Dealing with Difficult Teens.

We all have had them, perhaps have them, perhaps they come home with us after youth group.  Teens who have a certain disposition or character traits that just rub us in a “nails on chalkboard” type of way.  Sometimes its their high energy, or high attention needs, but as youth workers these youth burn us out quickly.  From my time working with children with developmental disabilities and adolescence in a group home I have come up with a few tips to help you cope with and overcome the difficulty you experience with these teens (and sometimes difficult parents as well).

Imago dei

Gen. 1:27 
God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.
 Ps. 139:13-16
For you created my inmost being; 
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; 
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. 
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 
your eyes saw my unformed body. 
All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. 
Everyone you see is the Handiwork of God.   The difficulty is that sin (ours, theirs and humanities) obscures this image and sometimes distorts our perspective of the individuals we work with.

Ask others who work well with that teen.  When I encounter a difficult individual, I earnestly ask God to show me what about them is made in their image and to help me see them with the understanding and vision that God sees them as.

Seek others vision

Sometimes I have difficulty with figuring the above part out on my own.  However, there seems to be someone I can normally find that gets along really well with them.  I try to figure out what qualities  that other person is attracted to or identifies with so I can hopefully bridge that gap.  You can either ask the other person (especially if its another adult on your ministry team), or hang out with them in a group and see where their conversation goes naturally.  This may open the door for you to understand this difficult teen.

Rotate staff

Sometimes, you can see what’s good there, but this individual is just a high need/high attention seeking teen.  This may be due to their behaviors or that they always have the need to be seen and heard by adult leaders (or prefer them over hanging out with other teens).

  • First, there probably is a reason they like adults more than teens, you can explore this with them on an individual basis as the occasion arises.
  • Second, communicate with other staff about this, they may be feeling the same thing.  Intentionally having people come in and join the conversation so you can see to the many other needs in your ministry.
  • Rotating off and onto different people helps: a) give that person attention b) increase the stamina of the team to be able to cope with the individual without getting worn down.  Getting worn down by this individual is a common precursor to snapping or making a “witty comeback” that only destroys the individual who has high needs and your ability to minister.   
  • NEVER, simply say, go away, or why don’t you talk to someone else in a dismissive way, but encourage them to develop relationships with other leaders.   This may be a way to develop rapport with the teen, but also link them with an adult who shares similar interests.  Rotating staff should be minimally noticeable for the individual involved, the more organic it feels, the better.
  • Linking adults and teens with the same affinity also may help reduce the burden of people seeking you out for all their emotional/relational needs.  It also engages the leaders in their passion areas, increasing their need for involvement and sense that they are actually making an impact in teens life (reduces leader burnout-dropout).


Barnabas is known as the son of encouragement (Acts 4:36), he is well known for his taking a dysfunctional youth, rejected by more prominent church leaders, under his wing (Acts 15:39) and mentoring him (Mark) into becoming one of the few individuals Paul summons to his deathbed (2Tim. 4:11).  Barnabas’ ability to stick through and encourage this young man, enabled Mark to become a mature Christian believer who later became useful and an intrinsic part of Paul’s ministry.  Note: Judging by dating letters this process took YEARS to complete, it wasn’t a short process, but eventually because of Barnabas’ support of this young man, Mark was able to overcome his early failures.  (Perhaps it is the same for the difficult person in your life).

Find a ‘home’ for them 

Consider it a blessing to have them.  Seriously.  Looking at it positively may help you find a way for the person to contribute to the needs of the group.  Sometimes the key to helping a difficult person is to help them feel wanted and fit into the scheme of how things work in your group.  (this will come with road-bumps).  Finding a place where they feel involved and that they are contributing (this may even seem like a trivial task to you) may help dissipate the anxiety/underlying conditions that are causing this person to seem ‘difficult’ for you.

Realize most change happens:

Working with these individuals, while hard, can often spur the most meaningful change in you, them and others.  Change occurs (remember Barnabas) under several circumstances:

  • Out of conflict

    •  Conflict can help cause growth.  Growth in you and others.  Helping someone change, and seeing how the difficult person effects you can point to trouble spots and areas of growth that you need in your life as well.
  • With time

    •  New behaviors take several weeks to years to develop.  Most major theories of change involve many different stages.  For instance the Trans-Theoretical Model of change involves precontemplation (don’t know one needs to change), contemplation (contemplating change), choosing an action, doing the action, maintenance of change, and relapse.  Note that relapse is in the cycle and can happen anywhere.  This helps us develop empathy with the struggling teen.
  • With patience, endurance & persistence

    •  When dealing with relapse and difficult teens, recognizing that relapse is a natural part of change can help alleviate your discomfort with this difficult person.  This takes the responsibility off of you for their failure and helps you work with the individual move further down the road.
    • People often fear messing up as a set back and failure, but if relapse is explained as a natural process of growth, they can be better encouraged to “get back on the horse” and stop beating themselves up for not maintaining perfect behavior.   Paul addresses this failure in Romans 7:13-25.
  • Helpful questions to ask:

    • How did you make it that far?  (be encouraging) (ie wow, most people only make it (state a time less than they made it) the first time they try not to do (a behavior), I’m impressed, keep up the good work).   Stress the duration of success rather than the instance of failure.
    • What caused you to mess up? — move to… now you know where the pothole is.  You can avoid it next time… (empathy:  I think that’s where I mess up too, its not easy, but with practice we can avoid that one…).
    • What do you think you can do instead?


At the end of the day:
  •  We have a high priest in Jesus we can rely on.  He put up with difficult, even obtuse people too (Heb. 4:14-15).  
  • Some of these difficult people may be angels sent to teach us specific lessons (Heb. 13:2)
  • The Holy Spirit is here to counsel us (Jn. 14:26).
  • We have not arrived (Phil. 3:12-14), how dare we hold people up to a place they have yet attained (Phil. 3:16).  
  • Consider it joy when we face difficulty (James 1:2).
  • God gives us wisdom and is faithful to us when we ask Him (James 1:5). 
  • We are more than conquerors, and already have victory in Christ (Romans 8:36-39).   

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