Brigham Rupp is a full-time seminary teacher in Gilbert, Arizona. He’s served as elders quorum counselor, executive secretary, stake Sunday School, and currently serves as bishop. He served a mission in Chicago, Illinois and shares many of his scriptural thoughts at The Silver Grey. You can find more from Brigham at Leading Saints in his powerful lessons article and “How I Lead” podcast episode.
Serving and connecting with the youth of the Church is a sacred stewardship and one of the greatest joys of Church leadership. I’m no expert in adolescence, but I have noticed a few patterns in the past decade of daily interaction with young people. I hope there is something here that sparks a prompting and helps you in your efforts with the youth.
1. Remember what it was like
As adulthood advances and we grow further and further from adolescence, we forget what those years were like and how they felt, but nothing will destroy your relationship with a young person quicker than dismissing something that is important to them. It’s true, in the long run it won’t matter much that Jenny wasn’t asked to prom and that Carter didn’t make the basketball team. Tim will survive a semester without any friends in his lunch period and Lexi should just let it go and do what Mom says. But in their minds and in their worlds, things like these are massive and consequential. Remember how it feels. Mourn their failures and rejoice in their victories with them. When we remember what it was like as a youth, we can be a bit like the Savior who as Alma taught took upon himself our infirmities “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).
2. Take an interest in their lives
Few things will help your relationship with youth more than showing interest in the right thing at the right time. Want to know what’s going on in their lives? Ask. Ask them about their classes and their friends, their interests and activities. Don’t interrogate; if they sense some ulterior motive, they may clam up. But most will share if they can tell that you are genuinely interested. Following youth on social media, especially Instagram, is a great way to see what they are up to. Show up to the game or recital. When you see them on Sunday, ask how the dance went Friday night or how the SAT went on Saturday.
3. Know their world but don’t inhabit their world
To relate to youth, it’s important to understand some of their world. What are they watching and listening to? What apps are they using to communicate? What games are they playing? What new jargon are they using? What other trends are they trying to keep up with? For most adults, they could work really hard and only scratch the surface of the teenage realm. But be warned, they will not respect you if you try to be a teenager. it can be tempting but it doesn’t work. On one hand, they will dismiss you if you are out of touch. But the will also lose respect if you are talking, dressing, and acting too much like them. They want to have a world of their own. That’s why they make up their own language, trends, and practices. There is a nice middle ground where you show that you are in touch but not a wannabe. Keep a finger on the pulse and from time to time pop their little bubble and remind them that you aren’t clueless. But don’t live in the bubble. You bless them more as a mentor and an exemplar than as a friend and peer.
4. Be open and honest
Young people are so used to getting the run-around or even being lied to that they may be skeptical or taken aback at first, but if you set a standard of honesty and openness, they will come to respect and even savor it. Young people are hungry for the truth and mature enough to receive it. Tell them. That doesn’t mean we should be too open or brutally honest about everything, but foster an environment where they feel comfortable asking their questions and give them honest answers in return. The most important honest answer is often “I don’t know.” When you don’t know, say you don’t know. This may be the most important honest answer of all. Elder Ballard taught, “Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, “Don’t worry about it!” Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.”
5. Shower them with encouragement and honest praise but use criticism and correction sparingly
There are so many reasons to criticize and correct young people. Most of the time it simply won’t help. Catch them being good. Praise them for the goodness and encourage them unceasingly. Build them up. Remind them who they are and why they are here. The vast majority of teenagers, while they may seem like the poster children for pride and arrogance, don’t need any extra help from us to feel small and inadequate. often, pride and arrogance we see on the surface is an attempt to cover insecurities anyway. Build their confidence. There are times when they need to be corrected. when correction is necessary and it’s in your stewardship, don’t be too cowardly to give it. But think of correction as a vaccination, to be administered at very calculated times, with a calculated dose, through a calculated method. As a rule, praise in public and correct in private. Remember the Savior’s counsel: “if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). For an in depth study of proper criticism and correction, see Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-44.
6. Treat them as individuals
Want to alienate a young person? Compare them to someone else or talk about them generally as if they are all the same. They’re not, yet we so often talk and act as if they are. They are dying to prove their individuality. Recognize and appreciate it. Elder Holland taught, “Try not to compare your children, even if you think you are skillful at it. You may say most positively that “Susan is pretty and Sandra is bright,” but all Susan will remember is that she isn’t bright and Sandra that she isn’t pretty. Praise each child individually for what that child is, and help him or her escape our culture’s obsession with comparing, competing, and never feeling we are “enough.”
7. Honor their agency
You can’t use Satan’s methods to do God’s work! You will never force anyone to change. So don’t try. More subtle, but so valuable is the practice of giving young people options. They are growing up and seeking independence. They crave nothing more than using their agency. Give them as many opportunities to use their agency as you can. I try, as often as possible to present them with a choice rather than giving them an order. This works wonders. Elder Bednar has taught repeatedly, “In the grand division of all of God’s creations, there are things to act and things to be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:13–14). As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we have been blessed with the gift of agency—the capacity and power of independent action. Endowed with agency, we are agents, and we primarily are to act and not only to be acted upon.”
8. Trust them to meet high expectations
Most young people will rise or descend to whatever expectations you set. if you expect them to be lazy and casual, they will. If you expect them to rely on you for everything, they will. If you expect them to work hard and be responsible for their activities and learning, they will. They will usually meet our expectations once firmly established. Have high expectations. As a group, the young people of the Church today are incredibly faithful and capable. President Henry B. Eyring taught:
The spiritual strength sufficient for our youth to stand firm just a few years ago will soon not be enough. Many of them are remarkable in their spiritual maturity and in their faith. But even the best of them are sorely tested. And the testing will become more severe. The youth are responsible for their own choices. But as faithful parents, teachers, leaders, and friends, we shore up the faith of young people. And we must raise our sights… The pure gospel of Jesus Christ must go down into the hearts of young people by the power of the Holy Ghost. It will not be enough for them to have had a spiritual witness of the truth and to want good things later. It will not be enough for them to hope for some future cleansing and strengthening. Our aim must be for them to become truly converted to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ while they are young.
9. Pray for charity
Sometimes working with young people can be really hard. Sometimes the ones who need our help the most are the hardest to love. Sometimes all we can do is pray for help. In Moroni 7:48, Moroni says to “pray with all the energy of your heart” that we can be filled with charity. It works. When all else fails, pray for that person by name, and pray for charity. Elder Dale G. Renlund taught recently, “To effectively serve others we must see them through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we begin to comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the love that Heavenly Father has for all of His children. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. Only when we see through Heavenly Father’s eyes can we be filled with ‘the pure love of Christ.'”