“Miss Julianna, I’m not allowed to eat fast food burgers or fries. Is there anywhere else we can eat?”
I was flummoxed. We were on our way to a weeklong servant event traveling with more than 20 students in full vans. After a high stakes conversation about the lunch stop, I got hit with this. Come to find out, he had recently had stomach issues and the doctor had given this directive to help him. I had completely missed the notation on his medical form, which was entirely my fault. And this teenage boy, between forgetfulness and not wanting to call attention to himself, had waited until the last possible minute to remind me.
Whether minor or major, health issues can impact a teen’s ability to participate in youth programming and even impair their relational support of other youth. Youth leaders need to be prepared to assess regularly and make plans to keep every Bible study, event, trip and meal something which keeps youth healthy both spiritually and physically.
Medical forms may be the first time that you find out that a young person has a chronic illness.
Avoid disasters like mine by making sure that you get updated forms regularly and go through them thoroughly. You may want to follow up with parents by email or in person to make sure that you fully understand what is needed to keep them healthy. A leader’s default should be to keep any medical information confidential unless explicitly given permission by the parents and the teen. Some teens may be comfortable sharing, or an illness may be severe enough to necessitate telling chaperoning adults. However, sharing medical information should always be done at the discretion of the parents and teens.
Many of our young people have allergies with severe reactions. While this can make choosing dinner options and snacks more difficult, it is important to make it as easy as possible for youth to have safe food to eat. If you have someone bringing in food, communicate food allergies to them without naming students and remind them to avoid cross contamination. It may even be important for them to keep the packaging for items so that teens can check ingredients for potential allergens. Families may even provide a list of their most reliable snacks or fast-food restaurants.
Some students may have a chronic illness that has left them with pain, difficulty with physical exertion, or with limited mobility. This can mean some games and activities need to be adjusted. Consider how these limitations could draw unnecessary attention as they struggle or disappoint their team through no fault of their own. If we consistently expect them to engage in games that don’t account for their illness, they will either check out entirely or they may risk their health to try and fit in. Lean into cooperative games that have roles that are less physical or find ways to even the playing field so everyone participates at the same level.
If a young person has a more serious chronic illness, it may be important for you to speak to them and their family in a separate meeting.
This can allow them to share information and give directions on how to support the teen. For example, they may share how to handle a fainting spell or seizure and when to know if it requires additional attention or not. The goal of such a meeting isn’t to be nosy or intrusive, but to make sure that leaders have all the right information so they can prepare and make wise in-the-minute decisions.
Be sure adult leaders are CPR and First Aid training. If your church has an AED, be sure that adult and student leaders know where it is. If teens are comfortable, ask them to share with adults more about their illness and how they can help. Many older teens are fully capable of managing their chronic illness and can give detailed instructions on how others might help. This could include a teen sharing how to use an epi pen, or how to check their blood sugar and insulin pump. If you can, giving teens the autonomy to choose what and how to share helpful information gives them control. It allows adults and teens to team together for their health.
We are grateful that God has given us testing and advances in science that help us better understand what is going on in our bodies.
Science can allow us to help manage the pain and difficulty of chronic disease earlier and earlier. As teens navigate our broken bodies, we want to help ensure they have comfortable and supportive access to the things that will bring them spiritual health, God’s Word and Sacrament.
The teen from my trip was able to get the food he needed then (thank goodness for Subway!), and the rest of the trip. He returned home safely, and we were able to have a great discussion on what food worked best for him in our Sunday night events going forward. It wasn’t the first or last time I supported a teen with chronic health issues, but it certainly reminded me of how important it can be. With God’s help, youth leaders help make sure teens get to spend time in the vital practices of Bible study, prayer, devotion and service in your youth ministry while getting all they need to stay healthy now and into the future.