Ask an Agent: How Do You Break the Ice with Unruly Teens?

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Question: I am working at an urban branch for a few months and am trying to get to know the teens. However, I am having difficulty because there are quite a few large groups that come in, oftentimes staff/security guards only interact with them when it’s a Code of Conduct violation, and when I try to talk to them I am met with silence or snide comments. I’ve been using sarcasm, which is kind of working, but I need other ideas. For background, these groups of teens are often loud, use inappropriate language (lots of f-bombs, etc.), and travel in large groups. Any thoughts or ideas on how I can at least start conversations with these teens without looking like an out-of-touch adult?

Jenni (South San Francisco Public Library) says:

I would suggest asking them for help on something, like asking what types of apps are most popular to them. This way you can start an innocuous conversation that doesn’t involve correcting them and lets you still be the “out of touch adult” who wants to know them better.

Melissa (Cherry Hill Public Library) says: 

My initial advice is to try to seize opportunities where one of the teens has broken off from the pack. I’ve found a lot more of my more successful (non-program) teen interactions have emerged from one-on-one situations. A lone teen is less likely to “put on a show” for his or her friends and may eventually act as your ambassador to the rest of the group.

Another thing to consider: there are many different ways that teens use libraries. Some come for programs, some for book recommendations, some come for a space to hang out, some come as a quiet place to study. You will be a friend or trusted adult to some of these teens, but you cannot and do not need to be one for all of them. If these large groups of teens just want to hang out and they’re reasonably adhering to the code of conduct, cool — make sure they know your name and that you’re there to help and let it go. Be polite and pleasant, but don’t feel that you need to go out of your way to befriend all of them. Hopefully repetition will lead to familiarity, which can lead to a more meaningful connection.

Michelle (Westwood High School) says: 

First off I am a (60 something) high school librarian in a large, somewhat urban high school of about 3000.  My best advice when getting to know teens (tough-acting or not) is to ask for help… have a “job”. Almost anything, setting up chairs for anything, sharpening pencils, stamping books, it doesn’t matter. They don’t have to be official volunteers to help out. Do they have anything to do once they enter your space? Passive programming like coloring or origami is a good way to channel some of that less than lovely energy and it doesn’t cost much. Ask for advice on collection development- what kinds of books would interest them? Programming ideas you might have seen? I don’t believe sarcasm is a good tactic until they really know you…irony yes, sarcasm no. I smile at teens until my jaw aches. Even the ones I am having some issues with but I don’t accept bad behavior. I have no problem pulling up a chair and telling kids their language is inappropriate always smiling/no judgement while I tell them. It is what it is. Don’t be afraid to ask them to leave for the day but let them know they will be welcomed back tomorrow.  Then go back to smiling and don’t hold a grudge. It takes some time but it works. This article from TSU was spot on!

Sarah A. (Warren-Trumbull County Public Library) says:

My best advice is simply that you can’t force it. Always give them an enthusiastic ‘hi!’ when you pass them, but chances are, they just don’t want to be bothered. If you can become the person who talks to them about their language (hey, guys, I’m really glad you’re here, but you can’t keep using those words if you want to stay), they might grow to see you as an ally, but until then, just keep being friendly. Be the person in the building who doesn’t roll their eyes when they set foot inside, and eventually, you might able to have a conversation with them. Coming from an urban library myself, some kids are there to be involved, while others just need someplace not at home and don’t want to be bothered by adults. You’ll learn to gauge that as you go.



Thanks to our volunteer agents for the awesome answers. If you have a question about anything teen services related ask it here! Your question will be featured on the blog with answers from our agent volunteers or TSU team members. If you’d liked to be a volunteer agent, please submit your info here.

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