Understanding Teens and Their Emotional Bank Accounts

Disclaimer – I write “Leadership Moments” for the volunteers at my church who work in the youth ministry. Each Leadership Moment is meant to equip the everyday youth worker with the knowledge and skills they need to disciple teens as best as they can. Because these articles are for people I know personally and meant for my own church and city context, they may not always be relevant to the wider public. However I put them here for anyone who might benefit from their content.

Image source: gottman.com

Image source: gottman.com

Stephen Covey made popular the idea that everyone has an emotional bank account. People feel happy and fulfilled when they have a full account, and they feel depleted and discouraged when their account is overdrawn. The currency that is used is trust. When actions are done to prove a person trustworthy, they build equity with us. When actions are done that prove a person untrustworthy, they lose equity. It’s a simple metaphor that makes a lot of sense.

As youth workers, we can put this analogy to good use. Our job is to disciple students and help them along in their walk with Christ. This requires relationships. But any good relationship of influence is built over time. So if we take seriously our call to impact the lives of teens, then we must also take seriously the need for us to build their trust.

We need students to trust us so that we have an open window to speak into their lives. Teens are skeptical, and often rightly so. They can sniff out fake intentions from a mile away. As youth leaders, we can’t really speak into the life of a young person until we have earned the right to do so. Doing that requires us to make deposits into their emotional bank account.

To give you a more practical idea of how this works, consider some examples of what a deposit might look like:

  • attending their sporting event, music/dance recital, or other significant event
  • taking them out to spend time and talk
  • writing a personal note of encouragement
  • remembering significant things going on in their lives
  • praying with and for them
  • going out of your way to help them in an emergency
  • making yourself available to them
  • helping them find resources they need for a school project or crisis situation
  • listening more than you talk
  • being patient and showing understanding
  • buying them a gift
  • helping them to cope with a situation you know they are uncomfortable with
  • apologizing when we make a mistake

You get the idea. Students want to know we care before they care to hear what we have to say. These are all examples of ways we can make deposits into a teens emotional bank account. We should be intentional about this. Then, when it comes time for us to make a withdrawal, our voice is more likely to be heard.

Some examples of withdrawal are:

  • calling a student out on something they did wrong
  • creating a higher level of expectation for them
  • requiring them to be accountable to you in some way
  • challenging their thinking on a specific subject
  • refusing to tolerate behaviour that is unacceptable
  • exercising forms of “tough love”
  • accidentally letting them down

Withdrawals are only successful if there are enough funds already there to use. Consider this illustration.

Susan is a teen who is in her third year of youth group. She professes to follow Christ but lately her behaviour has been going south. She’s dating a non-Christian guy, skipping school, and has taken up smoking. Lisa is a youth leader who just started volunteering 2 months ago. She takes it upon herself on a Wednesday night to confront Susan in the hallway after youth group and point out her sinful actions and challenge her to truly follow Christ. As a result, Susan storms out and stops coming to youth group altogether.

It is not hard to see what is wrong with this scenario. Lisa’s intentions as a youth leader were probably good—she wanted to see Susan stop going down a path that would take her away from Christ and towards a life of destruction. But her actions were too intense and too soon. She had not yet built up the relational capital with Susan to speak into her life. She had not developed a level of trust first. As a result, Lisa took it as an attack from a stranger who she wasn’t convinced actually cared about her and walked away.

Now, let’s try this scenario over again, applying better wisdom.

In her 2 months, Lisa has noticed some of the negative things going on in Susan’s life. She wants to help her but also realizes the two barely even know each other. Lisa decides to ask Susan if she’d like to meet up for coffee on the weekend to get to know one another. She also talks to Brittany, another youth leader who has been there for a while and has a past history with Susan. Lisa asks Brittany about the situation and tries to get some background info on Susan, and also decide that they will keep in contact with each other about how she is doing.

See the difference?

In scenario one, Lisa’s heart was in the right place but she had not built up the level of trust it takes to have a confrontation like the one she had. She attempted to make a withdrawal before she had bothered to make any deposits, and ultimately found things went bankrupt. In scenario two, Lisa tries to begin to make some deposits that she can leverage later down the road, and also leans on Susan’s current relationship with Brittany the primary source of impact.

The point is this: if we want to have the kind of impact on students that make a difference in their lives, it means we are going to have to personally invest in them first.

Homework Assignment

  1. What is a recent example (past 6 months) of you making a deposit into a student’s life? What is a recent example of you making a withdrawal?
  2. Name one student you intend to make relational deposit into this summer. How you do intend to do that?

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