Engaging teens: the 15 second rule…

Cool handshake image

Photo courtesy ©iStockphoto/sunara

First impressions count! But they can also be deceiving.

Teenagers, like the rest of us, have to navigate these social dilemmas.

So how do we make the best of a first time meeting with a young person?

Particularly one who may not be meeting us by choice, but because they’ve been told they have to.

The first 15 seconds matter.

Here’s how to make the most of your chances…

Balancing the need to engage someone, with the fact that they may not want to meet us, is quite a challenge. To say the least!

Everyone has their own personality, style and comfort level in terms of how to make the connection with troubled young people.

Nothing I say here will alter that. But I wanted to share what I do, to stimulate your thinking about your own approach.

So here goes…

What works for me…

There are number of ingredients to a successful first meeting (These are as much expressions of what like when I meet people, as they are principles of good social etiquette generally):

  • Eye contact – good eye contact is important for showing attention, acceptance and concentration. It also focusses on the other person and enables us to better read their responses. None of us like the serial killer stare! But catching someone’s eye, briefly at least, is important. Young people are used to being sidelined and/or avoided in adult-oriented settings, so a little eye-focus on them gives the right message – that they matter!
  • Physical contact – this is equally as important as eye contact, but needs to be done sensitively. If there’s any doubt about a person’s willingness for this, better to avoid it. However, I work on the basis that most people are happy for a handshake if one is offered. I tend to do the thumbs handshake as it’s less formal. It comes naturally to me, so give it a shot if you feel OK with it. If you don’t, be more conventional. The shake in the image above is another variant.
  • Smile – at the risk of teaching granny to suck eggs, we need to smile when we meet young people. It’s easy to feel pressured by what has to be done, by the task you’ve just left half completed or where you have to be later in the day. But for now, the young person in front of us is the only issue that matters. A smile says a lot. It says “I’m  at ease, I’m OK with this,” “I’m glad to meet you”, may be even “I’m OK, you can trust me.” At least it starts you on the road to being OK with each other. A miserable face…well, who likes that?!
  • Empathic words – it pays to give the young person the impression that you “get” what they might be thinking or experiencing at this moment in time. Being open with us is hard for kids. But it’s a lot easier to start down that road if they think we understand something of their subjective experience (thoughts, feelings, questions, etc.). I often make a crack about how excited they must be to come in for a session/meeting/assessment, or whatever it is. The smile is necessary here to reinforce the jest. Otherwise it may look sarcastic – and sarcasm never works.

Once the first few seconds have passed, you’ll both be clearer how you feel and have more information to base further conversation on.

Having these simple things in mind is a good place to start in building that all-important communication bridge with the young person.

Final thoughts…

This is my style. Yours may be different. But i wouldn’t mind betting there are similar ingredients in your own version of the 15 second rule…

What do you think?

  • What would you say are the key things for us to bear in mind at a first meeting?

Please let me know what your thoughts are… Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2014



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Helen Medlicott

    I am very new to this type of online discussion but i felt i could contribute in a small way. I worked for an excellent company for almost 10 years delivering a start to the children’s recovery in a residential setting after coming from an abusive start to life. The company put in a lot of time and effort in to our training. I found that watching my fellow colleagues also in their work practice enabled me to pick out the best bits and enhance my own work practice. Attunement plays a big part in getting to know the child, letting them tell you their life story, without them needing to know you have read their file. The children can put the meat on the bones of the information we already have. Learning to not judge the child by their file, yes we need to take the concerns and other issues into account, but let them have their say. When a child sees that that you are willing to sit on the floor and give them a hug and really want to hear what they have to say, or not say in some cases, this can start to build a small stepping stone in the right direction.
    When you have listened to some of their stories you can then develop the capacity to walk in their shoes and wonder how i would have felt in their position. Empathy comes from the ability to put yourself in that child’s shoes, but this can only be done with the knowledge and want to attune to the children, remembering they are all individuals.

    • jonnymatthew

      Hi Helen – Thanks for taking the time to comment. I couldn’t agree more. Start with empathy, work on the relationship in the way you’ve articulated and, eventually, atunement develops. This is a really important point! Maybe we need another piece, just about atunement? Strangely enough, I’m now training for three days, presenting on attachment-based interventions! Thanks for your thoughts. Cheers, J.