I can still remember it like it was yesterday. I, and my fellow leaders, were crouching below the ceiling-height window in the office in our local youth centre, hoping that the young people outside would stop throwing bricks, calm down and just go home. Surely we had got something wrong here? It felt like we were hostages in our own building. Fortunately, we had the telephone. A quick call to the local police force, who we were on friendly terms with, and they sent a squad car to simply drive past the centre. Funnily enough, all the young people went home at the sight of the car! This incident happened to me fifteen years ago and I can tell you I learnt a lot from it on how to deal with bad behaviour.
We’ve all experienced it, perhaps not to this extreme. How do you deal with a young person, or a group of young people, when they disobey or disrespect you? when they cause damage to property or other youth group members? How do you deal with the teenager who is set on disrupting whatever you try and do? These scenarios have to be the hardest situations that a youth leader can find themselves in.
A good question is well why do they do these things in the first place? I believe that the reasons generally fall into one of three reasons:
1. boredom They’re bored! What we are doing is not meeting their needs, not scratching where they are itching or is simply not connecting with them for whatever reason.
2. attention seeking It is incredible what people will do to get noticed, just take a look in any daily tabloid! Sometimes young people will behave badly to get noticed, to feel that they are the centre of attention. It could be a power thing, where they sense that by getting the leaders to shout at them then they are actually the ones in control of the youth group, not the leaders. Of course, it may reflect on their background and upbringing. They may have spent years growing up realising that the only way they might get attention from busy parents or over-stretched teachers is by playing up, so they think that this is the way to get an adult’s attention.
3. boundary searching We all perform best when there are boundaries in place. A game of football is exciting and enjoyable to play because of the rules, take them away and the game falls apart. The young people in our care need to know what the boundaries are, how far they can push you as leader, what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Once they know the boundaries, understand them and accept them, then they can relax and be themselves. But until that time, they might need to keep pushing in all directions.
So how do you deal with difficult behaviour? It’s never easy but here are 5 possible solutions to try:
1. pray It’s obvious but essential, and easily overlooked. Commit it to God and ask for his providence and wisdom.
2. have fun If we are not having enough fun in our group sessions then behaviour can quickly deteriorate. I wrote about this in a previous blog so do take a look at the importance of fun.
3. get to know them individually I found that if I call a person by their name rather than a generic term such as ‘mate’ then they are much more likely to behave. If we show them respect, they are more likely to reciprocate. Spend time each meeting getting to know individuals. Try and understand their home situation, their school life, the pressures they are under. The more we know them, the easier our relationships become.
4. their agenda, not ours It is easy amidst the busyness of leading to forget that we are there for the young people’s sake and to invest in their lives. Getting through what we have prepared for each session should be of secondary importance to that of relationship building. So we need to make sure that what we do is tailored to the young people we serve.
5. give young people a role Sometimes those who misbehave the most are leaders in waiting. They are the group leaders, or group influencers at least, and perhaps you can channel the negative energy into something positive. Give them responsibility for running a game, leading a discussion, taking a register. Whatever it is, giving them a role helps with their self esteem and may help them to view the group in a different, more positive way.
What systems have you developed to cope with difficult behaviour? What do you find hardest to do? Please leave a comment below.