How to Talk to Teenagers About Tragedy
by Rebekah Bled
This was a difficult article to write.
I struggle with knowing how to start a conversation on things I don’t feel I have a complete grasp on. World politics certainly fall into this category, as do shootings, racism, a heated election, and countless other issues brought up by current events. There are no easy answers to these multi-layered issues, and talking about them can be uncomfortable. And yet, discomfort is not a valid reason for ignoring these issues.
I am a youth minister. But more than that, I am an adult who loves Jesus. I firmly believe that Jesus-loving adults have a vital role to play in the lives of teenagers by having their backs, being faithful and trustworthy, and listening through the hard times no matter the difficulty of the conversation. So though I can’t give you a formula for a conversation, and I can’t tell you exactly which way the topic will take you, here are five things that may make conversation with your student on tricky topics a bit easier:
Don’t assume you know what your student is thinking.
Beginning a conversation with a teenager with an assumption shortens the conversation. Most teenagers are used to adults telling them what to think, telling them what they already do think, and answering for them. If you assume you know what your teenager is thinking, chances are they will let you get away with it and you will not know the difference. What a missed opportunity! Trade out assumptions for curiosity about your student, asking open-ended questions. I promise, you have a fascinating person developing and maturing right under your nose.
Don’t ask for their opinion and then share yours.
Here’s why: Asking for someone’s perspective and then immediately sharing yours can send the message you weren’t interested in the other’s thoughts in the first place. This message intensifies when you include the power differential between adults and students, especially if that adult is a parent, teacher or other authority figure. It’s not that students are scared off, necessarily. They are just wary of your response if they give the “wrong answer.”
Students are fine-tuned to feelings of being talked over, shut-down, ignored or dismissed. In fact, many expect these things from adults. For this reason, especially if you and your student land on different sides of an issue, don’t lead with your opinion. Maybe don’t even share your opinion right then. Take a cue from pastor and author Nicky Gumbel and ask “What do you think about that?” and/or “How do you feel about that?” to keep a conversation going.
Use the magic words, “Tell me more”.
Steve Argue of Fuller Theological Seminary has said the three most powerful words for a teenager are tell me more. When a student expresses anger, disdain, frivolity, sweetness, joy, or countless other emotions, press in by saying, “tell me more.” These words are a balm for the soul. They communicate, “I’m interested. I care about what you care about. I have time for you. I want to enter your world. Tell. Me. More.”
Don’t be afraid of unresolved issues and hard questions.
Big, chaotic topics are that way for a reason. They take time to work through and may never be resolved to our satisfaction. As you engage with your student in conversation on hard subjects, don’t be afraid of tension, of saying “I don’t know,” and of unanswered questions.
Above all, let your student know you love them.
This is the point and purpose of engaging in these conversations in the first place. Be kind, be a good listener, be gentle, be approachable. Let your student know that no matter where they land on an issue, their relationship with you is not at risk. You have their back. You love them now and will love them forever.
Rebekah got her start in youth ministry at Christ Church in Montevideo, Uruguay and is now the Minister of Youth Discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, OK. Rebekah is married to her soulmate, Philippe. Together they like to drink mate, play soccer with their dogs, and dream of traveling the world. Rebekah has read Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy six times.
wow. this was REALLY good.. like actually helpful. I love that it was short, worth the read, and helpful. Also.. I think this goes way past teenagers. Its a lesson in actually listening.