I walked up to two middle school boys who were fighting over a paintbrush.
Blind to the fact that they were dripping paint all over the floor, they stood glaring at each other, hands locked on the brush.
As I approached, one boy shouted to the other, “Stop! You’re triggering me!”
Whether said in jest or not, the inescapable fact here is that today’s teenagers are paying attention to their mental health more than previous generations.
A few decades ago, a student would likely have been laughed at by his peers for making such a proclamation publicly. Now, phrases that once were only uttered privately in a psychologist’s office are mainstream.
Today’s teens are constantly consuming media that deal with the matters of mental health and depression. When I chat with my students, they frequently share about viewing YouTube personalities who are candid about their mental health struggles. They devour shows like Netflix’s popular “Thirteen Reasons Why,” a show peppered with serious and complicated issues like assault and suicide. They consume books and blogs about dark and disturbing subjects.
I can tell you firsthand that my students are openly discussing their personal feelings with more frequency than they did a decade ago. It’s not unusual for teens to label themselves as “anxious,” “depressed,” “unstable,” or the aforementioned “triggered” by a particular behavior.
Without delving into a deep and complex discussion of mental health, I think it’s important for adults to realize this shifting trend in the teenage culture and understand how to properly reach students as Christ’s ambassadors.
What’s helpful for adults to keep in mind as they deal with these difficult topics?
Pay attention to what’s trending on social media, in the news, and on YouTube. Listen to what young people are talking about when they think no one’s paying attention. What celebrities are they mimicking? Whose music are they listening to? What topics capture their attention? By simply making an attempt to understand the culture of today’s young people, you’ll start to get a glimpse of their world.
Note how quickly it all shifts, and how rapidly teens adapt to new trends and personalities. This alone speaks volumes to the importance of sharing our unchangeable God with students. In a world sprinting at lightning speed, this generation finds solace in their God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Create a Safe Environment
Make it a priority to have a judgement-free zone where students feel they have a real voice. Give them verbal permission and plenty of encouragement to be authentic and candid in sharing their struggles.
Recently, a student opened up in class about an extremely difficult situation going on in her home. As she bravely poured out her struggles to her peers, several other students started nodding along with her and admitted that they’d been dealing with some of the same issues and just never had the courage to say anything to anyone else. By encouraging these students who spoke truthfully, I validated them and was able to process the issues with the entire group of kids.
As challenging as it may be to keep your own mouth shut, one of the most important things you can do is give youth plenty of chances to speak without your interference. Avoid telling stories that start with the phrase, “When I was your age…” While your intent may be noble and your advice may be sound, students tend to quickly dismiss your anecdotes before you even squeeze those first few words out. Rather, seek first to listen before sharing your own opinion.
Make Eye Contact
It sounds simple, but it makes a huge difference in dealing with students of all ages: make eye contact with others. Our society is constantly glued to our screens, yet crying out for personal attention and validation. By intentionally making eye contact with someone, you send a clear message that you’re paying attention and therefore, the object of your attention matters.
When my students have discussions about potentially serious matters, I make an attempt to have them face each other in a circle. It truly does change the tone of the conversation.
Give Opportunity for Personal Attention
One of the most impactful activities I started doing in my daily routine, working at a Lutheran church and school, is simply to open up my door at lunchtime and after school. I’ve worked hard to create a culture where students feel comfortable coming in to chat with me and discuss a myriad of topics—whether it’s a failing grade weighing on them, friendship trouble, or anxiety over the future. Nearly every kid that’s ever passed through my doors has eventually breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Wow, I feel better sharing that with someone,” after we’ve talked.
Assess your own ministry and see where you can invite students to talk to you one-on-one. Can they help you set up for an event and share a concern privately? Could they help you take out the trash after an activity and talk with you? Are they able to safely text you when troubled? By giving students a chance to share the things that burden their minds, you serve as an important reminder of God’s compassion and the ability we each have to approach Him with our every worry and concern.
Pray With and For Your Students
It’s not uncommon for me to pray with a student and open my eyes after prayer to see tears falling down their cheeks. Many students are wading through serious situations in their lives, battling with physical and mental healthy worries, and shouldering burdens they don’t tell others about. I encourage my students to remember that God knows every detail of their hearts, including their unspoken prayers.
Romans 8:26 reminds us that, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
In a world of stressed, triggered, and troubled people, we offer the hope, love, and forgiveness found in Jesus Christ. No matter what trend or tribulation we face, we stand secure in His strength and uncompromising grace.