Recently a very normal thing happened. A teen in one of my groups made a “joke” at the expense of two other group members. The “joke” came during a team-building game that this particular group begs to play every time we meet. The next week, I went to the student’s school to talk more since this was not the first time we had disagreed about the line between a joke and an insult.
Me: Do you know why I wanted to come talk to you?
16 y/o: (shrugs) I dunno?
Me: Do you remember what happened last time the group met?
16 y/o: Oh that? Yeah… but Miss, you just took what I said too seriously…
If I had a dollar for every time a teenager told me I was taking them too seriously, being too sensitive, or didn’t understand because I felt the need to address negative comments they had made about others… Well, I could probably work for free. But I love the conversation that follows, so bring it on teens! Tell me I’m wrong!
First I responded (as I often do) by asking if he understood why the “joke” was something I thought he shouldn’t have said even if he disagreed. As I’ve mentioned, I think teenagers are much smarter than people give them credit for, so this approach generally gets me to the point pretty quickly.
16 y/o: I guess because you think it was an insult, but Miss, that’s just how we joke around!
Ah, there it is. Here is where we can discuss intentions and feelings and get to the good stuff. I say how teachers, parents and peers may have their own expectations, but how mine are different for a reason. I want to create a safe space, I say. I remind the poor teen(s) that I am a social worker, so I like to say things like “safe space” and talk about feelings. But then I take a step back and explain that in all seriousness, the reason I want them to feel safe and comfortable is because I honestly care about them. And because I want them to get what they want from the group experience and not be limited by anxiety, fear of embarrassment, etc.
After all, I remind them, I would have this same conversation with any of the other students in the group if they made a negative comment about them. At this point, depending on how engaged in the conversation the student has been (because I swear it doesn’t come across like the lecture it may sound like), I sometimes bring it back to their own experience.
Me: Has anyone ever said anything to you that you know they meant as a joke, but when you went home it upset you? Or you wondered if they really meant it?
16 y/o: Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.
Me: I don’t want you to have to worry about that happening when you come to my group. And I don’t want anyone else to worry about that either.
16 y/o: Okay, yeah…. yeah, I see that. I get it.
And I think he did in that moment. But if I have to have this conversation with him again next week, that’s fine too.
On a somewhat tangential, but sort of related note: a couple of weeks ago, one of my 14 year-old clients (with whom I have had a conversation nearly identical to the one above) told me: “Miss, I want to call you ProcessRecorded from now on because ‘Miss’ makes it seem like you’re our teacher.” Given the tone of voice she used to say the word teacher, I decided that I must be doing something right. (No offense to my awesome teacher friends/Mom!)