In my experience, teens are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior and latch onto deviant peer relationships when they have little to zero adult support at home, way too much time to manage on their own, and experience a lack of affirmation to guide them toward healthy behaviors, purpose, and identity.
Here are types of high-risk teen behaviors you might recognize, as written by Horizon Family Solutions:
- Aggression and fighting
- Alcohol use
- Behaviors related to obesity
- Risky sexual behaviors
- Self-injurious behaviors
- Substance use
- Teen pregnancy
- Unhealthy dieting
Does this list terrify you? If you are seeing these types of behaviors in your youth ministry, then your students may be exhibiting high-risk behavior. It can be terrifying if we decide to react to these behaviors without a plan to serve the needs of the students engaged in them, but youth ministries don’t need to be afraid of high-risk teens.
Negative reactions to avoid:
Negative reactions to teens involved in high-risk behavior would include: discouraging their attendance, negative messaging about potential consequences rather than positive guidance towards healthy behavior, and any form of shaming. All of these reactions typically make students feel judged and unwanted by the church.
By serving the needs of high-risk teens, we can introduce and demonstrate the love of Jesus and give them the opportunity to trade a life headed for destruction for a life filled with promise and purpose. I believe the church is perfectly positioned to do that. We cannot walk away from a ministry opportunity because of fear.
Three effective ways to minister to high-risk teens:
Offer healthy relationships.
Dr.Mercola at Mercola.com writes, “A child who feels loved, wanted, listened to and close to their parents is much less likely to engage in risky behaviors.” I think this is absolutely true. Teens who are not experiencing this closeness at home can experience the love and acceptance of Jesus through a church family. We can offer this as a youth ministry.
Years ago, I had a young man in youth ministry with a history of violence and he had already served time in Juvenile facilities. After he was involved in youth ministry for a few months, I witnessed something totally unexpected. He asked a core group of his friends to join him for a “family meeting.” I had no idea what this was about. He asked his entire group of friends not to be involved in any violence. He explained, “We used to fight because we were defending each other like brothers, but if I get in one little fight I’ll be put away for a long time. I don’t want to spend my teen life behind bars. If you love me, don’t fight. Because if you fight, I’m gonna want to defend you. We used to fight for each other because we said we loved each other, but now we need to not fight, if we really love each other.”
Connect them to meaningful ministry programs and values.
I’ve seen teens experience a complete turnaround when given the opportunity to be connected to meaningful ministry programs. This not only gives them a positive way to invest their time, but it also gives them a positive way to form bonds with their peers and adults, reducing their risk-taking behavior. Teens who have too much unstructured time in their schedule are at an increased risk to engage in dangerous behavior.
Here’s a great example of structured time that created healthy bonds and gave students a positive way to invest in themselves: Years ago, the youth ministry I was involved in collaborated with a local non-profit to provide after-school tutoring for teens free of charge. We were shocked at how quickly students came to us for help on a consistent basis. One student said to us, “No one has ever offered to help me with my school work.” Another student said, “If I wasn’t here working on school work I’d be out in the neighborhood probably getting into trouble.” Part of ministry to high risk students is giving them new ways to spend their time and invest in themselves and relationships. We have to make our best effort to let youth in our area know what we provide and that they are welcome to join us.
Affirm them and help them develop their identity in Jesus.
The biggest risk for teens engaging in high-risk behavior is losing themselves in their behavior or being identified by the church and by society solely by their behaviors. When we have the opportunity to love high-risk teens, we have to see past their behavior and affirm their identity in Jesus.
A young man in my youth ministry years ago was engaging in risky sexual behavior. He was very flirtatious and had been identified as a “player.” One night as he was making some off-color remarks to a few girls at youth group, I asked him to join me and one of our male staff in the office. He followed us into the office. He thought he was in trouble. I asked the Holy Spirit to speak through me and then began to affirm him. I shared with him that I saw a courageous loving person, someone searching, someone who loved people. I encouraged him to stop identifying as a player and to start identifying as the person I saw sitting in front of me: a man with a purpose loved by God. We offered to begin mentoring him and helping him find his identity in Christ and asked him if he would like to have a mentor. He accepted. By affirming him and offering mentorship, we helped him find his identity in Christ. A few months later when he shared with me that he hadn’t had sex for over a month, I took that as a victory. It was just the beginning for him.
I pray that we have the courage to not just react to high-risk behaviors, but that we would see students who are loved by God and would reach far and wide to meet their needs and lead them into the loving arms of Jesus.
What have you learned about helping students who are engaged in dangerous behavior?
Thanks for loving ALL students,