10 Things I Learned Mentoring Teens

When I tell people that I spend my “down-time” working with teens, the visceral reaction is often a grimace or a sigh or a “man, I could never do that”. Say “teens” and there’s a knee-jerk reaction of difficult, moody, rebellious, entitled or rude. And sure some of them are. But news flash…so are some adults.

While I’m not an expert, there’s a couple things I’ve learned mentoring teens over the years that have worked well for me…

  1. Be authentic. Don’t try so hard to be young and hip. Don’t think you need to watch Pretty Little Liars or know the lyrics to the newest One Direction song in order to bond with your teens. They’ll see right through you if you’re trying too hard.
  2. Listen. Teens have a lot to say. A lot of opinions, a lot of problems and a lot of energy. Many times, they’re just looking for someone who will lend an open ear. Try to reserve talking about yourself as a teen for the times they ask: as a mentor, your job isn’t to say “I remember when” or “in my day” or to offer unsolicited advice and anecdotes about your teenage years. When the teens are interested, trust me, they will ask.
  3. But look for behavior cues. As much as teens like to talk, they won’t always open up about things easily. Keep an eye out for when they’re quieter than usual, easily distracted or removed from the situation. In those scenarios, I find a simple statement like “you seem stressed, is everything OK? Let me know if you need anything” works wonders. They won’t always open up immediately, but they at least know you’re there if they need to talk.
  4. Treat them as adults and with respect. I was raised that you should always respect those older than you. But I would argue the same goes for those younger. Many adults look at loud teens on the corner or on the bus and stereotype that all teens act that way. But give them the benefit of the doubt. Start with respect. Don’t talk down to them, challenge them to act like adults and hold them accountable as such. In my experience, they’ll rise to the occasion and the challenge.
  5. Teach them basic manners. Many people judge teens as not having manners or respect. But when was the last time you politely corrected them or reminded them of manners? My teens are taught to take their hats off when they walk into a building; not to speak when someone else is speaking; and never ever to say any derogatory comments about anyone.
  6. Have a little bit of a potty mouth. Be careful with what you say. Your influence is powerful. Beware of any comments that can be misconstrued as racist, prejudiced or vulgar. But a “shit” every now and then reminds them that you’re not a robot.
  7. Make fun of yourself. I’m short and balding. But 32 years on this planet have taught me to accept that. Make fun of yourself. It’ll teach them to do the same and to accept their flaws and feel comfortable in their own skin.
  8. Know your boundaries. Know when to bring other people in for help. In simple scenarios, I would often turn to my female co-adviser when there were girls that came to me with issues I just couldn’t relate to. But in more complex scenarios where a teen’s safety or well-being is at risk, be prepared to call a parent, a teacher or a social worker.
  9. Have a back-up plan for the back-up plan. When you’re running activities with a large group of teens anything can happen. They might get bored, you might finish the activity quicker than usual, or the supplies you needed might disappear. Always have back-up games and activities in your back pocket.
  10. Show no fear. They’re teens, not wild animals. Just enjoy it and don’t be intimidated.
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