Long gone are the carefree days of youth.
The modern teen is stressed out. With sports travel teams, AP classes, gifted programs, standardized testing, band/dance/cheer/sports camps, and college application essays, today’s teenager feels the pressure to perform. And this doesn’t take into account the anxiety of dating, social media, loneliness, peer pressure, peer approval, faith, etc.
Anxiety specialist Dr. Richard Leahy was quoted as saying; “The average high school student kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s” (quoted in Tullian Tchividijian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace For An Exhausted World).
I thought Leahy’s understanding of teen anxiety was an overstatement until I asked some of my high school students what they thought. Their response to Leahy’s observation was overwhelming. Things they said were:
“I worry about what I will do for the rest of my life . . . I don’t know what I want to major in when I go to college . . . and if I can’t make a decision, will my parents try to make the decision for me?”
“I worry about my dating relationships? Will we break-up or get married? There doesn’t seem to be anything in the middle.”
“High school is VERY competitive.”
“I feel like I’m failing if I’m not taking AP classes.”
“Doing ‘my best’ feels like failure.”
“I hate how the ACT determines my future.”
“I feel like I’m failing if I’m not running on coffee because clearly I’m too rested and could have studied more.”
“I worry that I will be alone for the rest of my life.”
“Everyone tells me to chase my dream, but good colleges are expensive. I don’t think my family can afford my dream.”
I failed to mention that I asked my students about their anxiety in the last five minutes of bible study. I was shocked to find that my students were this anxious. Their response led me to ask the question: how can we as youth leaders help students manage their anxiety?
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- Ask your students to talk specifics about their anxiety. I’ve asked students how their week has been or if they have any prayer requests, and they typically tell me things are “all good.” But when I asked them to talk about their anxiety, I learned that things are not “all good.” In fact, their lives are complicated, confusing and scary. Helping students talk about the things that make them feel anxious is a super effective way to help reduce the negative effects of anxiety.
- Take the word “drama” out of your youth ministry. The word “drama” has become commonplace when talking about teen problems (especially girl problems), but the word is demeaning, condescending, dismissive and, when only used to describe female struggles, sexist. Acknowledging students’ struggles with respect and understanding is another helpful technique for reducing the negative effects of anxiety.
- Use scripture wisely when talking about anxiety. Churchy clichés like, “Leave your anxiety at the cross,” or “Give your anxiety to Jesus,” or “If you truly loved Jesus you would not be anxious,” increases feelings of anxiety and shame in students. I like the idea of “leaving things at the cross,” but for many it just doesn’t seem to work. Telling someone to leave their anxiety at the cross is like telling youth workers to, “Leave your overly traditional congregation at the cross. Leave your overbearing parent at the cross. Leave your finances at the cross.” I don’t question the power of the cross or Jesus’ willingness to take our burdens; I question our overly simplistic interpretation of the two. Jesus can heal us from anything, but what if a student’s anxiety is their “thorn in the flesh”? Trying to not be anxious while linking it to faith is extremely anxiety provoking! We can reduce the power of anxious symptoms by owning our anxiety in the context of grace. A grace-focused understanding of anxiety understands that even though we are anxious, God loves and accepts us.
- Be a fan of your students (even if it means they miss camp). A kid can play travel baseball, love Jesus and be a youth group regular. Never shame a student for not coming to one of your events. Shame creates distance between people and God. Today’s teen is super involved in a lot of things, so maybe we as youth workers can respond by creatively rethinking our traditional youth schedules to accommodate busy teens. Becoming a supportive and caring adult in the lives of students is a great way to help reduce the negative effects of anxiety.
Helping students manage their anxiety can have a huge impact on how they respond to Jesus, make decisions, and develop as young adults. Next week I will write about the implications of anxiety in teens when it goes untreated and the implications of anxiety in teens when it is met with grace.
What do you think?