A week later one of their dads went ballistic. He literally screamed at me for my irresponsibility, for threatening his daughter’s life (yes, that’s what he said). In no uncertain terms, the dad of this core church family told me his daughter would never, ever, under any circumstances, attend another event that I lead. (Actually, the whole time he was yelling at me, I was thinking: “Dude, we were on a mission trip in an extremely poor community in Mexico! The paint thinner should be the least of your worries!”)

You’ve probably experienced an angry parent, or a parent who treats you with suspicion, or one who simply avoids you. But while Ballistic Dad, with the paint thinner daughter, may have been overreacting and responding in a less than helpful way, his motive was clear: “I’m afraid for my daughter.”

Most of us in youth ministry got into this because we like teenagers. You probably didn’t get started because you thought to yourself: “I really feel called to interact with parents of teenagers.” But effective youth and children’s work necessarily includes working with parents: communicating, responding, counselling and advising, and sometimes equipping. Sometimes this can be fun and rewarding, when parents are supportive and responsive. But the honest truth is that youth and children’s work sometimes includes working with parents who are not supportive and responsive.

I’ve blown it more times than I can count or remember when it comes to interacting with a feisty or frustrated parent. But along the way, I’ve slowly learned that there is one perspective, one mindset I can choose to adopt, that makes all the difference in the world.

An attitude of curiosity will take you a long way in working with parents of teenagers

Several years ago, a consultant was helping the leadership team of the ministry training organisation I was a part of to grow in our effectiveness as a group. We all loved what we were doing, and loved the youth workers we served. And, to an external observer, looking at the surface level stuff, it would have been easy to assume that we worked together brilliantly. But there was an undercurrent of mistrust between some of us. That mistrust, we discovered, was often rooted in wrong assumptions about the other’s motives. Our consultant pointed this out (rather bluntly!) and spent time working with us on developing an attitude of curiosity. The idea behind this is that anytime someone does something, or says something, they are motivated by a ‘positive intent’. That doesn’t mean that the intent is inherently good. It could be born out of insecurity, a grasp for power, or any number of other not so good places. But the person still has something they hope to get (even if it’s subconscious) from their behaviour or comment.

I learned that, when one co-worker made a dismissive comment about an idea, I could adopt a curious perspective about his motivation. And when I did that, I could often see that his insecurity was playing an active role. That gave me a completely different set of options in terms of response. Instead of getting my buttons pushed and reacting with defensiveness (which never helped in the slightest), I could ask, calmly and with affection: “Why would you say that won’t work?” or: “What’s behind that reaction?”

When I made a sarcastic and diminishing comment, my other team members learned to look beyond the annoying behavior to my ‘positive intent’, which usually had something about longing for respect (yeah, I know, my behaviour was destructive to my own desires).

This attitude of curiosity will take you a long way in working with parents of teenagers. This is particularly true when parents are stand-offish, dismissive or combative. But it’s even helpful when parents are overly compliant or creepy-gushy in their support.

Hear me on this: I’m not suggesting we manipulate parents by looking for their deeper needs in order to exploit them. I’m suggesting that, if we want to be bearers of the grace of God, if we want to stop reacting defensively, if we want to de-fang the sometimes strained relationships youth workers can have with parents, we need to adopt an attitude of curiosity. Bottom line: a curious perspective will change you, and restructure the relationship you can have with parents.