Talking to Young People: How to Help Not Hurt
By Joe Iovino, United Methodist Communications
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Yeah, right. Every one of us who has survived puberty knows just how powerful words can be. Broken bones heal in six to eight weeks. Words like “stupid,” “fat,” and “ugly,” can hurt for years.
Often those comments can be shrugged off as things kids say before they know better. Other times, they come from trusted adults. People working with youth, such as parents and church youth leaders, most often use their words to build up and inspire, but there are times when we inadvertently say something very poorly.
Those poor word choices can have quite an impact on both the students to whom they are addressed and those who overhear them. Despite the intention to be helpful, humorous, or hurried, a leader’s words can sometimes be hurtful for the recipient. Here are some tips from United Methodist youth and children’s ministry leaders to help us keep miscommunication to a minimum.
Take a deep breath before you speak, tweet, post, send, or otherwise communicate. The Rev. R. Scott Miller, a youth ministry veteran of more than 20 years serving as Associate Pastor of Gaines United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, tells about a time he is glad he paused. A student wrote something on social media “that really bothered me,” he said. “I considered writing a quick IM to them that would have cut to the core. Instead, I stopped, thought about the situation, and prayed. I am glad I did. Because of this, I was able to turn the situation into a solid conversation... I know now that if I would have responded the way I wanted to initially, I would have pushed this student away.”
The Rev. R. Scott Miller, a youth minister for more than 20 years, speaks at Gaines United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo courtesy of the Rev. R. Scott Miller.
- Be realistic about the relationship. You are a parent or youth leader and not a peer. Robby Balbaugh, youth minister at Weatherford (TX) First United Methodist Church, says, “In our effort to connect with kids we can rush the relationship by joking too early or about things we haven’t earned access to. We also have to realize … the effect of our jokes are amplified and if it hits on a personal level, it can be internalized.” We must know the relationship well, and have permission to speak into the life of the other, with humor or otherwise.
- Consider how you will be heard. Put yourself in the place of your audience. “Be careful… especially when it comes to social media, text messages and email,” says Rafael Bellinni, Youth Pastor at First United Methodist Church of Land O' Lakes, Florida, because in those media “inflection and intention are even more difficult to communicate.” Have someone read your message before sending it to see if it comes across differently than intended.
- Take your time. It is tempting to share with a student everything you want to say on a particular topic about which you are passionate. While you may not want to compromise or misrepresent your conviction, you may overwhelm the student and create distance between the two of you. Remember, you will have time to revisit this issue and others over the years. Parenting and youth leading are marathons, not sprints.
Talk less and listen more. Adults can sometimes be quick to give an answer when the student might benefit more from talking it out. Hannah Ka, interim Children's Pastor of Korean United Methodist Church of San Diego, advises parents and leaders to draw out the answers already, by the grace of God, within the student. “The less you talk,” she said, “the more you can teach and learn from them.”
Hannah Ka, Children's Pastor of Korean United Methodist Church of San Diego, talks with two of her students. Photo courtesy of Hannah Ka.
- Be aware of your own “stuff.” When you are sleep-deprived during a lock-in, or stressed from things in other areas of your life, beware. Factors such as these make us susceptible to communicating poorly. Knowing you are at risk will help you slow down and think through your response.
- Ask for help. When you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation or handling something for which you feel ill equipped, get help. That might not always be possible in the moment – you’ll just have to tough it out – but ask for feedback from a mentor or friend later. An “after action” conversation can go a long way toward growth when similar situations arise in the future.
- Become comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” Many adults and leaders feel the need to have answers at the ready, but no one knows everything. Become comfortable telling students what you do not know, but that you care enough to consider and research their issue. This is a sign of respect that will help deepen your relationship.
- Apologize. Inevitably, you will make a mistake. Someone will be hurt by something you have said. When that happens, don’t make excuses, ask for forgiveness. Wonderful relationships between youth and adults can grow over Frappuccinos while the adult admits his or her error.
Words have power, especially those used with youth by people in authority. Sometimes those words can have devastating effects. Choose wisely. R. Scott Miller sums it up well, “We need to always remember, we are modeling Christ through our words. Are our words Christ-like or hurtful?”