I turned in this article late.
I hate the fact that I turned this article in late. I hate working on something past a deadline because it stresses me out and strains my work. I hate having to admit to someone that I probably could have gotten something done on time but didn’t manage my time well enough to meet a deadline. What I hate the most about turning something in late is that it affects other people and their work. It makes me want to say something like Jonah said to the sailors:
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea.” (Jonah 1:12)
Now think about the youth in your ministry; couldn’t you see the above passage donning a Facebook status? Maybe it wouldn’t be so dramatic, but probably pretty close. “I just can’t do this anymore.” “I’m so stressed out.” “I just don’t know what to do.” “Someone please help!”
What is it that causes a teen to change from someone who seems to have it all together one moment into someone screaming for help in the next? What’s causing the stress and why the emotional response?
Let’s start with what we usually have as the indicator of stress in the lives of our youth–the emotional response. It’s good for us to remember that the teenage brain is still developing and making new connections. Judith Newman has a great article in Parade Magazine called “Inside the Teenage Brain” that lays out some of the things that are going on in the typical teen brain. The frontal lobes and the prefrontal cortex which are believed to be responsible for the organization of plans and the controlling of impulses don’t fully develop until the late 20s. Also, where adults rely primarily on the frontal cortex for things such as emotions, youth rely more heavily on the amygdala which is a small almond-shaped region that processes reactions such as fear and anger. While the frontal cortex helps us respond with reason and forethought, the amygdala controls things such as our fight-or-flight reactions when we feel threatened. Animals have a similar region that kicks in when they feel something is invading their territory.
This explains a little bit of why a seemingly responsible student in your ministry can do something completely impulsive and unreasonable. Before we explore the impetus to such harsh reactions, let’s go back to Jonah.
The book of Jonah begins with God telling Jonah to go preach against the Ninevites. Jonah doesn’t try to reason with God. He doesn’t consider his options. Jonah runs. Not only does Jonah run, he runs about as far away from God as he thinks he can get. We may think, “Silly Jonah, you can’t get away from God,” but how much does this sound like a typical teenage response to stress? Instead of trying to reason with an authority figure or logically looking at different options to solve a problem, teens have the tendency to either bury their heads in the sand or run.
In a recent adult meeting I had for my confirmation parents, I asked what struggles they had with their children and stress. I heard almost a collective sigh from the group as they geared up to share their frustrations about behavior such as homework being kept in notebooks never to be turned in and kids not taking advantage of tutoring opportunities. Actions like these seem completely unreasonable and lacking foresight; they baffle us adults when we try to picture ourselves making the same decisions. Reflecting on where youth are in brain development and maturity, these actions don’t seem too out of line. Though thinking about the teen mind can help explain reactions to stress, we’re still not answering the question of where this initial stress comes from. Is it school itself? Is it expectations from authority figures or from other teens?
Chap Clark’s summation of the problem in his book Hurt is that authority figures are only present in the lives of teens in a way that puts demands on them but are absent when it comes to sharing unconditional love through words and actions. Andrew Root hits even closer to home in his book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, as he describes how youth workers can compound the problem by using relationships as only a vehicle to influence youth into behavior that benefits the church programs. His indictment is that instead of walking with youth as they struggle, we often cut them loose when we find that they won’t fit into our model for youth ministry.
As youth workers, we’ll always be walking a fine line between supporting and questioning the authority figures that are responsible for the youth in our care. We’ll also always be balancing our relationships with our students without turning them into just another tally on an attendance sheet. It takes time for students to trust that we truly care about their needs and can be entrusted with their burdens.
What are some practical things we can do to bear the burden of stress with our youth?
Take a serious look at the goals and expectations you have for your youth.
Is your goal to have every youth at every single event? Do you act like it is? If you want youth to be connected to their God and to other youth in your church, can you accomplish those goals without having mandatory attendance? Try being present in the lives of your youth outside of church. Have other members of your youth group attend other students’ sporting events and concerts.
Have youth take a serious look at the goals and objectives they have for themselves.
As Christians, God is our number one when it comes to prioritizing. Help youth to know what it means to put God first in their lives. Does it mean that they need to cut some things out of their lives? Does it mean that they shouldn’t be as busy as they are? Do they have to read the Bible every day to put God first? Help youth to look at all the ways they’ve committed themselves to show them how their priorities look from the outside and help them to rearrange their commitments if they feel that their actions don’t line up with their values.
Give parents the tools they need to help their stressed children.
The parents of your youth are probably just as stressed about their teens’ anxiety as their children are which means they need your support. Parents are also the number one influence when it comes to their children’s values and work habits. Give parents an opportunity to talk to one another about what works in helping their children with stress. Teach parents how to deal with the stress of their teens’ mistakes and foibles with responsibility so that they can react with calmness and respect toward their children.
Point youth to their God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“When my life was ebbing away,I remembered you, LORD,and my prayer rose to you,to your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:7)
Jonah has a beautiful prayer in the belly of the fish after he’d been thrown into the ocean and realized the error of his ways. He was struck with the reality that even though he thought he could run away from God and he thought his life was a struggle he didn’t want to face anymore, God was with him the whole time. Help students to see that God is with them in the midst of their trials and that He actively ministers to them through His Word and Sacraments. Remind your youth that God desires that we go to Him with our struggles and burdens.
May God remind you daily of the love He has for you in the midst of your stresses as you help the youth in your ministry manage theirs.
Here are some other Scriptures you can send your students to when they are feeling stressed:
“Never worry about anything. But in every situation let God know what you need in prayers and requests while giving thanks. Then God’s peace, which goes beyond anything we can imagine, will guard your thoughts and emotions through Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
“I [Jesus] have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Also look at 1 Kings 19 and see what Elijah did when fleeing from Jezebel.
Clark, C. (2004). Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Newman, J. (2010, November 28). “Inside the Teenage Brain”. Parade Magazine .
Root, A. (2007). Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.