Talking to young people: How to help not hurt

November 13, 2014

by Joe Iovino* and Vance Morton**  The following is adaped from Joe Iovino's original United Methodist News Service article posted on Nov. 10. You can read that article here.

Do you recall the old saying that goes “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me?” What a wonderfully brave outlook on life. It’s too bad that it just isn’t true for many of us. In the New Testament Book of James, we learn that the tongue is “a flame of fire, a word of evil at work in us…a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:5-8). But you don’t have to be a biblical scholar to understand the scars that words can leave on a person. Every one of us who has survived puberty knows just how powerful words can be. Broken bones heal in a couple of months – and often heal stronger than before the injury. Words like “stupid,” “fat,” and “ugly,” can hurt for years, and often weaken and even cripple the spirit for a lifetime.  
 
Sometimes, ugly and hurtful comments can be shrugged off as things kids say before they know better. Other times, they come from trusted adults. People working with youth most often use their words to build up and inspire, but there are times when they inadvertently say something very poorly.
 
Those poor word choices can have quite an impact on the students to whom they are addressed as well as those who overhear the hurtful comments. Even when the intent is to be helpful or humorous, a leader’s words can sometimes be hurtful for the recipient. Here are some tips from United Methodist Youth and Children’s Ministry leaders across the connection that might help keep miscommunication to a minimum. 
 
Be realistic about the relationship. You are a parent and/or adult leader, not a peer. Leaders must be aware of and quite confident in the relationship they have with the youth to whom they are speaking, as well as with anyone who might overhear. You simply can’t assume that you can kid with a kid the way you can with your buddies at work. Robby Balbaugh, youth minister at Weatherford 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…they are amplified and if it hits on a personal level, it can be internalized.”
Pause. 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.”
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. “Inflection and intention are even more difficult to communicate via social and digital media than any other.” Have someone read your message before sending it to see if it comes across differently than intended.
Pace Yourself. 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.”
Be aware of your own “stuff.” Many youth leaders who responded for this story cautioned to be “very aware of your mood, actions and tone,” especially when you are sleep-deprived during a lock-in or stressed from things in other areas of your life. 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 reported that they feel the need to have answers at the ready, but no one knows everything. Become comfortable telling students that 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?” 
 
*Joe is an United Methodist Communications columnist.  jiovino@umcom.org 
**Vance is the director of Communications & IT for the Central Texas Conference. vance@ctcumc.org