I had the opportunity yesterday to crush the hearts of a group of ten year olds. As awkward as it was, it had to be done.
It went like this:
Me: In your relationships with each other (to a group of boys who were having some ‘relational issues’)…
Me: Not like a boyfriend/boyfriend relationship – all people are in relationships whether they are friendships, love or family. For example, you and I are in a relationship.
Youth: Yeah, you’re our friend. Why can’t you just call it a ‘friendship’ – relationship sounds so weird.
Me: No. I’m not your friend.
Youth: o_O *insert cricket sounds here*
Me: I am friendly towards you, that’s not the same. We are in a professional relationship. I am your youth worker. I am friendly towards you like a friend, I teach you like a teacher, I might offer advice like a parent, I might offer advice like a counselor. And we can talk and trust each other with things. But we are not friends. I have my friends, who are nearer my age – who I tell things to that I don’t tell you. And you have friends who are your age – who you tell things to that you don’t tell me… am I right?
Youth: *Grumbles/Giggles* and variations on ‘well, yeah, I guess so….’
Youth Worker vs Friend
Do your youth know you’re not their friend?
If not, why? Do you see yourself as their friend… are they yours?
If you aren’t 100% sure about the answers to those questions consider this one: How do you define youth work?
Through my training and experience I believe youth work to be an important relationship in the life of a youth. But it is a blend. And it’s all about getting that blend right.
You need to be friendly without being their friend. You can call them up for a chat on how their week is going (consider phone boundaries and social media boundaries though), but it shouldn’t be reciprocal. They shouldn’t know all about how your week is going by the end. They don’t need to know all your ups and downs. Do I share when I’m tired or have a lot going on? Yes. Do I go into all the sordid gory details? No.
Youth Worker vs Teacher
You need to teach without being a formal teacher. You have so much wisdom to impart. That’s one of the reasons you’re in this role. Whether it’s about matters of faith, life, parents, love, sex, feelings or just how to use the post office, you have life skills and information that needs to be taught.
That doesn’t mean that you need to operate like a teacher. Sit down. Be quiet. Raise your hand. Sit up straight. Hood off. I know what’s right and I’m here to make sure you leave with it memorized.
Youth worker relationships are less formal. You can have a dialogue; in fact, I encourage it. Help your youth develop the skills they need to think for themselves. Don’t just teach at them, engage with them. Be honest about your own questions, struggles and issues (within reason) and help youth muddle through the sticky and complicated journey we call life.
Youth Worker vs Parent
You need to advise without being a parent. You are not their parents. They have those (usually). You don’t need to toe the party line with their parents if there’s something you disagree with, but you should encourage them to voice their disagreements respectfully.
Help them learn how to engage with adults in reasoned conversation (see point #2) and how to figure out their own views. Whether you’re coming from a faith perspective or not, it behooves them to act honorably and respectfully with their parents, even through disagreements.
You also don’t need to nag them like a parent sometimes can. And keep their trust. Unless there are clear expectations laid out that you will share things with their parents, you are not a spouse to their parent. You don’t need to share their personal issues just because mom or dad ask. Encourage parents and youth to talk to each other and offer to help with mediation. But remember your role.
Youth Worker vs Therapist
You need to listen without being a therapist. You are a mentor in their life – a role model. They’re going to ask your advice from time to time (or every time they see you because, lets face it, they trust you and you’re probably cool), but you need to know when to give advice and when to help them get further help.
Unless you’re a trained counselor, don’t go beyond your training, expertise or scope. Some issues need further help and support – especially in areas of abuse. It’s great that youth feel safe enough to disclose to you, but make sure you’re ready to hand that part of their care on to another professional, while still being there for them in all the other ways that you always have been.
Youth work is a great profession which can often have a complex professional relationship between worker and youth. Know who you are. Know what you do. Know why you do it. And make sure those expectations and boundaries are clear to your youth.
Question: How do you define youth work? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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