We’ve all had it happen.
You’re leading a group of teens on a weekend retreat. Let’s say you’ve got 25 teens and six adults (in addition to yourself) attending. You’ve been planning this trip for months. You have made reservations at a beach house, completed all the necessary background checks, filled out all the paperwork, and prepared all the necessary lessons. In a meeting prior to the retreat, you clearly state the rules and expectations for behavior for the young people and adults attending. In this meeting, you also make it clear what will happen when rules are broken and consequences are necessary.
Now, it’s finally the day! You get to the beach house, teens and adults find their rooms and you find yourself settling into the schedule. Your adults are where they are needed, and you have a moment of joy as things seem to be going well.
It’s time for lights out. You have settled into bed for some quiet reading when there is a knock at the door. You open it to find one of your adult leaders standing there with two teenagers. They’ve snuck out of their rooms and have been caught.
You know these teens. One of them is a well-behaved kid with great respect for the rules. The other, well, they have been known to get in trouble from time to time.
What do you do when rules are broken and consequences are necessary?
Disciplining our young people can be challenging, especially if you are like me and really hate hurting people’s feelings. But, as leaders of teens, we know consequences are a necessity.
We know discipline is needed to keep our young people safe, to help keep order in a world where things can easily run toward chaos, and to help teens feel loved.
When faced with disciplining our teens there are some things to keep in mind.
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Were the rules clear?
Did the established rules cover the given scenario? Were the rules clearly communicated? Were consequences set and clear?
The first week of August was our first annual Youth Week. We had a week packed with events and service opportunities. To wrap up the week we had our annual lock-in. After all the young people arrived and before the games started, I made sure to sit everyone down and talk about the expectations for the evening.
I made it clear that our adult leaders were in charge, that their word was law, and I would not hesitate to call parents at 3:00 am to come to pick up their child if they could not respect the rules.
One of my high schoolers looked at me then and said, “Ms. Sarah, you always say that, but you never actually do it.”
I looked back at him and said, “That’s because you guys don’t make consequences necessary by breaking rules. Usually, the warning is enough. But if you feel the need to test it…”
Who are the Teens Involved in the Rule Breaking?
While you want to be clear that the rules are understood by the group at large, as leaders we can not ignore the individual. Maybe one teen has broken a rule for the first time. Maybe one teen is notorious for pushing the limit, for stepping out of bounds. Even if they acted together, and even if consequences were made clear, we should not ignore the individual circumstances.
Knowing the motivations behind the behavior can help us as leaders to know how to guide our young people with compassion and curiosity.
Motivations and Applying Necessary Consequences
That said, it can be hard to apply a blanket consequence when keeping the individuals in mind.
Take the above scenario and the two students who snuck out. Maybe one student, known for being a rule-breaker, is dealing with an issue at home. As much as we hope to know our youth well, we might be unaware of this issue. Maybe they have confided in their friend – the friend they snuck out with – the friend known to be a strict rule follower. This is why it is important to know your teens well- their lives, their personalities, their struggles, and their families.
Considering their actions individually is important and may impact the discipline given. However, it is important to apply necessary consequences when rules are broken for all parties to build trust among the group.
One Last Thing When Rules Are Broken
It is never okay to embarrass teens in front of their peers. Punishing a teen without knowing the full situation has the potential to backfire. Teens should never be publicly shamed or embarrassed because of something they have done.
Always discuss the behavior with a young person privately. And always include parents and guardians in these discussions as well. And ALWAYS allow room for God’s love and forgiveness (and yours) to shine through!
Sarah Taylor has been the youth director at Gulf Cove United Methodist Church in Port Charlotte, Florida, since 2017. She has a Master’s Degree in Youth Ministry from Wesley Seminary as well as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She loves books and writing, has a borderline obsession with Harry Potter and Gilmore Girls, and loves Cherry Pepsi. She lives in North Port, Florida, with her 14-year-old cat, Milo.