As youth leaders, we talk. A lot.

In all the words we speak–goofy jokes, words of affirmation and encouragement, directions–some words clearly mean more than others.

I think there are six crucial phrases that every teen needs to hear from us, their youth leaders.

No matter what you do, I won’t give up on you.

To me, it’s hard to believe that my students would ever think I would give up on them–but when I really think about it, I can think of plenty of adults I looked up to and trusted who did give up on me. Some of the adults I looked up to most in high school stopped talking to me entirely–I mean, wouldn’t even acknowledge me at graduation–after a silly prank I pulled as a senior. I was so devastated that it took years for me to get over that rejection.

Adults who influence for a weekend, a few months or even a year are a dime a dozen. People who are passionate about students, invested in them in the long run and who are willing to love fiercely–even when those kids they love so much screw up–are a rare breed.

But they’re life changers, I think–and I’ve been privileged to work with many of them in the last few years. They are truly shaping the entire future of the kids they’re invested in, and allowing God to speak through them to these kids–and there’s nothing more inspiring than that.

I expect more from you. 

As strange as it sounds, it was an epiphany to me when I first realized that I could set my own expectations and standards for my students. And believe me, up until that point, it was my biggest struggle in ministry. I used to think to myself, “How can I expect things out of kids when they aren’t given the same standards at home? Isn’t that unfair? Just because I was raised with high standards doesn’t  mean that I should impose that on other people’s kids–right?”

In the real world, though, I quickly realized that kids need standards. Everything they do, in fact, is an attempt to find out where I stand on every issue. And, their constant nagging is simply a way to find out how firmly I stand on things.

Kids–especially middle schoolers–are adaptable. They quickly figure out when adults expect a lot out of them, and respect those adults in their lives much more than those who don’t expect anything out of them at all.

My students would likely all tell you that I have high standards, and that I expect a lot out of them. And, several of them would probably be able to tell you when I’ve had a stern but loving talk with them about how I do expect more from them as young Christians. I’ve always been upfront with my kids, clearly telling them that if I catch them swearing on Facebook, for instance, I’ll call them on it. And I do. That’s my standard–and kids respect that.

In fact, they strive to live up to it. Within my standards, too, I always strive to teach students life skills. To me, everything is a learning opportunity–a chance for growth. For instance, I’ve demanded that every young man remove his hat while praying. Unnecessary? Maybe. But a teachable moment about the respect and reverence we should have towards our Creator? Definitely.

It’s okay to wrestle with God.

The first time I ever said this to a group of kids, it was when I was a college student stepping in at the last minute to lead a weekend retreat with a bunch of middle schoolers. I hardly knew the kids, but connected with them well.So well, in fact, that we ended up cramming all of us into a hotel room that night to talk about the day.

As the kids talked, I began to notice a common thread–they were all wrestling with doubts about God, but skirting around the issue. It was like they just couldn’t admit that they did have those thoughts. When I finally blurted out, “You guys are human! You’re grabbing onto your own faith and understanding it as teenagers now, stepping away from the faith that your parents have thus far raised you in–you should have doubts and be wrestling with these issues if you’re actually thinking about this stuff seriously,” a sigh of relief went through the room.

A whole new, deeper level of conversation started–one that went beyond the “right answers” to brutal honesty that actually impacted these kids. I’ve moved half a country away from these particular kids, but they still remember that night and talk about it with their youth pastor.

I think the story of Jacob wrestling with God is one that all teenagers need to hear. They need to be told that they’re not going to hell just because they’re questioning and wondering. We’re all sinful, imperfect people, and we all experience doubts from time to time–but how crafty is Satan, to sneak in there and pry these kids away from their faith entirely by convincing them that their questions about God make them unworthy of His love?

(Answer: very crafty!)

Sometimes I think that a great purpose for youth leaders being on this earth is to comfort those kids who are struggling so painfully with this issue–and have been stressed and guilty and overcome with shame for years because no one’s ever told them this before.

Because, at the end of their questions and doubts, stands a God who outlasts every query.

You can trust me–-really.

People constantly open up to me. I’ve been in grocery stores, talking to random people, and have had them tell me their life stories. And usually, people confide in me so deeply that at some point, they suddenly reel back and say, “Oh my goodness! You can’t ever tell anyone else that I said that!”

Kids, especially, tell me all sorts of things they don’t want others to know. I’m more trustworthy than their peers, I suppose–but still close enough to them that I’m not a total stranger. They know that I won’t promise them blind trust–I would have to seek professional help and connect with their parents if I found out that they were severely depressed, anorexic or suicidal, for instance.

But what they constantly want to know is how trustworthy I am with their day-to-day confessions. That doesn’t mean I keep secrets that might harm them in the long run, but it means I do keep my mouth shut when it comes to sharing their private business with others. It’s important to remind them that I would always inform them first if I ever were to share anything confidential with anyone else.

I don’t like your behavior, but I still love you. 

I learned this little nugget as a resident assistant in college. It was simply incredible what a difference it made to the students I was disciplining–keep in mind, those students were my peers.

Explaining to people that while I didn’t like their behavior or the choices they made but I still cared about and wanted a relationship with them was the dealmaker. It seems like an almost unnecessary thing to say–but simply saying it makes all the difference in the world. And it does make a difference to kids, too, on the occasion that I do need to discipline them.

Jesus will never, ever give up on you.

We live in a world that lets us down. It seems like such a simple truth to share with our students, but it’s one that’s so simple we tend to forget it sometimes. Our Savior’s endless love and forgiveness stand in stark contrast to everything this world offers, and that’s the greatest message we can share with those around us. As Deuteronomy 31:6 reminds us, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

The next time you talk to your students–whether in a group setting or one-on-one–remember these phrases. Think about how you can use these powerful words to make a difference to your kids.

And then, quite simply, speak.