About a year ago, our communications director, Karlie Duke, brought us a great idea for our groups. While I don’t believe she would claim this idea as original to her, the concept is really simple and effective. It is called “Fist to Five”. So we ask a question like – “How is your day going?”, or “How do you feel about yourself today?”. Then, the students answer with anything between a “fist” (bad) to “five” (the best). This gives us a baseline to have conversations about where they are and what could be better. And simply, it offers a great way to check in on how the student’s week is going.

But there is something else here which holds power. One of the things we ask all of our facilitators to do during their groups is to participate in the activity themselves. That is, if they ask a question or put an activity out asking students to be vulnerable in some way, you as a facilitator should be wiling to do the same. So when we do the “fist to five” activity, our facilitators participate as well.

In many ways, it is a yielding of power. So many adults ask students to behave or respond in a way that is not being modeled by the adult. We ask students to study, read, walk the straight line, and follow stringent rules while sometimes we don’t show them what it looks like. We expect them to figure it out.

This is no different when it comes to vulnerability. Many who are in the helping profession with students (and I guess parents for that matter) encourage students to open up and share what is frustrating them so they won’t act out of those frustrations. Yet, so many of us are unwilling to model vulnerability.

I work with a group of guys every week at a local inpatient drug rehab in Fort Worth. These guys are there because they are addicted to drugs, selling, or on the road to one of these things. They are a hard group to work with sometimes. They test me, come to group angry or frustrated, and sometimes will come to group just to sabotage things.

However, they are incredibly vulnerable. When they are having a bad day, they both show it and talk about it. There is really no filter and we find out very quickly how things are going.

Sometimes when I show up for group, I am not in a good place either. Maybe things haven’t been going well at work. Or, maybe I am struggling with my kids or had a bad day with my wife. Maybe I am feeling bad about myself because I am gaining weight and not taking great care of myself. Or, maybe I am lonely and need someone to talk to – just like them.

And as I have the opportunity, I share those things. When I am having a crappy day, I tell them. When my kids are driving me nuts, I tell them how that feels.

I want the teenagers in my life to know if I am having a bad day. Or, if things are going great they need to know that too. The point is, being vulnerable to someone you hold influence over is one of the more powerful tools for change you have. For a teenager to know adults struggle and can be honest about that struggle shows they can find safety in the relationship. Even a glimmer of “I struggle too” can reinforce a healthy relationship and give them someone to follow.

Adults who project infallibility and lack of struggle paint a hopeless picture for a teenager. Also, they don’t believe it. If you are unwilling to be vulnerable, they will write you off quickly as fake and someone not to be trusted.

And, they might be right. Ouch.

So, have you tried being vulnerable with a teenager? What has this looked like? Where have you seen this work?


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