by Muriel Larson
By Muriel Larson
How can a youth worker relate to adolescents, get through to them, and influence them for the Lord? The basis for establishing good relationships with people of any age is understanding them; and adolescence might be considered the most complicated of all ages!
There's Brian—always grandstanding, bigger than life. But when you ask him to bring a devotional at a social, he's suddenly shy and stuttering. There's Heather—bouncy, exuberant usually. But sometimes she blows up with a hair-trigger temper.
So how can we connect with the adolescents with whom we work? The first step is to gain "empathetic understanding" about how life looks to these young people, so that we can communicate in a way that is relevant to their concerns, as well as faithful to the deepest values of our faith.
Entering puberty brings young people new social problems, as well as physical and emotional problems. Now they feel a greater need to belong, because they have a greater tendency to feel lonely. Now their whole beings awaken to awareness of the opposite sex, and good relationships with them assume new importance. Now they want to learn more about getting along with people. And now they are assailed by the greatest temptations to engage in questionable activities that they ever have or ever will encounter.
For better understanding, let's look at some characteristics of adolescents.
Children before puberty have a tendency to run in gangs, usually of one sex only. However, when they become adolescents, the clique or crowd comes into being to meet the new need of the sexes to get to know one another better.
"The activities of these crowds are far more difficult to list than the activities of a gang," says Luella Cole in her book, The Psychology of Adolescence. "Aside from a few definite social functions, such as dances or parties, the crowd seems to do practically nothing. It is adventure, not into the world of things, but into the world of social relationships."
With all the physical and emotional changes that are taking place, adolescents feel the need for security. No longer "babies," they have a new yearning for independence that drives them to seek security more from peers than from parents; therefore, group acceptance becomes very important.
"Pressures to conform are stronger in the adolescent years than at any other time of life," says Dr. Clyde M. Narramore. "Whether in styles, verbal lingo, activities or a host of other things, the gang' is a powerful force in the lives of teenagers. Why? Because they have not yet found their mature, adult roles. They are still groping for a secure place in the world. Conformity to their own group seems to offer them a measure of security."
Cliques and crowds may be a mixed blessing. Teenagers who are left out of things feel it very keenly and do not have as much opportunity to learn social rapport as do those who are "in." However, in cliques and crowds, the importance of intellectual and academic interests tends to be downgraded.
The church-related youth group needs to struggle against these tendencies so that it remains open and accepting. The attitude of Christian leaders is crucial in modeling this behavior.
One way to address this problem is by setting forth Jesus Christ as a role model through biblical illustrations of His love and concern for "outsiders." Jesus associated with the hated tax-collectors and frowned-on "sinners," even though publicly censored by religious leaders and questioned by His disciples (Matt. 9:11; Luke 7:34; John 4). In a day when women were considered inferior to men, Jesus gave them special recognition. Mary Magdalene, the former demon-possessed harlot, was the first to see Jesus after His resurrection.
To help your young people follow Christ's example, invite them to tell of times when they felt lonely, unaccepted, or slighted. Suggest that they remember how they felt then so that they can relate in a caring way to others who might feel that way. Point out the diversity among Jesus' followers. Have an open discussion on how the group can continue to enjoy the security they find in their crowd and yet open their ranks to persons that some might disdain.