By nature, I am not a positive person. My name may begin with ‘P’ but I’m no Pollyanna. However, when you’re working with the public–especially with teens–you will start to feel overwhelmed by problems. They might be small problems, and they might be huge problems. This isn’t a bad thing–it’s a totally normal situation. However, how we frame these problems in our minds affects how much they affect our mood and attitude when it comes to working through them.
As teen librarians, school librarians, or librarians who make contact with teenagers (if you are in a public library, this means you!), you’re going to face some unique challenges. The main issue I have had to deal with isn’t necessarily teen behavior, but how other adults, be they patrons or coworkers, react to that behavior. For some reason, a strange dichotomy exists when adults think about teenagers. On one hand, they are irritating and sex-crazed and bursting with poor judgement and loud and on and on and on. I’ve heard it all. But on the other hand, adults expect teenagers to behave just like everyone else when they are in public, and especially when they are in the library. Frankly, this makes very little sense to me. If your library also serves wee children (and most libraries do), it’s expected that little ones will cry if they are hungry or if they need changing. It’s expected that toddlers with throw tantrums and run with excitement to their favorite part of the library. I’ve seen other adults comment on how adorable tantrums are, but when it comes to teens laughing together or congregating together, that’s unacceptable.
So, what’s a librarian to do? Well, first and foremost, do not look at these behaviors as completely and irrevocably negative. Even if teens in the library do something that demonstrates absolutely zero judgment, like fighting or prank calling the police (both situations that I have dealt with in the past six months), you can find something positive to say about it. I promise. This is not to say that you should ignore inappropriate and dangerous behavior in favor of seeing the good in everything. But by reminding yourself of some basic, core positive truths, you will be better equipped to deal with daily stress and the people who just don’t realize yet how awesome teenagers are.
Here are some situations you might encounter that your brain automatically categorizes as “negative” or “problematic” or “not ideal,” and then ways to flip your thinking:
Teens are in the library, talking, laughing, messing around. People complain about volume.
Holy cow, do you know how lucky you are? You have TEENS IN YOUR LIBRARY and they feel comfortable being themselves around you. That is fantastic! When I first started working at my current branch, teen sightings were rare. It was a little bit like this:|
Here I was, within walking distance of a high school and two middle schools, and teens were elusive, like bald eagles or something. I tried everything I could during my outreach visits to get them to come into the library. And then this summer? Suddenly, it was an explosion of teenagers. This is where they come after school because they literally do not have anywhere else to go. This is where they come to be with their friends and decompress from school. They have chosen to come to the library. That is pretty darn awesome.
Teens are–heavens above!–eating in the library.
Obviously, you can ignore this if your library allows snackage, but here, essen ist verboten! But remember: 99.99999999999% of the time, teens are not eating just to bite their thumbs at library rules. They have been in school all day and most of them probably don’t pack lunches or eat a decent lunch at school. I have been informed that the cafeterias have even messed up tater tots. I am horrified. How can you mess up tater tots?
The teens see the library as a place to be with friends and refuel after the school day. Now, if your policy does not allow them to eat in the library, enforce it! But do so with kindness and empathy … and then plan lots of programs where you can give them snacks. Do you qualify to get free meals in the summer? Sign up! Many of these teens literally cannot afford meals at school.
Teens are making poor decisions in the library.
Okay, so this is when you have to deal with really not good behavior, and it can be really stressful and irritating and make you cranky. Do not write these teens off. Sit down with them. Explain to them why this is not appropriate behavior, and give them another chance. Never write off teens. They are basically toddlers in large bodies. And then share with other staff why teens make poor decisions (prefrontal cortex not hooked up yet, lizard brain decision-making, etc.) to let them know that it is, quite often, biological, and not entirely out of spite or malice. Generate empathy instead of harboring resentment.
As teen librarians, we are really, really lucky. We get to help these humans develop and grow and push the boundaries of their thinking. Yes, when they push boundaries, they often push the wrong ones. But thinking about how awesome it is that teens think the library is a good place to hang out, or that you are a safe person to talk to–that makes the difference between an experience being negative and positive.