Teens needs

What three weeks in Israel staffing a Jewish teen trip taught me

In Short

How to engage with teens in a way that's effective and doesn't leave all parties tearing their hair out in despair

Over the last two summers, I spent over 1,400 hours traveling throughout Israel with Jewish teens from all over the U.S. as a Jewish educator with BBYO’s Passport program. My experience as a parent of two (now adult) daughters, dean of students at a Jewish boarding school director of a Hebrew high school and a BBYO region, teacher in formal and informal Jewish learning environments, and the myriad of other roles that I’ve played in the lives of teens, provided me with the perfect foundation for these immersive overseas travel experiences.

I don’t share the various roles I’ve served as a list of my accomplishments, but rather as confirmation of my expertise in and passion for working with Jewish teens. Through my work, I have come to appreciate, understand and share how youth professionals, parents and other caring adults can better support teens in their lives.

Below is a short list of takeaways, reinforced on my trip this summer, that I believe would benefit those who work with, parent and/or engage with teens:

  1. Be present and listen carefully during conversations. You may pick up on subtle comments that (with curious inquiry) can lead you to learn much more about the teen than you would have simply by continuing the initial conversation.
  2. Social connections are everything and more. Teens want to fit in and it can be soul crushing if they don’t. It can be an important role, as a trusted adult, to help teens navigate more challenging social situations. Adults can assist with big emotions and strategies. Teens don’t need 10,000 friends, just one good one. Adults can help teens understand that being on the inside of a small group is better than being outside of a large group.
  3. Teens want to be appreciated for their talents, kindness, knowledge and for being great human beings. Pointing out and inquiring more about their accomplishments builds rapport and self-esteem. Catch them doing something well and lean into making it a highlight of your experience with them.
  4. Be proactive with communication about behavioral expectations, schedules and what is needed. Being clear allows teens to show up as their best self. Proactive communication paves the way for confidence and competence in what is being asked. Teens typically show up as their best self when they know exactly what to do.
  5. Surprise gifts (especially food) are wonderfully fun and appreciated. Gifts show kindness, connection and appreciation…exactly what teens are seeking in adults.
  6. One earphone in their ear isn’t necessarily a sign of disrespect or not paying attention. Teens are more multisensory than adults. They are used to listening to music, YouTube videos, podcasts, etc. while doing other things. Sometimes it actually helps teens focus. As long as they can hear you (presenter/others), they seem to be paying attention, and they aren’t interfering with others, that is perfect implementation.
  7. When a teen’s behavior doesn’t meet the set expectations, implement swift, appropriate and impactful consequences. Consequences should be used to teach, not to punish. Responding with consequences quickly prevents added stress associated with dragging things out. Responding with appropriate consequences shows fairness. Responding with impactful consequences enables lessons to be learned and lowers the likelihood of repeat behavior.
  8. Say what you mean, mean what you say and follow through. When you don’t follow through with what you say as an adult, it creates mistrust and gives teens the signal that there is always wiggle room to negotiate. It also invites negative behaviors such as arguing, pushing boundaries and general disrespect.
  9. Move on from issues quickly and completely. Each incident should be viewed in its own time, with its own merits. If a teen expects that you will hold a grudge or bring up a list of prior misbehaviors, rapport and trust erodes quickly and may remain long-term.
  10. Don’t tell them something is going to happen if you can’t guarantee it. Teens process what is said and will hold you accountable to your word…even calling you a “liar” if something falls through. Either refrain from telling them until you are 100% certain or let them know that you are working on making something happen, but you can’t guarantee with certainty yet. And if you promise something and things change, beyond your control, offer an apology with full transparency of what transpired.

Keep your emotions in check. When adults are regulated, it helps teens regulate too. Teens are emotional beings and often their inability to self-regulate takes those around them down with them. They depend on adults to show them that the world is on “steady footing” even when they are not. When you don’t self-regulate, they will react against you as opposed to the situation at hand. The problem then becomes fractured into multiple problems.

Erica Hruby is the former executive director of JTEEN and now serves as an independent contractor focusing on national teen education and engagement initiatives at The Jewish Education Project. She is also the founder of Anchored Parenting, LLC, a coaching and psychoeducation business supporting parents of tweens and teens and delivers professional development for youth education and engagement professionals.