Tips For Working with Troubled Teens

Re-published from the Voyageur Outward Bound School blog. 

Programs for Troubled Teens and At-Risk Youth

I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of work instructing courses for Voyageur Outward Bound School’s award-winning Struggling Teens & Young Adults Program. I’ve also had the privilege, if you want to call it that – I do, of learning from teens who challenge the status quo. This sometimes manifests itself as troublesome behavior– disrespect, breaking trust, self-harm, you name it.

DISCLAIMER: These tips aren’t based in any formal research. They are based on my experience and the lessons I’ve learned as a Field Instructor with VOBS, and as an Outdoor Educator in general.

I’ve decided to break this entry down into three parts, with the first focusing on how to work with teens who display or embody a sense or arrogance, coupled with ignorance. Many times, an Outward Bound Struggling Teens & Young Adults course focuses on community. We teach skills so that a group of individuals can learn to work in harmony with one another, recognize and learn how we affect one another. Here are some tips on how I’ve done this in the field. 

Arrogance and Ignorance vs. Transparency and Authenticity
We are all familiar with traditional teenage ignorance and arrogance. Often times it feels as if they believe the world revolves around them and what they want to do. This manifests itself in many different ways– self-centeredness, sometimes-narcissistic tendencies, and dishonesty. Simply telling them what to do, or to think, doesn’t work. This is a common speed bump in working with troubled teens. We get caught up in what we want them to think, and how we want them to change and grow. But teenagers have an incredible knack for knowing when they aren’t being treated “like an adult”. They rebel against it. Some authority figures may have experienced a never-ending cycle of being asked “why?” Why do I have to do that? Why is that important? Why should I care? Think about how many times the response to those inquiries is “because I said so!”

Understandably, often times we can be at our wits end. But teenagers are constantly in search of direction, of answers, whether they act like it or not. So be transparent. If you can’t answer those “why” questions yourself, then its probably time to re-evaluate what you’re asking them to do.

Consider this scenario:

Instructor: “Sarah, can you please go fill up the pots with water and prep for dinner?”

Sarah: “Why? Get somebody else to do that, I’m busy.”

Instructor: “You don’t look busy. Come on Sarah, I asked you nicely. Please go get the water.”

Sarah: “No! I don’t want to.” 

This type of situation can escalate quickly, and it is all too common. As an authority figure, we’re being clear about how we’re asking for something, rather than being transparent about why it needs to happen. If you can align yourself and a teen with the purpose of a task they may feel empowered, or a part of something, rather than being undermined and bossed around. How you say something can be your greatest ally or worst enemy. Teens don’t want to be treated like teens.

Consider this next scenario:

Instructor: “Sarah, can you grab the pots and fill ‘em up? We need them to prep for dinner.”

Sarah: “Get somebody else to do that, I’m busy.”

Instructor: “OK, well come on over anyway, let’s chat real quick.”

—walk down to the water—

Instructor: “I know it sucks that we have to do all these time consuming chores, but its important that we get food in our bellies. We have a long day of travel tomorrow. Plus, as soon as we get all of our camp chores done, we can chill, eat a hot meal, and get to sleep earlier.”

Fill the pots up with water together

Sarah: “I just hate doing all this, it is so much stuff, and I’m tired.”

Instructor: “I know, right? I’m pretty tired too, but I know a good meal will help me feel better. What do you say we go get dinner started?” 

So what’s different? Notice the we vs. you language. This type of language can have a great impact on minimizing power struggles. It is collective language vs. isolating language. Also, there is much more patience and transparency. The instructor is clear about why they need to get water. They also don’t get defensive when Sarah pushes back against the request, instead, they are patient.

This is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT, and takes intentional practice. The instructor also did the chore with Sarah. Demonstrating the simplicity, value, and necessity of the task. The instructor also acts with compassion and speaks with Sarah from an empathetic standpoint. Compare this to the authoritative, and insensitive approach from the first scenario.

Now, I’m not saying this will always work, or that there won’t be push back. If we try to be consistent with our language; patient when it comes to peoples responses; and are willing to empathize and be authentic with each other, we can make incremental improvements by building a relationship.

If we offer real answers to tough questions, rather than masking or hiding from the truth, its another building block. If we’re clear about why we do things, and offer to help during the process, it is another building block. Sometimes we get frustrated, annoyed, or offended by a teen’s behavior. If we act on that, things often get worse. If we’re patient, thick-skinned and authentic, we can not only appeal to the teenage brain, but we become better leaders, and more importantly, compassionate human beings.


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Troubled Teens Program InstructorAuthor: Jack Hilbrich

Jack is passionate about Leadership, Education, and the Outdoors. As a result, he has chosen to pursue Outdoor and Experiential Education in all of its facets. After completing a NOLS semester course, Jack has earned two degrees in Outdoor Education. An Associates from Colorado Mountain College, and a BS from the University of New Hampshire. He began working for Outward Bound in 2010.