Navigating difficult conversations with youth

Tips to help you deal with unexpected questions and conversation topics when working with young people.

As the saying goes, “Kids say the darndest things.” As a volunteer in a youth serving program, chances are high that you will be asked a personal question or pulled into a conversation that catches you off guard. Discussions that are difficult to have with your own children can be particularly awkward to have with young people you don’t know as well. Exchanges related to sex, alcohol use, religion, past mistakes and other private information can be difficult at best and inappropriate at worst. So what should you do when the tough topics come up?

First of all, remember you do not have to answer questions immediately. Here are a few helpful phrases to keep in mind:

  • Can I think about this a bit and get back to you?
  • Why are you asking?
  • What are your thoughts?

If you know that you are uncomfortable with the topic, be direct and tell the young person why:

  • I’m not comfortable talking about this because I think it is a conversation that you should have with your parents.
  • You know, I don’t know that I am the best person for you to talk to about that, but let’s brainstorm and think of someone you can talk to.
  • I’m pretty private about these sorts of things and not really comfortable with this conversation.

If you decide to answer a question or engage in a difficult conversation, Michigan State University Extension recommends you tread lightly and let the youth lead the way. Ask the young person questions and think before responding. Remember that the young person is part of a family that may have different values and beliefs than you. You do not want to make statements or suggestions that conflict significantly with family values or that come across as judgmental.

Trust your instincts when deciding whether to proceed in these conversations, and if you decide not to continue, provide a brief explanation. When a young person chooses to confide in you or discuss personal issues, it can be a great sign that you have formed a trusting relationship.

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