The Teens Are Coming! Creating Empathy Through Staff Training

One of the first questions I was asked as a professional was, “Do you like teens?” I responded in the affirmative, and heard, “Oh, thank goodness” with an audible sigh of relief. I wondered why so many people I spoke with not only avoided working with teens, but seemed to fear it. Teens are not radioactive. You can’t contract Teenageritis as a sort of communicable disease. In fact, despite all of the stress of those years, I kind of miss the elasticity that my brain had.

So what are people so afraid of?

Our collective social consciousness has branded teens as rebels, hooligans, troublemakers, and sex fiends since the teen years were really defined in the 1950s.

GASP! Rebel youth! Girls in pants! Pompadours! THE END OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION!

In society, teens are seen as lazy, tired, sloppy, drug-dealing, sex-having, completely unpredictable creatures. I remember being afraid of teenagers as a sort of remote monolith when I was a kid. To me, all teens had knives and drugs and were liable to commit random acts of violence at any moment. No one explicitly told me this–I internalized it from what I saw on TV and how I saw other people acting.

But look, ma! Now I love working with teens! So what changed? What do we need to change in our staff–coworkers, reports, and administration–in order to best serve our teens?

We need to teach and demonstrate empathy. Don’t just appeal to the fact that everyone was once a teenager. While factually true, the experience of being a teen today compared to even five years ago is very different. Most adults have no idea what teens go through on a daily basis, not only from their peers, but also from authority figures and their own self-doubts and criticism.

In response to difficulties at my library regarding teen behavior and how staff reacted to that behavior, I created a training on providing great customer service to teens. This consisted of a short YouTube segment, a presentation, and an interactive activity. The training only takes about 50 minutes to complete, and staff responded very positively to the sessions that I held.

First, I showed this video on teen brain development to demonstrate that a lot of this behavior has a biological component, and they literally cannot help being loudly enthusiastic or stunningly surly sometimes. We don’t expect anything more or less of our teen patrons than we do of any others–they need to follow library rules. What may differ is how often we need to enforce the rules and the strategies we use to do so.

For example, during storytime, the library is generally very busy due to a combination of lots of people and the fact that most of those people are small, with low impulse control and loud voices. Patrons who come in during those times are generally aware that the library is not going to be silent. Similarly, after school, larger people with low impulse control and loud voices come into the library. While their volume should never be at a point where they are distracting others, we should consider that after school, they are hungry and full of pent-up energy. Plus, teens usually have to talk over tons of other people in order to be heard, so their volume level is naturally higher.

In developing your training, consider what issues are specific to your teens and their behavior in the library. For me, it was running, loud talking, and swearing. You might have some very … romantic teens. Or hungry teens. Whatever it is, make sure those issues are discussed in the training and that participants have a change to discuss how they would respond to those behaviors and why.

Finally, always be positive. Remind staff that teens deserve as high of a level of customer service as any other patron, and that they are our future library stakeholders.
Happy training!


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