by Jeanne Mayo (Group Magazine Contributor)
It’s the kind of telephone call no youth leader ever wants to receive. One of our teenagers just attempted suicide—twice in one hour. So where am I in the midst of this trauma? Right by the young man’s side in the hospital, giving the kind of encouragement and hope every youth leader would want to give? Not hardly. I find myself hundreds of miles away at a youth leadership conference. Where do we go from here?
Thankfully, I’ve prioritized building a youth leadership team around me. So there are a couple of great young adults who are on their way to the hospital. Do these guys have extensive training in counseling or crisis intervention? I’m afraid not. Yet I’m authentically comfortable that they’ll be highly effective in this life-or-death scenario.
To help you understand my peace in this situation, let me reiterate my simple instructions to them. I think it’s the ultimate counseling advice most youth leaders need to remember. It pivots around seven simple words: “Don’t fix it until you feel it.”
This simple principle has served me through myriad counseling situations for nearly four decades. Though these situations often called for very different focuses, I started at the same pivotal place: I tried to make sure that my heart connected with the students and what they were going through before I began to share any thoughts or advice with them. Let me give you a few simple counseling highlights that go along with this principle:
1. Remember that listening is usually more healing than talking. We often forget this vital counseling insight. When a teenager starts to share, it’s a mistake to break into the conversation and quickly begin to dispense our “vital wisdom.” I think that simple awareness alone will make you profoundly more powerful in counseling situations.
2. Teach yourself to make “say-it-back statements.” By responding with phrases such as “That must have really hurt,” the student will sense that you’re connecting deeply with what he or she is feeling.
3. Never cheapen a problem by saying, “I know just how you feel.” It’s great to relate your own personal struggles to a teenager’s situation. But often, we spend three minutes listening and the next 10 minutes relating our own situation. I’m constantly amazed how many students say, “Thanks, Jeanne…you’ve really helped a lot” before I get a chance to say anything substantial at all. Why? I think the sheer act of deep listening is what helps most.
4. At all costs, avoid “T.R.T.” That stands for “typical religious talk.” I’m not saying to leave Scripture or prayer out of the conversation. I’m just suggesting that you make sure you’re doing more than spewing back some often-repeated religious jargon.
5. Know when to call in the pros. I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve been “over my head” in a counseling situation. I’ve often said, “I want to be your friend and help you through this situation, but can I connect you with someone who can be even more help to you than me?” Yet student after student has told me later that the pro’s advice wasn’t nearly as meaningful as my personal love and concern. So even after you make a referral, don’t underestimate the power of your continued listening and friendship.
In short, I have great news for you today. If you’ve had little or no professional training in counseling, you can still be immensely significant in teenagers’ lives. When they start to share their hearts with you, just mentally repeat “Lord, help me not to fix it before I feel it.” The results will make you a valued counselor. I promise.
– Jeanne Mayo is a longtime youth minister, author, speaker, and ministry resourcer. Visit her Web site—www.youthsource.com—for advice, ideas, and resources. She lives in Georgia.