Outward Bound Blog – Tips for working with troubled teens – Part 2


I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of work instructing courses for Voyageur Outward Bound School’s award-winning Intercept Program.

In Part: 2 of this blog entry, I’ve decided to focus on how people react, or respond to one another.

Often times we become so focused on a struggling teens behavior, and how we can create change, that we forget about how we respond.”

It is important to constructively take a look at ourselves, and think critically about how we interact with teens, and how they interact with one another.

Confidence, Patience, and Thick skin
It is an almost instinctual response. We can get defensive, angry, spiteful, when we feel disrespected. We can become aggressive, we assert and demonstrate the power we have. We try to use it to our advantage. Think about ways that you have done this.

Teens can be gutless. With each other, and with you. They can say some pretty horrible things, as can we. I’ve watched as this can escalate quickly. As an Instructor, an authority figure, it is my responsibility to manage this.

Consider this scenario:

Mike and Tom’s jobs for the night are to be camp managers. They need to set up the tents, set up sleeping systems, etc. Mike and Tom have never really been on the same page. They are typically really sarcastic with one another, and actively avoid one another.

But tonight, they have to work together. Oh, and guess what? It’s raining. So they are forced to work together, under pressure, in a time crunch, on a project that fellow team members are going to hold them accountable to. Sound familiar?

After struggling with the tent poles, and arguing with one another simply because the conditions are difficult, it escalates. Tom and Mike get in each others face, yelling at one another. Eventually, Tom runs into the woods, and the tents are left laying on the ground, getting soaked in the rain.

You rush into the woods after Tom, but he has no interest in speaking to you. “Get the hell away from me, leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to talk to anybody!”

What do you do?

In terms of dealing with this situation, there isn’t a right answer. We can only try things. Should we bring them back together and force them to work together and get the tent set up? Does checking in with each of them individually have any value? Do I really need the “whole truth?”

I think, instinctively, we want to rush into the situation, resolve it quickly, and get the tent set up before it gets soaked anymore. But we need to slow down. Let Tom cool off, maybe go chat with Mike, let them vent.

Is it okay that the tent is getting soaked? Definitely. Why? Because Tom and Mike need to learn how to work together. Regardless of the circumstances. This is a natural consequence. Give them space to cool down. Address the issue when there is a little less pressure. De-escalate the situation by having one on one check-ins with each of them. Remind yourself you have time. Wet tents dry out. Food gets cooked and eaten. Eventualities remain eventualities.

In this scenario, we don’t know what was said. Chances are we’ll never know fully, so don’t waste time by trying to figure out all the details. Yes, it is important that they choose not to say something like this in the future, but really, the lesson here is how do we teach Tom and Mike the importance of working together when things get hard. Telling Mike or Tom not to say a certain thing won’t have any sort of long term impact. Re-direct the conversation, focus on why it is so important that we work together. Resist the desire to be “in the loop.”

But, Mike and Tom do need to address what was said. If they feel more comfortable, and have demonstrated an ability to have a constructive conversation, maybe, after you get the ball rolling in terms of constructive conversation, step away. Empower them to address it autonomously. If they are able to resolve it, praise their efforts.

It is almost certain that Mike and Tom will have to work with somebody in the future that they do not like. You, as an authority figure may not like Tom or Mike. But, in my experience, aligning people with a sense of purpose, with a focus on mutual respect, is a good stepping stone. In this situation, we all want dinner, we all want to get out of the rain, so, how can we work towards this together? Mike and Tom may not like one another, but they are dependent on each other, whether they like it or not. Therefore, if we focus on why they need to respect that co-dependency, we can work towards respecting one another, regardless of their differences.

Browse our Intercept programs for struggling youth and discover why Outward Bound is the leader in experiential and outdoor education.

Author: 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 it’s 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.