Relating to parents in youth ministry is a bit of a loaded issue. I want to be quick to state my assumption–you are a youth minister who would like to better relate to parents. You might have children of your own and you might not. You probably aren’t the parent of a teenager. If so, it is likely that you relate well to other parents of teenagers since they are your peers. It is also likely that you have stopped reading this article by now.
Relating to parents is major important. Much research has affirmed that the relationship between youth and their parent(s) is the primary relationship.
More spiritual impact comes through the parent-child relationship than any other means. Our influence is limited by involvement of either or both. To be effective with parents, as with youth, we have to begin at whatever level the parents are when we are initially invited to be a “person of influence.”
Because parents are probably from a different generation and because you are in between them and your students, let’s start by trying to imagine life as a middle-aged parent. First, it is important to know that adults and youth are wired differently. Adults are cautious (based on life experience) where teenagers are impulsive risk takers. Adults are oriented to the past where youth only know the present or imagine the future. Adults are realistic where students are idealistic. Parents may even be a bit cynical about life and people. Content, satisfied, resigned (and desiring) the status quo. After all, they are adults and life has beat them up just a bit.
They want to learn on a need-to-know basis–“How will this information help me today? If it doesn’t, I probably don’t need to know.” They learned to parent from their parents and as middle-agers, they might be struggling with their own identity. Their body aches in places they didn’t know they had places, and they are increasingly aware of their limitations. Some parents try to hold on to their younger years and sometimes that causes problems when they try to live through their son or daughter.
Lest I paint a negative picture of parents for you, I want to remind you why I wrote the last two paragraphs. Parents are people. They are not always sure they are doing the right thing and they do not see as many different teenagers as you do. But they know their child better than you do. Right or wrong, they are probably set in their ways. They may be overprotective and might even hover over everything their student is involved with. That’s why they call them helicopter parents. They might not be Christians and they might not go to church and they might not be the perfect parents. None of us are. But they probably do love their children more than you can imagine. Give them a break. So with the parent profile out of the way, let me suggest four ways to relate to them:
Whether or not we are licensed to practice as a counselor, we will do counseling. We will have conversations with youth, with parents, and with families that are hopefully helpful in guiding them towards a healthier perspective than what they came in with. We should all be honest and quick to know when we are over our head. Issues like use of illegal drugs or alcohol, emotional abuse, anger management issues, pregnancy, or eating disorders should have us reaching for our referral list (which you should prepare before you need it).
Issues you are likely to feel more comfortable with are things like getting past a temporarily difficult time, interpreting what God is doing in their life or coaching in relational difficulties. When you are helping parents or teenagers talk through such remember to communicate warmth. They will know if you are just tolerating their problems. If you have knowledge about their issue, share it. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes.
As a youth minister, you can build relationships with parents by calendaring with them in mind. Be aware of school schedules and avoid scheduling a mid-week concert outing when exams are going on. Be aware of what it takes for parents to get students to a departure time at church. Sometimes you minister by not calendaring. If you are aware that standardized tests (like ACT or SAT) are going to be next Saturday, you minister to parents and earn their favor if you put the car wash fundraiser on another Saturday.
In a busy culture, we need to communicate vision, strategy, and information. There are lots of ways to communicate with parents these days. We communicate through phone calls, e-mails, texting, web pages, social networking, announcements at church and even face-to-face conversations. You will do well to find out the preferred means of communication for your parents (both individually and as a group) and use it. If you are trying to get the word out about an event, remember the journalist’s questions: who? what? why? when? where? how? Spread information in as many ways as you need to through parent networking meetings, seminars, newsletters, or event-specific publicity about youth activities as well as parent events.
Networking is a big buzz word in our culture. I already mentioned having a referral list handy to connect parents with competent and trusted helping agents who can diagnose and treat more serious issues than you are comfortable or qualified to handle. Again, research helping professionals before parents and/or teenagers are in your office in crisis.
You can also connect parents with community events that speak into issues that they are or might be facing. Try to be aware of good books, web pages, or other resources
that would be helpful. For example, The Center for Parent Youth Understanding (www.cpyu.org) is one of the best resources for cultural topics. You will look like a genius when you connect parents to resources that serve as triage to their wounded parenting.