“She just said she was going to break your legs! Crack them in half like a tree branch!”

“Yeah, I heard it, too! She said she’s going to break your legs and rip your head off because he likes you instead of her, and she’s mad!”

Those are exact quotes from a furtively whispered lunch conversation that occurred with two of my friends when I was in seventh grade, as they told me about a fellow classmate being angry that a boy liked me instead of her. I laugh now, as I recall the overdone theatrics that peppered our lunchtime discussion on a regular basis when I was in middle school.

However humorous it is to recall now, it wasn’t always so easy to laugh about. When I was stuck square in the middle of junior high, dealing with “drama” made me miserable. I vividly remember the violence, gossip, tears and vicious rumors that spun around my middle school classes like cotton candy, wrapping those years in a thick, sticky fog of dread.

Though I never dreamed I’d end up serving in youth ministry, I find myself helping kids through middle school drama all the time. It’s ironic to me, considering how much I hated dealing with the unpleasant situations created by my peers all the way through school–now I actually get paid to help kids muddle through this mess.

It’s a bitter reality our kids deal with every day of their lives at school, and one that we adults are sometimes too quick to dismiss as a serious struggle in our students’ lives. Our students learn to ignore, deal with or dive into complex social struggles that haunt them at every turn–whether they’re members of the band or hockey team, social butterflies or introverted kids.

In its original Greek, the word “drama” means “action.” And “drama,” as I use it in this article, refers to that challenging behavior people exhibit that stirs the pot of fragile human emotions in the susceptible years of childhood and teenage years.

It could be the “fake friendship” that later turns to backstabbing, vindictive behavior. Perhaps it’s an immediate attitude of anger and hate against someone just because of the way they talk or the way they look. Sometimes it’s intentional manipulation of someone’s secrets or emotions that leads to anguish or heartbreak…or it could be as simple as one girl “stealing” another girl’s boyfriend or one boy not being invited to eat lunch at the “cool table”.

Regardless of what it looks like in your particular town or school, you know drama when you see it. And trust me, every single one of our students is dealing with it. It’s also one of the most difficult challenges for parents to handle, because they can’t be there to fight these social battles for their children–so they, too, feel helpless.

I have students who attend schools where angry girls have created “Kill Lists,” loaded with names of other kids they want to kill. Other students in my youth group regularly receive naked texts from classmates who are desperate to be popular. I’ve had girls who have been mocked with obscenities confide their deep embarrassment to me, and boys who have been jumped on the playground and tackled to the ground tell me about their pain. I’ve seen the hurt of kids who don’t understand why their friends suddenly won’t talk to them, or why a classmate is spreading vicious rumors about them, or why the lunch table clears out when they sit down.

Often, as adults, we brush it off and tell our students not to worry about it. We minimize their pain, telling them that middle school is temporary and not as big a deal as the other problems they’ll face later in life: “You can complain when you have a mortgage and bills to pay and kids to feed!” We tell them that they’ll laugh about it someday, and that the bullies will go away eventually and they’ll be free to be themselves.

Here’s the truth, though–when they’re in middle school or high school, the drama is often the most painful thing they’ve ever dealt with. It can make them physically and mentally sick and consume their brains. They can’t rationalize that it’s temporary and dismiss their concerns. They can’t just move on and forget about it.

To callously dismiss the things that are tearing at their hearts and burrowing into their minds is carelessly damaging. Do they need to be gently told that they’ll survive this unpleasant experience, and that in a few years, it won’t be a big deal like it is now? Of course. But they don’t need to be smacked and gruffly told, “Stop being a baby, suck it up and deal with it!”

As people who minister to youth, we must walk a fine line between compassion and truth when dealing with drama. Our call is to offer grace and empathy, but to speak honestly and candidly to our students. We must stand up for those who cannot stand on their own, without crushing the spirits of those who bully because they aren’t strong inside either.

When our students deal with drama in their lives, we have the opportunity to listen without being expected to have the “perfect answer”–the simple act of listening and validating their concerns or frustrations is powerful. We can comfort them with the knowledge that, in Christ, we are made into a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and we have the hope of eternal life to look forward to. But we must remind them, too, that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Even in our pain and anger and uncertainty, we are called to exhibit Christ’s love and practice self control.

I’ve learned in my adult years that the bullies and drama queens don’t ever really go away–they just grow up. And the gossip and theatrics that people love to make into a big deal? That doesn’t change, either, as we grow older. As youth leaders, our job isn’t to make false promises and tell our kids that this is just a “phase” that they’ll outgrow, and that everything will be rosy when they reach adulthood. Rather, our duty is to teach our students how to shine as Christ’s children and live for truth in the midst of the darkness of this decaying world.

When dealing with your students who are experiencing the pangs of drama in their lives, be patient. Let them share both their pain and anger, in their own time–because talking about it with someone who can give a little perspective is helpful for them. Offer them prayer and a listening ear, and remind them constantly that you believe in them. Share the encouragement and hope found in Scripture.

Psalm 62:1-2 reminds us all that no matter what drama we face in our lives, God is our faithful anchor: “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.”

With Christ, we won’t be shaken–even when those furious 13-year-olds tell us they want to break our legs in half.