Introverts are said to make up a third of the U.S. population, so there’s a good chance a handful are in your group. Their unique personalities bring a lot of value to a student ministry. They’re sensitive to the needs of others. They’re observant. They’re sponges for knowledge. They’re aware of other’s needs that are otherwise unnoticed. They perceive the true atmosphere of your group. And if given the opportunity, they could probably blow away your whole group with a profound answer.
Here are 15 tips for doing ministry with introverted teens.
1) If possible, allow them to enter a space first. Let them have some time in the room alone to adjust before others enter. This way it becomes “their space” that others are entering.
2) If you’re the person there they know best, stay close by. If you have to go somewhere or do something, invite them to go with you or help you. If they came with a friend, try not to separate them.
3) Prepare something for them to do. We try to always have a project set up as people arrive for youth group that allows everyone to express themselves through creativity or activity. This gives introverts a non-threatening environment that invites them to interact once they’re ready. This is a lot more effective than having unstructured hang time as people arrive, which puts pressure on people to rely on their social skills (or lack thereof) to interact.
4) Give them space. Let them adjust to their surroundings before approaching them. Let them retreat if they need space. Give them an “out.” In other words, if they start shifting around uncomfortably as you’re speaking to them, find a reason to excuse yourself kindly, or direct their attention towards something they could engage in.
5) Avoid trying to engage them in small talk. Small talk may seem meaningless to an introvert. This doesn’t mean they’re rude. It means they would prefer to build a relationship and then talk about something that’s really important to either you, or them, or both.
6) Find out what they’re really interested in and try to experience it with them. Take the time to find out what their interests and hobbies are. This may require a conversation with a parent or friend. Once you know what they’re into, find some time out of a church setting to participate in it with them.
7) Help them communicate what they’re thinking or feeling. Give them time to process what they’re thinking. Provide outlets of expression through journaling, art, and activity.
8) Initiate conversations with them, and be prepared to carry the conversation. I know this seems the opposite of #5, but no two introverts are the same. Some introverts would never dream of striking up a conversation with someone they didn’t know well, but they’d still appreciate talking with someone. Many introverts are excellent conversationalists as long as they’re not the one carrying the conversation or thinking of all the questions.
9) Understand that they may feel really uncomfortable just being around a lot of people. Some introverts struggle with social anxiety or shyness. This may reveal itself in socially awkward behavior when you seek out interaction with them. Try not to draw attention to the fact that you notice it, or take their awkwardness towards you personally.
10) Arrange to connect with them 1-on-1. Try to find some time with them when a big group isn’t around. Invite them out on an errand, fast food run, or for coffee (but not to “just talk” bring some cards, or something else to do).
11) Teach them strategies for handling conflict. Introverts have trouble processing tense social interactions as they’re happening. Remember how you often think of a great comeback to an argument a few hours after it happened? That’s the life of an introvert! They’re often the targets of bullies because they’re easy targets, shyness is stigmatized, they’re non-assertive, and they’re not quick-thinkers in stressful situations. Be quick to pick up on the signs they’re being bullied, and teach them strategies for handling conflict in advance.
12) Give conflicts and emotional situations time to resolve. Introverts need a lot of time to process an argument or stressful situation after it happens before they’re ready to talk through it. Let them collect their thoughts before debriefing a situation or mediating reconciliation.
13) Don’t call them shy. Try to avoid bringing attention to the fact they’re quiet or reserved. This includes asking questions about it or making observations about their personality. Sometimes we think we’re diffusing the awkwardness by trying to bring humor to the situation by saying something like, “You’re a shy one, aren’t you!?” Instead it just makes them feel like they’re being made fun of.
14) Don’t try to “fix” an introvert. Sometimes extroverts feel a need to break introverts out of their shells. But introversion is part of the actual brain make-up, and often can’t be changed. In other words, that’s the way God made them, and introverts don’t need to change. Society and the church needs introverts. Although many introverts may need to develop their people skills to keep from being misunderstood, eventually they’ll learn do be comfortable in their own skin (and student ministries need to help them in that process).
15) Accept them for who they are. I know what you’re thinking, “Duh, I’m a youth worker, that’s kind of what I do – accept people where they are.” But we often mistake shy or introverted teens as being moody, stand-offish, aloof, brooding, or rude. Make sure you’re not misunderstanding an introverted teen for a rude teen. Take the extra effort to understand the the perspectives and intentions of the heart. Love them for who they are and who they’re becoming.