolescence and the parent takes it personally, conflict abounds and the divide widens. Battle lines are drawn and understanding gives way to hurt feelings and resentment.

What parents of pre-teens and young adolescents could benefit from is perspective and a general understanding of what their kid is going through. The most successful parents I have seen with their teenagers are the ones who can deal with the difficulties of adolescence with the perspective of an outsider.

 

The “outsider/insider” parent

Sometimes we a just too close to the situation. To gain perspective, we need to get “outside” of things to see what is really going on. When we get “outside” of things we see:

  1. Adolesence is a journey towards adulthood. This often begins with a teenager making space to figure things out. It isn’t personal, it’s developmental.
  2. With this space, teenagers will try on “new skins”. Things won’t connect or be consistent. Your kid isn’t going crazy. They are figuring things out.
  3. With these “new skins”, they will inevitably fail. Let them, and help them process what the failures mean.
  4. Just because they are pushing you away doesn’t mean that is what they actually want. Find new and creative ways to remain close and available.
  5. Your role as a parent needs to change. The time for correction is over. Now you get to be a coach.

 

How to get “outside”

Well, reading this blog is a good start. No, really – continue to find good, reliable resources on parenting and adolescence. Also, be on the lookout for parents who do this teenage parenting thing well. Ask them questions. Watch what they do and let them be a mentor.

Finally, ask your teenager what they need. To be honest, they probably won’t have a good answer, but it will help them understand that you are with them and trying to understand.

Being a parent is hard at all stages. When we can find ways to separate ourselves from the fog of parenting, we find there are new and creative ways to interact with our kids. We better understand what they are going through. Empathy and understanding take the place of resentment and exasperation.

We find that this phase of parenting might not be so bad after all.

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.