Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He is the Father who is compassionate and the God who gives comfort. He comforts us whenever we suffer. That is why whenever other people suffer, we are able to comfort them by using the same comfort we have received from God.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (GOD’S WORD Translation)

Chances are, if you’ve been working with you for any length of time, one of your youth has come to you asking to talk. They view you as someone they can trust, whether it’s a question of how to handle something with their parents or friends, an internal struggle they are having, or a frustration with their faith life. What a huge blessing it is to walk alongside these teens as they navigate through life’s challenges. They have chosen to invite you into their worlds and share their hearts because you have shown that you care about them.  What a blessing, yet what a responsibility!

Whether you’ve been in youth ministry a long time or this is your first time diving in to this amazing yet complex world, navigating this space should be handled with the utmost amount of humility, patience, and care.

The goal is always to seek first to listen and understand as you walk alongside your youth.

Most teens just want to be heard.  They need a space to process their thoughts and feelings as they become more and more aware of the world around them. So, what does that look like in practical terms?

  • Listen – truly listen. Resist the urge to interrupt or correct right away, no matter how distorted their thoughts sound to you.  At this point, you are there as a safe place for them to just be able to talk.  If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification, perhaps by just saying “Tell me more about that…”.  This shows you truly want to understand and hear their hearts.
  • Reflect – Repeat what you heard to make sure you are understanding what they are trying to communicate. Use phrases such as, “I want to make sure I’m understanding you.  You’re feeling… because…” Sometimes teens can benefit from hearing what’s been said to help them process how they are thinking and feeling.
  • Validate – This is not necessarily agreeing with what they have said. You’re simply acknowledging how they are their feelings make sense with what they’re perceiving from their point of understanding. This is critical empathy where you are truly sitting in their feelings with them at this point.  Consider phrases such as, “wow, I can understand why you are feeling …”
  • Reframe – This is where your teen can begin processing their feelings as you help them shift their perspective and feel empowered to act. You’re not there to “give advice” (after all, you don’t have to deal with the consequences of the choice), but to help them process ways they can handle the situation.   Don’t be surprised if you encounter silence or “I don’t know” in this stage.  After all, if they knew what to do, they probably wouldn’t be coming to you.  The part of their brain that figures this out (the prefrontal cortex) hasn’t fully developed yet, so it takes them a bit longer to process. Get comfortable with the silence – if you give them time, they’ll be able to work through it.
  • Listen, again – Encourage them to take a deep breath here. Then, prompt with “How are you feeling right now?”
  • Pray/Share Scripture – Once they feel truly seen, and their emotions and bodies are regulated, they will be more open to the truths of Scripture and can see a clearer connection. Let your prayer be open and thoughtful; this is not a time to “preach.”

So how do you continue to provide a safe space for youth while also making sure you clearly understand when to involve a professional?  The truth is, rates of anxiety and depression are increasing in in our teenagers, and trusted adults need to know these young believers need the help of a professional to process their more intense thoughts and feelings.  In these instances, we need to ask the hard questions:

  • Are they hurting themselves?
  • Have they ever thought of hurting themself?
  • Is someone hurting them?
  • Are they hurting [or have they hurt] someone else?
  • Are they thinking about suicide?
  • Have they ever attempted suicide?

If they answer yes to any of these questions, thank them for trusting you enough to tell you.  Assure them you want to help them talk with someone who can help them work through these difficult feelings.  Then, with your teen present, contact their parents. You may even offer sit with them as they talk with their parents if they would like. From here, you can assist parents in making sure that appropriate steps are taken to monitor the teen as they get professional help as soon as possible.

Pay attention to your state’s laws on mandatory reporting.  Discuss this with your ministry team to ensure everyone is clear and on the same page.  In instances of self-harm, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation, a direct referral to crisis help, therapist, or emergency care should be made. If there is any kind of abuse happening in the home, mandatory reporters should contact Child and Family Service in the time frame according to state laws. It can be helpful to have a listing of crisis lines, counselors, rehabs, and other numbers in advance so that you don’t lose time trying to get started.

If a young person is struggling with doubt or sin, it may be appropriate and comforting to bring in the help of your pastor. Pastors may be additionally equipped with theological training to answer questions. They can also provide private confession and absolution which can bring grace and peace as a teen is reminded of their forgiveness in Christ.

When they share these things, monitor your own emotions.  Teens watch how we react to see if we will continue to be trustworthy.  Continue to reassure them of your love for them, as well as God’s. At the same time, ensure that you are caring for yourself as well. There are times when a teen’s crisis can hit close to home or simply be emotionally exhausting. Be sure to check in with your own thoughts and feelings as well as tap into your healthy supports as you need.

Is it gut-wrenching to join our youth in these difficult times? Yes.  As Paul reminded us through the power of the Holy Spirit in Second Corinthians, we can enter these difficult times to give comfort to our youth because we ourselves have received comfort from God.  Lest we feel ill-equipped, let us remember that it is the Holy Spirit that gives the comfort through us. We are but the vessel for God’s treasure of grace and healing!