What to do about youth group troublemakers

We are told to minister to the group as well as the individual. What do you do when the individual breaks down the community? Parents often think church will be the one place their kid can be welcomed because we have to, but the truth is, if we don't know enough about them or how best to deal with them, then we are not going to be able to fully welcome and include them in the community.

These kids are often in the same boat as the silent kids for me. What is going on that makes community hard for them? Is it about different learning styles, abuse at home, or feeling left out or picked on by others in the group? Are they acting out because they're being forced to come to youth group and they can't get at their parents directly? Do they have a different (or inappropriate) sense of humor? Are they simply immature and not ready to be part of a group like this? Is there a diagnosis like ADHD or autism that affects their behavior and group interaction? Or are they just plain jerks?

Here are some techniques I have used for figuring out to manage a kid who is a disruptive presence.

1. Gathering information 

I have often included questions on behavior in our registration forms. I ask things like

  • Is there anything I need to know about your child?
  • What excites your child? What makes your child scared or uncomfortable?
  • Is your child on any medications? If so, what is it for and when should it be taken?
Simply knowing what is likely to set people off will allow you to arrange the situation better to reduce the chance of disruption.

Speaking of medications, I have found that often it is during evening youth group that kids would normally take a second dose for meds for ADD/ADHD, but parents may wait till they get home, so you and the group deal with the fall off of the drug wearing off. So if you know that a kid is on medication, talk with the family about how to manage that.

2. Meeting management

Here are some techniques I've used during youth group or CnC classes that help manage behavior

  • Always have at least two adults As we all know, there should always be two adults or more at any youth gathering, so one can pull a kid out of the room (not literally, but you know what I mean) to talk through what's going on and how it can change -- or see if they're done for the night
  • Talking plush toy Instead of using a talking stick or ball, I use a talking stuffed animal. Since they toss it at each other, I want to make sure it's something soft. We use a stuffed tomato that is also the group's mascot (in the photo, you can see him marrying Mrs. Strawberry-Tomato).
  • Time at the end for sharing I will often have joke time or show and tell time at the end of the meeting, so if the kids know they will get their time in the spotlight -- IF they hold it together for the rest of the group -- that can help.
  • Stop the action At the minute of the worst trouble, you can stop all that is going on. Turn off the lights. Light a candle. Ask kids to form a circle and focus on the candle. It may take a while for everyone to calm down. You can offer all of them a way to refocus their energy. 

Remember: Many of these kids don't get much down time ever. This can be as important as whatever your planned agenda was for the night. All the kids -- whether they're acting out or not -- will often be grateful for the calm and quiet. I might use the time to talk about how they want youth group to go or life at school or home or just open it up to prayers.

We all need that! Remind the kids they can do this at home too.

3. Checking my own motivations

I often find I don't like a kid or his/her parents. But are they troublemakers or just rubbing me the wrong way? Is this "bad" behavior or simply age-appropriate rambunctiousness? Is this something that I can manage better through classroom management techniques, or is this something where I need to set some limits?

Always remember that you are the adult in the room. So be the adult. When I discover that the issue is with me and not with the kid, then I keep going.

4. Involving others

If a kid is disruptive to the community, I often need to educate the community about how to deal with the troublemaker. These are skills they will need through life. They need to know not to reward bad behavior, not to encourage it or egg it on. Kids need to learn how to call someone out (appropriately) when someone is acting out. They also need to know to speak with an adult about their concerns; often troublemakers can go unnoticed by the adult in a large group.

When someone is really a troublemaker, then I will have a meeting with the kid and parents. Sometimes I will issue a warning: "Next time this happens, you will not be able to come to youth group for [x number of] meetings." Yes, I have done this. Rarely have I had a parent complain, nor have I lost the kid to youth group. I will always give them a second or third try, as it is these kids that need us the most. But maybe it doesn't have to be in the context of a group.

5. Changing the setting

Yes, I try to minister to all. But that does not mean that I have to minister to all at the same time. Maybe a group setting simply won't work. Maybe I will go out for ice cream with a troubled youth. Or get them involved in other areas of parish ministry or local ministry. Maybe youth group is not for them, and there's nothing wrong with that.

As you can tell by all the "maybes" in this post, this is not a situation with one simple solution. And sometimes you're not going to be able to resolve everything. You're not going to like everyone. You're not going to work well with everyone. That's just how it is. Some people are out to cause trouble, and some people push our buttons. Youth ministry isn't easy. But do the best you can, knowing that God loves these kids even when you can't!