What Youth Work Demands of Us

I write about working with youth on here all the time in a general way, but I’ve been working with a young woman this fall, and it’s having a profound affect on me that I did not anticipate. (This image is an anonymous image of a teen from the internet, not the young woman I’m working with.)

I worked with this young woman this summer as her job supervisor, basically, at this awesome summer camp. She was working with little kids and she was wonderful at it. And every time she saw me, she would smile and start laughing and then give me the most wonderful hug. Those hugs pretty much made my life this summer. So when I discovered that I would be tutoring her the whole school year through the Simon Scholar program, I was overjoyed.

But what I forget over and over is that lots of people–me included–put on a pretty good show in the outside world. And as I started to work with this young woman more and more this semester, I’ve come to understand that she has A LOT going on with her family. She is “supposed” to be filling out college applications and preparing to leave them behind next fall, but for many reasons, this is a very challenging step for her.

And there’s not much I can do to make it easier. When someone has a problem, my first instinct is always to fix it, to make it better, to ease the pain. So that they don’t have to go through what I did. But sitting with her yesterday while she cried, I realized that I had no idea what to do. There was nothing I could say that would make her situation any easier. And what advice could I give her? Really, what experience have I gleaned from life that could actually be of use to her? None, really. Because here is the truth: every one at the end of the day has to live her life for herself. We all have to make our own choices and find our own path. And any advice I could have given her would have come from my own discomfort and need to fix it.

So I just sat there. I didn’t know what to do or what to say, but I could sit there and love her and bear witness to her struggle. So that’s what I did. And it was the second time this fall that I’ve done so with her.

There are all kinds of ways to mess it up when working with kids who are struggling. Laying your own pain at their feet because they trigger you is one. Giving false advise. Ignoring what is going on. I’m sure there are tons of others. Victoria Sammartino wrote a wonderful poem about youth work that lays out a few.

But I’ve discovered something about just sitting there with her: and it’s that it’s really hard. It’s really personally hard. And not just because I can’t do anything to really change her situation. And I know that any advice I could give would be bad advice. I sit there with her while she cries. I see her hurting and I hurt for her. And then I get home, and somehow I have become more open to myself. And all of the things that are hurting me most deeply that I shove down beneath where I have access to them come bubbling to the surface and I can’t hide from myself.

So I guess this is what youth work really demands of us: that we be willing to really sit with a child’s pain and be present to them without trying to trivialize it or “fix” it superficially. And that we take the consequences with grace: that we will, therefore, be forced to sit with ourselves. Isn’t it interesting that being really present to another person means that we can’t hide from ourselves?


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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3 Responses to What Youth Work Demands of Us

  1. Liz Parrott says:

    Pam, sitting with me was exactly what I needed when I was a kid. It’s a huge gift you’re giving her by sitting with her. A gift no one ever gave me because I couldn’t open up enough, even to myself. While I raised my son, I tried very hard to address his needs rather than my needs. That’s what you’re doing with the young woman. She probably has plenty of people in her life who address their needs through her. You may be the only person who’s listening to what she needs.

  2. pamwatts says:

    I hope it helps a little, at least. Thanks Liz.

  3. Susan says:

    You are special in the lives of all these young people I know. And I suspect you could give great advice, since you may have been there. When talking to my young people, I just emphasize that loving them is not a condition of taking my advice! Giving them choices – things they may not have thought of can be of value. It took me a long time to realize that there were other ways of doing things than the way my parents taught me. REalizing that there were other options for me was a most freeing experience!

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