Five Things to Remember When a Teenager Tells You Something You Weren’t Expecting

Well, it happened. Again. A teenager I know told me something I wasn’t expecting. I’m not mad. Just disappointed (I’m starting to sound a lot like my parents). This time it was related to a bad decision. But over the years, I’ve had out-of-nowhere conversations about…

·     Being abused

·     Self-Harm

·     Suicidal thoughts

·     Eating disorders

·     Drunk at a party

·     Sex with a boyfriend

·     Sex with a girlfriend

·     Sending nudes

·     Lying

·     Cheating

·     Bullying


And the list goes on. I always find myself saying things like, “There’s nothing they say that can surprise me”, but that isn’t exactly true. Even if I’ve heard it a thousand times from a thousand kids, secrets like that always catch me off guard. After all, I’ve never heard it from this kid. 

Like every leader in the world, I want to do a good job in those moments. I want to honor the courage it took for them to tell me. I want to protect the heart, protect the relationship, and protect their future, but left to my own devices and my knee-jerk reactions, I can do some real damage. My surprised face isn’t a good one. My disappointed tone isn’t well hidden. And if I’m not careful, my reactions can convince a brave teenager that he or she made a mistake in telling an adult. 

And I suspect I’m not alone. That’s why, if you’re going to lead teenagers, I think it’s worth the time to work on and practice our reactions for when a teenager finds the courage to tell us something difficult. Here are a few things I’m working on, and I hope you will too : 


1.    Practice your facial expressions. Around the Orange world, we like to say “freak out on the inside.” This isn’t just something to think about. It’s something to physically practice. Look in a mirror and imagine a kid just told you something shocking, scary, disappointing, or frustrating. It’s important to know what your face looks like and then practice what you want your face to look like in those moments. 

2.    Practice what you will say. Statistically, if you lead a group of ten teenagers, nearly every difficult or scary thing listed above is happening or will happen eventually. That means it’s worthwhile to plan what you will say. Plan how you will sound. Try saying it out loud so you can hear yourself OR, record yourself. Listen to your tone and imagine what it feels like to be on the other side of you.

3. Promise only what you can promise. Sometimes a teenager will ask you to assure them you’ll never tell anyone, and while it’s tempting to respond with a “yes”, that’s not really something we can promise. There are times when we will need to involve a parent, a pastor or a professional, and the only thing worse than telling a kid you have to share their secret is telling them that after you promised you wouldn’t. In a tricky conversation, there are a few things you and I can promise. We can promise we will love them, do what is best for them, and walk with them through whatever happens next.

4. Honor the parent. If you’ve done ministry long, you’ve had a student share with you something that involves a parent. And sometimes it isn’t easy. Sometimes parents are mistaken, hurtful or just plain wrong, but at the same time they’re also still parents. And while we don’t have to agree with their actions, the best thing for the student and our relationship with them, is to honor the parents in what we say to them and about them.

5. Be normal. At the end of the day, when a student shares something difficult or painful or embarrassing with us, most of the time the biggest question on their mind is “are we still ok?” And one of the quickest and most powerful ways to show that our relationship is fine is to go back to being normal with each other. If you normally joke around, joke around. If you normally play basketball, play basketball. If you normally text after school, keep texting. The point is to let the student know, as quickly as possible, that what they shared doesn’t change how your see them or your relationship with them.

The point is this: no matter how seasoned you are as a leader, when a teenager tells you something difficult, you’ll still feel something. And that’s good. I hope we never get to a point where we’re so calloused or disillusioned that we are numb to a teenager’s pain. But that doesn’t mean that what we’re feeling should always be the first thing a teenager sees or hears from us. Too often, I’ve let a knee-jerk reaction turn a brave conversation awkward or painful.

And I’m working to make sure that doesn’t happen next time.