Everyone faces difficult situations in life. Everyone has troubled times. Hopefully, everyone gets through these situations a little stronger and a little wiser. As those who minister to youth, we have a duty to help tweens and teens understand, navigate, and survive these difficult times. One of the greatest ways we can do this is by allowing kids to think through and plan for tough times before they encounter them in real life.
Youth workers, whether paid or volunteer, should make it a point in ministry to help teens understand that painful situations will happen in life. This means, however uncomfortable it might make us, we need to approach the tough topics. It is easy to create a warm and fuzzy feeling among our groups. “Nothing will happen to us! We are God’s children!” We know otherwise; the Enemy waits to devour us, the world attempts to pull us in, the Old Adam sabotages our best efforts. How can we best prepare teenagers to avoid troubling circumstances?
Know what they’re up against.
Today’s youth are bombarded with tough situations. Burying your head in the sand with a “that doesn’t happen here” mentality is a disservice to your group. Even if you live in Pleasantville, the youth around you certainly don’t. Listen to what they talk about, notice what is posted online, ask them what’s going well and what’s going not so well in their lives. Be aware.
Create a “safe place.”
Let youth know that your group and your meetings are places where any topic can be discussed. This means that no one is attacked for his or her opinion. No one is shot down for his or her point of view. Things that are said should stay among the members of the group (you should revisit this thought quite often!).
Be proactive when it comes to discussing tough topics.
Although reenacting King Eglon’s death or reliving Monday Night Football might seem a bit more entertaining, sometimes kids need us to be the ones bringing up the tough topics. Some teens will respond to a teacher/learner situation; a 6-week study on sexuality, for example. Others will be more open in a friend-to-friend talk; “I heard that party got pretty out of hand. What did you think of that?” Use different opportunities to approach the tough topics.
Accept startling statements, even if you can’t respond to them.
The thought of facing a tough question unprepared can be daunting, but a simple “Let’s talk about this after group” can buy you some much needed time to gather your thoughts. We might not have all the answers right away, but we should be willing to accept the questions. That being said, anytime something arises along the lines of “I don’t want to live anymore; what good is my life?” or “Peter has his dad’s gun” it should not be ignored. These possible life and death situations must be immediately sorted out.
Talk about other people.
No, gossip is not the key to tough topics! Use general questions instead of pointed ones to get your discussion going. “Why would a teenager smoke pot?” will foster better discussion than, “Who here has done drugs?”. Case studies and created scenarios allow teens to think outside of themselves, while still reflecting on their own experiences.
Savor the silence.
As awkward as silence can be, when dealing with tough topics quiet times are a much needed breath of fresh air. Just because there is silence does not mean kids aren’t tuned in to the discussion. Breaks are needed for kids to form thoughts, plan out what they want to say, and get enough courage to speak up. Let your questions hang in the air for a bit, rephrase if necessary after a brief silence (30 seconds), but don’t kill your discussion before it starts!
Create methods for dealing with difficult situations.
Teens need strategies. They need go-to plans for challenging times. What are you going to do when you are offered drugs? What do you do when you feel like your life is not worth living anymore? One of the best gifts we can give kids is coping mechanisms for tough situations. Role-play these situations with your groups. What am I going to say? How am I going to feel when this situation arises?
Open yourself up to one-on-one conversation.
For many of us, sharing a part of oneself is a hard thing to do. The fear and doubt can be compounded when forced to open up in front of peers and acquaintances. Allowing kids to contact you outside of your typical group setting gives them the privacy they need for discussing tough topics. Giving out a cell phone number, an Instant Messenger name, or an email address allows kids to contact you privately and on their own terms. In the same vein, a Mailbox or Comment Box in the youth room can be a great way for kids to share thoughts and needs.
Speak the truth in love.
In our “what’s best for me doesn’t have to be what’s best for you” post-modern society we have a true authority. God’s Word is a wealth of information when it comes to tough topics. No, we still haven’t found the verse that succinctly lays out “how far is too far,” but we do have verses that urge us to focus on “whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy” and not to “let sin reign in your body,” for example. We can share God’s Law with the teens around us.
Share God’s grace.
God’s grace is enough for all of those who have faced tough situations and made bad decisions. We are to be instruments of that grace. While this doesn’t mean that we need to be accepting of bad behaviors and lenient on consequences, we must continue to be an advocate for our kids. Guilt and shame should have no part of a tough topic discussion. We are free of guilt and shame through Jesus’ death on the cross and glorious resurrection!
One of my favorite mental images from the Old Testament unfolds with Job loosing everything in his life; his donkeys, oxen, sheep, servants, and children. He becomes afflicted with painful sores and resorts to scratching himself with shards of pottery. His wife tells him to “curse God and die.” This is not a man whose life is going well! His three friends hear of his broken condition and set out to comfort him. Upon arrival, they too begin mourning Jobs loss. However, what happens next is both unexpected and incredibly fitting at the same time. “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13).
Can you imagine? A teen comes to you with an issue. Together you sit, reflect, and think. After this immediate period of connection you begin to speak. We stand to learn a lot from Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. We all know that hard times are a fact of life. But in these crushing situations perhaps it is not our words that are important. How much more important is our presence! Even though we have so much knowledge and advice to share, sometimes the most needed things are a listening ear and a non-judgmental attitude. My prayers are with you as you face the tough topics head on.
First published on youthESource on November 5, 2008.