I'll never forget the first time I heard it. I just couldn't believe my ears.
They were so young and innocent. How could they actually be thinking about this already?
Seventh graders--chatting seriously about colleges.
All kidding aside, I've noticed that these young teenagers are being asked constantly what they're going to be when they grow up, where they're thinking about going to college, and where they want to live someday. Middle schoolers are already under an immense amount of pressure, and adding this emphasis on how they need to get their acts together and figure out their lives at such a young age is the icing on the cake for these students when it comes to stress.
Honestly, if you would have asked me seriously about these things when I was thirteen, I would have told you I was going to be an artist and zoologist and live next door to Disneyland with five dogs.
My point? You change a lot in the few short years between middle school and adulthood.
I often ponder how this younger generation is growing up, and how we can best assist them in their trek to maturity as caring adults and leaders. The reality of how stressed these young teenagers are is something that comes to my mind frequently, and I see it in the students around me all the time. Stress seems to be a constant companion in virtually all the middle school students I talk to, and it takes a toll on them physically and mentally.
Friends. Getting into the right honors classes. Sports. Trying out for the band. Maintaining their image. Parents. Posting the perfect pictures online. Sitting at the "cool" lunch table. Siblings. Figuring out what they're good at, and what they actually enjoy. Keeping their grades up. Balancing their hectic schedules.
It's a lot for an adult to comprehend, let alone truly understand how it affects them as kids just venturing out into the world in newly changing bodies and braces.
So, how do we help students with their stress as caring parents and leaders?
Firstly, I think it's important that we provide places where students can come and simply be. I've learned that not every youth event has to be jam-packed with activities and games. Sometimes, the best youth events we've had have been the ones in which we planned to do something very structured, but ended up just letting the kids hang out and be with each other and the leaders. Don't be afraid to abandon your plans at a moment's notice--sometimes the Holy Spirit ends up using those moments to bring out powerful spiritual conversations in ways that simply wouldn't have happened if you had proceeded with your event, as originally planned.
I also think that it helps to address the reality of the stress they're facing head-on. Don't skirt around it, but instead talk about it often. They already know they're tackling a lot in their young lives, but what many of them don't realize is that they haven't quite mastered how to handle the stress they're facing.
This is a time when we can help guide them to valuable and helpful coping methods, such as prayer or exercise or talking with Christian adults and friends. If students don't learn how to properly handle their stress in these few short years, the foundation for poor choices can become established and easily lead them down the path of destruction very quickly.
I've discovered that, as much as it feels like I was just their age, I lived in a totally different time than these kids. I wasn't facing the immense amount of social scrutiny on Facebook, or the never-ending expectations of schools assigning homework in the summer, or the pressure of playing sports year-round just to keep my spot on the team. Thus, I can't sit there and pretend to know exactly how they feel. It simply devalues the kids who are talking to me if I insist on telling my own stories of stress instead of letting them vent to me.
I encourage my students to find time to process their lives, and advise them to take time to reflect quietly at the end of the day, read their Bibles, and pray. I recently arrived home from a middle school mission trip in Florida in which we had a nightly debrief about our day. On the first night, it didn't go well--the kids didn't take it seriously, they didn't offer much insight, and everyone seemed unsure of why we were doing the debrief. I quickly realized that I had to explain why we were doing a debrief, so they would understand the importance of it. The next night, we explained that this was an important time to step away from the hustle and bustle of the day and hear how God speaks to us in His Word and talk about what we were getting out of this mission trip. Suddenly, the kids came alive and enthusiastically embraced the discussion time. Simply explaining why--and giving them a time to intentionally unwind--breathed life into a stale activity.
Most importantly, our job is to remind our students that even when the stress overwhelms them, or they make a mistake in judgment, or want to give up on the world, we have an incredible God who loves us dearly, forgives us constantly because of Jesus and His death on the cross, and gives us the strength to wake up and face the day. It seems that so many of the middle schoolers I know have the weight of their futures weighing on them so heavily.
One of the quotations that changed my life as a high schooler was, "Write your plans in pencil, and give God the eraser". This is a quote I've learned to share with my students frequently, and it puts things into the right perspective for them. I remind them that Philippians 4 tells us, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Jesus Himself tells us in Matthew 11:28, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."
That, friends, is a timeless truth we can share over and over again with our stressed teenagers.