5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

In my Teen Life Support Group last semester, I had a student who seemingly did not want to be there. She refused to talk. She crossed her arms. She kept her head down. After the first week, we talked to her and said that she didn’t have to talk but needed to participate as a member of the group. She reluctantly did the activities, but still never spoke a word.

A few weeks later, another student asked about my family. I explained that my parents live in Alabama, and I don’t see them very often because of the distance. Immediately, my standoffish student spoke. “Wait, you’re from Alabama? Me too.” In that moment, we had created a connection.

Connection. It sounds so easy, right? But how often do we strive to achieve it and come up short? Sometimes, finding a commonality is like finding a needle in a haystack. Some days I wonder if I have anything at all in common with the teens I’m with. Some days I wonder if they even want to connect with me at all.

In their book, The Connected Child, Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. David Cross, and Wendy Sunshine walk through a series of connecting principals to help us as parents, teachers, youth ministers, or friends of young people who are struggling and yet seem to reject our help. In order to connect, we have to engage with students. Here are five of their strategies:


  1. Behavioral Matching: Reflect your student’s behavior or physical position. This increases their ability to feel safe. It’s less complicated than it seems. When my daughter wants to talk at night, I lay down next her instead of standing over her.  If my smaller child wants to play with cars on the floor, I sit on the floor as well. Find the natural comfort behavior for your teen and match it without even mentioning it.


  1. Playful Engagement: Be playful in your conversations. We adults often want to get to the point, address the problem, and fix it. But they often need us to break the ice. We do that by showing that we can have fun. When my teen doesn’t want to do something they deem embarrassing, I do it first. If they are frustrated, say “Whoa? I didn’t know you were the boss!” Let them know they are safe even in disagreements. You can have a deeper conversation once there is more connection.


  1. Create Eye ContactWe live in a world where students don’t look at each other. They look at screens. But the eyes are powerful.  Look your students in the eyes and they will know they are cared for. As parents, how often do we yell down the hall or up the stairs. How would things change if we spent more time looking in our teenagers’ eyes?


  1. Share Healthy Touch: Give a hug. Pat them on the back. Hold their hand. Play with their hair. If you aren’t sure if it’s ok, ask permission. Students often want to know you care, and you don’t have to use words to show up.


  1. Be aware of your tone of voiceAre you loud? Are you frustrated? Are you talking quickly or slowly? Do you even know? You can start and end a conversation just by using your tone. You also can be authoritative without being demeaning or unkind.


Connecting through engagement is hard, but as Dr. Karyn Purvis says, “When you connect to the heart of a child, everything is possible.”

My student from Alabama? After she learned we were from the same place, everything shifted. That tiny connection was all it took to help make our group safe for her. She was able to talk through some significant things happening at her home all because of connection.  

A week after group ended, the interventionist stopped me in the hall.  She raved about how this girl was totally different than she was 8 weeks before. What a powerful lesson about the potential power that can be unleashed with just a little connection!


Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations.

The Masquerade

The Masquerade

This week, my 5-year old son John came down the hall and introduced himself as “Kevin.”   When I turned around from washing dishes, I realized he was wearing goggles- Minion goggles from his Kevin costume. For the next hour, he only answered to “Kevin” and ignored anyone who called him by his actual name. We all had several good laughs when someone inadvertently called him by his true name, causing much playful indignation.


Designed for fun. Designed for camouflage. Designed for protection. Designed to make a statement. Worn by people of all ages and stages.

An excerpt from “We Wear the Mask” – a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.


Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.


Unlike my 5-year-old, too often the students we work with wear masks for protection and/or camouflage. They are anxious about being seen for who they really are. They do not want to be singled out for fear of being targeted. They do not know what to do with the hurt that they carry. They do not know if they will be accepted.

The same things could be said about us as adults.

What can we do? How can we help the students we love (and ourselves)? A few suggestions for pulling back the mask:

  1. Be present. Show up – Be consistent – Follow through – for the students in your lives and your adult friends. Allow others to make their own decisions. No one pulls their masks back without trust and relationship.
  2. Ask students how they feel. Stick to the basics – sad, mad, scared, and glad. This is probably a new idea to many of them and to many adults. Give them a script – “I feel _______ when _______ happens.”  It isn’t always easy, but it makes a huge difference when a person can identify and own their feelings.
  3. Model authenticity with appropriate boundaries. In the words of Madeline Fry– “Healthy vulnerability recognizes when to share and when to remain silent. This helps you strike the balance between guarding who you are at your core and expressing it.” Learning boundaries takes practice in a world that pressures you to share and say yes.


Eventually, my son took off the goggles and informed us all that we could call him John again. Our hope is that everyone, students and adults alike, have a safe place to remove their masks and be called by their true name.

May you be that person for someone else and may you have those people in your life as well.



Beth Nichols is Teen Life’s Program Director. With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, her perspective is invaluable.
A Helpful Metaphor

A Helpful Metaphor

In the fog of family life, sometimes we need good language and descriptors to help us best understand the challenges of parenting. Sometimes being told what to do directly from another parent isn’t that helpful and might even cause some resentment. You know how it is – if you are really struggling to find clarity in the midst of juggling parenting, career, family life, finances, and community involvement, someone telling you the exact way to deal with all of that seems at the very least…detached.

I am a Christian, and as a follower of Jesus, one of the aspects of his teachings that are the most helpful are his parables. These stories capture timeless truths about how people interact, relate with each other and God, as well as provide a better way to live. The fascinating thing about these parables is how they tend to hold up and provide a solid framework to live in our postmodern world. I love how stories, images, and metaphors seem to cut through to the heart of things and give us the perspective we need.

One of the common anxieties of adults who work with teenagers revolves around the teenager’s tendency to distance themselves from their parents and other close adults as they explore what it means to be an individual. So many take this personally and don’t deal with it very well. Sometimes the rejection is met with rejection, and relationships are fractured. Other times, the “pushing away” is met with a lack of trust and increased skepticism, further driving a wedge in the relationship.

Dr. Kara Powell wrote a really helpful piece on this subject last year (you can find it here) and used a quote from the book, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour:

“Your daughter needs a wall to swim to, and she needs you to be a wall that can withstand her comings and goings. Some parents feel too hurt by their swimmers, take too personally their daughter’s rejections, and choose to make themselves unavailable to avoid going through it again…But being unavailable comes at a cost…Their daughters are left without a wall to swim to and must navigate choppy—and sometimes dangerous—waters all on their own.”

This metaphor perfectly illustrates what it means to be an adult in the life of a teenager. To be the wall you must:

– Choose to be the adult.

– Understand your role in the life of a teenager.

– Be steady, ready, and available.

– Communicate constantly your availably and readiness when they choose to return.

Teenagers need solid adults who stay in place for students to “kick off” of to explore what it means to be human in sometimes dangerous waters. Parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, mentors, and counselors play a crucial role to create safety and boundaries as students figure these things out.

What do you think about this? What other helpful metaphors work for you to describe working with teenagers? 

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
Ryan Young Talks Student Athletes

Ryan Young Talks Student Athletes

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Athletics are a huge part of many teenagers’ Middle School and High School experiences. This episode, Chris and Karlie are joined by former NFL player, Ryan Young, to talk about how to raise, coach and develop successful students athletes. There is a place for balance and growth in the context of adolescent athletics. Join us for a great conversation about how to make the most of those teenage athletic years!

[bctt tweet=”Your why is so much more important than your X’s and O’s! // @dontpanictalk @ryoungfca” via=”no”]
In this episode, you’ll find out…
  • How students can grow and learn through involvement in sports.
  • Some unique challenges of student athletes.
  • The lies that parents and coaches tell teenage athletes.
  • The importance of taking a break and allowing teens to rest.
  • Some qualities of a successful student athlete.
Ask yourself…
  • Am I setting realistic goals for this student athlete?
  • How can I better help teens manage their time and balance priorities other than sports?
  • Why am investing in the lives of student athletes? How can I best engage my athletes?
Go ask a teen…
  • How are sports helping you succeed in other areas? In school? At home? With friends?
  • Are you setting realistic goals for yourself?
  • Are you having fun?

In this episode, we mentioned the following resources:

About Us:

Ryan Young played college football at Kansas State University and is a former offensive tackle in the National Football League (NFL) for the New York Jets, Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys. Currently he works for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) as the East Fort Worth Field Associate and is enrolled at Kings University Gateway to earn his Masters in Practical Theology. Follow him on Twitter!

Chris Robey is the Program Director for Teen Lifeline, Inc. Earlier in his career while working as a youth minister, Chris earned a Masters Degree in Family Life Education from Lubbock Christian University to better equip his work with teenagers and families. Chris’ career and educational opportunities have exposed him to teenagers from a variety of backgrounds. Follow him on Twitter!
Karlie Duke started working as Teen Lifeline’s Communications Director after graduating from Abilene Christian University with a degree in Communications with a minor in Family Studies. Karlie has worked with teenagers for the past 5 years and is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram!
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It’s Not the Teacher’s Fault

It’s Not the Teacher’s Fault

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this. Mainly from students but also from parents who see the teacher as the problem in a particular class. I have to admit, I have even said the same thing when I was in school.

Even though this is an easy thing to fall back on, I have never felt comfortable (and the more I work with teachers and schools, I feel less and less comfortable) with this mentality. The problem has been that I didn’t know how to process this mentality in order to make it better, much less how to communicate to people how they too could shift their perspective, stop blaming and start making positive progress.

That is until recently. I just finished a book called Extreme Leadership. It is a business book, but the last principle they talk about in the book helped me begin to clarify why the idea that the teacher is the problem doesn’t compute for me, and I hope it won’t for you either.

In my experience talking with and dealing with teachers, they are smart people. They have put in hard work in school and the teaching exam in their state. Not to mention, they are often under paid but put in extra work so that the students they work with get the education they need. That being the case, I have not met a teacher who wants students to fail. If for no other reason, they don’t want a difficult student in their class a second time! But mainly because if they fail students, it is a reflection on them. I don’t mean to be naive here, I know there are some teachers out there that are in it for the wrong reasons, but they are the minority by far.

If we see it from this perspective, then what do we do when our student is falling or struggling with a particular subject or class? I believe the principle that is outlined in Extreme Leadership helps point us in the right direction.

This principle is the idea of leading up and down the chain of command. In the military, this means that subordinates must learn to lead up to their commanders in appropriate, helpful ways. The most clear definition of this is that if a group leader has been tasked with a mission, it is up to him to make his commanding officer(s) aware of the resources he needs to carry out that mission. If the commanding officer has to ask for more information, it is because the squad leader did not provide enough information to begin with.

An application to a student-teacher relationship looks very different, but it’s not about the details of the situations. It’s about the principle that makes this work.

If a student is failing, it is because there is a lack of understanding on the student’s part as to the requirements of the task or the details of the lesson. Because teachers make the lesson plan and have their own way of learning things that drives how they teach, a student may need to get creative in how they ask for clarification. So it is up to the student (and a parent helping them) to get creative in how they seek help from the teacher. The hope is that they help the teacher give them the information they need by being very clear on what is not making sense to them.

I do understand this sounds like a backwards approach. Isn’t it up to the teacher to be clear, teach, and make sure that students get the lesson they need? Well, yes, but this is about more then one class or lesson. This is about learning more than a subject; it is about learning how to deal with people, to expand your brain power to think about how you can contribute to the solution instead of focusing on the problem.

What would happen if you shifted your perspective to one that says, “I’m going to own the problem and find a solution.” rather then “It’s the teachers fault!”? What ideas do you have for dealing with difficult people or situations that are different then our reactionary response?

Ricky Lewis is a long-time supporter and friend of Teen Life. He was the Executive Director for many years and continues to be an asset to our community. As a father of 7, he seeks to help parents and their kids Live Life Better.