Fuller Youth Institute


This post is part of a series celebrating our newest parent resource, Right Click. Feel like your kids are drowning in a sea of new questions, apps, and devices? Want to talk about digital media more with your kids, but aren’t sure how? Focused on helping parents think and talk differently about digital media, Right Click equips families like yours to approach this new connected world like a team. What’s your #rightclick?

1. Researchers have helpfully identified three reasons people play digital games: to kill time, to hang out, and for recreation.[1] 

Killing time refers to quick games kids play when they have a few minutes to spare between activities. Using a handheld game or puzzle to fill moments like this is certainly nothing new. App games have replaced distractions like the marbles or Rubik’s Cubes of yesteryear.

Hanging out is probably what most of us envision as the “typical” teen mode of gaming—playing games with friends and family as a way to relax and escape the stresses of everyday life.

Recreational gaming refers to when someone specifically wants to play a game—with or without others. The game is no longer just filling the void of “nothing better to do.”

These categories offer helpful distinctions; if a person or group is looking for something to do and chooses to play video games, it is hanging out. If they specifically want to make time for playing video games, it is recreational. This does not make recreational gaming inherently bad, it just means this type of play has become a more intentional hobby. And hobbies become an important part of a young person’s identity.

2. Gaming has become pervasive enough that it brings some measure of the same social benefits young people find from other hobbies: practicing to master certain skills, feelings of achievement outside of the classroom, and respect from peers.

A number of studies have also found that gaming has potential to be a healthy, positive recreational activity. Games have been found to improve perceptual skills, visual attention, and spatial skills, and they can be powerful learning tools.[2]

Contrary to how we often perceive gaming, it is not necessarily an inferior alternative to other activities like art, music, drama, or sports. Gaming has become an important and [mostly] healthy part of teen culture that can equip young people in distinct ways for future careers in fields like engineering, architecture, and information/technology. 

3. Recent data suggests that teens in the U.S. spend an average of one hour and thirteen minutes playing video games, three to four days per week (roughly four or five hours total per week).[3] If your kids are playing much more than this and arguing that “everyone” gets to play more, you can actually defend yourself with data.

4. The amount of time spent gaming peaks between the ages of eight and thirteen and then tapers off for many young people. This doesn’t mean parents should cut kids off after their fourteenth birthday, but it may alleviate some of your concern to know that kids’ interest is likely to wane as they get older. 

5. Gaming might be a problem when it becomes disruptive to other responsibilities such as homework and chores. If a young person begins skipping these other duties, it could be a sign that their gaming is becoming unhealthy.

If kids are playing too often or for too long, but still managing to get their responsibilities taken care of, they may just need other recreational options. Talk with your kids about their interests, and then ask other parents or church leaders for some suggestions.

6. Taking breaks while playing is extremely important. Gamers can fall into a “flow” state comparable to gambling when they play for long periods of time. Some games have been designed to break this flow with timed levels and narrative sequences; others cater to it by offering endless continuous action.

Extended gaming sessions of an hour or more should only be allowed if short breaks are taken frequently throughout. The way television shows are broken up might be a good rule of thumb: brief interruptions every fifteen minutes, a short break every thirty minutes, and a longer break after an hour.

7. There are now more adult gamers than ever before, which means there are more games made specifically for an adult audience. Keep track of the games your kids are playing to make sure the content is appropriate, just like you would for movies or music. We encourage you to check out the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) website: www.esrb.org. This organization is responsible for assigning video game ratings, and they offer a lot of great resources for parents.

8. Most video game consoles and devices have built-in features that allow parents to limit how long their children can play, restrict accessing the Internet through the system, and in some cases can even block games above a certain content rating (e.g., “T for Teen” or “M for Mature”). In addition to info on game ratings, the ESRB website can help you set these up.

9. A common trick young people pull is to ask extended family members and friends to give them games with higher ratings than appropriate for birthdays or as Christmas presents. If your kids have a generous grandmother or unassuming uncle from whom they typically receive gifts, make sure these folks know what your standards are and how to check ratings.

10. Several parents told us that their kids (sons in particular) would get extremely angry while playing certain games. While games can be a good cathartic outlet for adolescents, and part of what makes any game fun is yelling and getting excited when the action picks up, make sure this doesn’t get out of hand. Encourage kids to stop playing games that elicit intense anger and instead opt for others that are equally as fun and challenging. Some parents have noticed that games in which players are first-person-shooters are especially prone to excessive anger, so keep that in mind as you’re making gaming decisions as a family.

One mom told us that she took a particular game away because of the way it stirred up rage in her son, but she also bought him a replacement game so he wouldn’t feel punished. “I just didn’t like the game, and when we talked about it he kind of realized ‘Wow, it is stupid to get so mad about a game.’ So I let him pick out a new one that was fun but a little more mellow.” 

Find this helpful? There’s way more! Download a free sample chapter of Right Click HERE today


[1] Mizuko Itō et al., Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media.

[2] Lavinia McLean and Mark Griffiths, “The psychological effects of videogames on young people,” Aloma 31 (1): 19-133. See also Richard De Lisi and Jennifer L. Wolford, “Improving children’s mental rotation accuracy with computer game playing,” Journal of Genetic Psychology 163 (3): 272-282.; Jing Feng, Ian Spence, and Jay Pratt, “Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition,” Psychological Science 18 (10): 850-855; C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier, “Action video games modify visual selective attention,” Nature 423 (May 29, 2003): 534- 537; C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier, “Enumeration versus multiple object tracking: The case of action video game players,” Cognition 101 (August 2006): 217-245.

[3] “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-to 18-Year-Olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study,” a survey by The Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010, available at: http://kff.org.

This post is part of a series celebrating our newest parent resource, Right Click. Feel like your kids are drowning in a sea of new questions, apps, and devices? Want to talk about digital media more with your kids, but aren’t sure how? Focused on helping parents think and talk differently about digital media, Right Click equips families like yours to approach this new connected world like a team. What’s your #rightclick?

If you’re like us, you have wondered more than once what age is the “right” age to start using a particular digital device, app, or social media platform.

When we talk with parents about this, many express feeling like they’re holding the line in a battle for as long as possible. They feel constant pressure, from multiple sources, for kids to start using more and more digital technology at earlier and earlier ages.

That cultural pressure makes this question particularly tough.

We can tell you what doctors recommend, what legal regulations say, or various other pros and cons; but when your kids’ school tells you they need an email account, or their coach tells you they will be coordinating practice times by text message, or your teen comes home and tells you the irrefutable sad refrain, “All my friends have one!”—the data seems to go out the window. Here are a few tips:

1. Listen to what the doctors sayThe American Association of Pediatrics recommends keeping “screen-free zones” in the house, especially a young person’s bedroom, as well as “screen-free times” like during meals. They also recommend just one to two hours of entertainment screen time per day, and zero screen time at all for children under two years old.

Keep in mind that these are the same people who recommend brushing your teeth three times a day, sleeping eight hours a night, daily exercise, and a well-balanced diet—they set the bar at “best-case scenario.” But that best-case scenario is based on what’s good for our bodies, minds, and emotions. Aiming high never hurts.

2. The magic number is 13. The minimum age required for Facebook, iTunes, G-Mail, Pinterest, SnapChat, Instagram, and a host of other social networks is 13. If you have a child under the age of 13 who is using these platforms, you can appeal to terms of use and the current law (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA) to draw a line.

3. Talk with other parentsMost parents feel left on their own to make decisions about digital media. Agreeing to particular standards (like holding the age 13 lower limit) with other parents in your community provides some peace of mind, and can be helpful when teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and so on try to push toward using particular contact platforms by providing strength in numbers.

4. Remember why it matters. These devices and platforms are to our kids like the Air Jordans, leather jackets, Walkmans, or whatever else were to you at their age. It is easy to get misdirected by questions of convenience, necessity, requirement for school, and so on. What is at stake for a lot of young people when they ask, then beg, for these devices or networks is a feeling of fitting in and self-worth. Take that into consideration, show empathy, and remember how important social access and status symbols seemed to you in your adolescent journey.

How are you managing the “How young is too young?” conversation in your family or ministry?

Share your ideas in comments below or via social media using the hashtag #rightclick.

This is a free sample from the introduction and first session of our all-new high school curriculum, Can I Ask That Volume 2: More Hard Questions About God & Faith.

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Can I Ask That?

It was the little things that did it.

Not big stuff like doubting the existence of God altogether, but little stuff. Like hanging out with her best friend from Thailand whose family practiced Buddhism. Or her church leaders’ lack of response to two huge back-to-back incidents of racial injustice in national news.

It was the little things that led to Kayla’s drift from God.

One of those little things was the way her parents responded when she pointed out things in the Bible that didn’t make sense or didn’t seem very loving. How could God be all-loving and then damn good people to hell for eternity? Can we do anything that God wouldn’t forgive? Whenever Kayla raised a question like this, her parents either flipped out or shut her down with their blanket response for everything: “We just have to trust that the Bible is right and not expect it to defend God to us.”

At church it was more subtle. Kayla could see her volunteer youth leaders’ inconsistencies in the way they were living outside of church and by what they shared on social media. She wasn’t sure she really knew any people who were living out all the stuff they said they believed. And whenever someone questioned God or a Bible passage in youth group, the high school pastor would respond without really answering the question and then change the subject.

Yeah, lots of little things.

So when Kayla found herself as a junior telling her parents that she didn’t want to go to youth group anymore, she couldn’t fully explain why. But she knew what she couldn’t do: ask questions. For too long and from too many voices, her questions just didn’t seem good enough for the church or her parents. Or God.

Or maybe the bigger problem was that God wasn’t big enough to handle real questions. Who needs a God like that?

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Photo by Chris Martin.

Whether summer seems far away or already half over, here's a playlist you can return to again and again for ideas to keep your family connected and building Sticky Faith this summer!​

1. The best family summer ever

Practical ideas for making a family summer plan together.

2. Get help navigating technology with your kids

Learn how to navigate technology with your family.

3. Using social media to strengthen family bonds

A practical guide for parents who might be feeling powerless and clueless when it comes to leveraging technology to boost their relationships.

4. Twenty Ideas for Grandparents

Summer is a great time to boost the grandparent connection! Encourage them with this best-of list.

5. Parenting strategies for launching kids into adulthood

This one's just for parents of recent grads and rising seniors over the summer. And actually, here’s part two as well.

Are you a ministry leader? Check out our Surviving the Summer Playlist just for you!

As a leader, you never forget the first wedding you perform. For me, it was for one of my youth group graduates.

While I was a bit nervous about my first time officiating a wedding, at least I had been a bridesmaid before and had some idea of what would happen. What scared me more was premarital counseling. I was single at the time, so I had no personal experience from which to draw. 

That’s why I’m glad for resources like Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts by Fuller School of Psychology grads Les and Leslie Parrott. I had lunch with the Parrotts a few months ago, and loved hearing their passion for equipping pastors to launch couples on a trajectory of healthy and flourishing marriages.

Whether you’re single or married—and whether you’ve performed hundreds of wedding ceremonies or none—the practical ideas the Parrotts share in this interview will be useful the next time you find yourself preparing a couple for marriage.

Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott are #1 New York Times best-selling authors of numerous books. Leslie, a marriage and family therapist, and Les, a psychologist, are professors and founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. They’ve appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, Today Show, The View, and Oprah. Read our first interview with Les and Leslie on “Relationship help for busy parents.”

The Parrotts are also founders of the highly acclaimed pre-marriage tool, the SYMBIS Assessment. For those of you who find yourselves doing any kind of pre-marriage counseling, the Parrotts are offering a limited-time fifty percent discount to friends of FYI. Check out the special discount code at the end of the interview!


FYI: What convinced you to put so much emphasis on pre-marital work in your writing and training?

Les: We never had pre-marriage counseling, but we spent the first year of our marriage in therapy.

Leslie: That’s the truth. We had a tough first year of marriage – even after dating through most of high school and college. We had very little preparation. And we weren’t the only ones.

Les: The sad fact is that even today, the church does a pretty poor job of helping couples prepare for marriage. Ministers aren’t really trained in how to do it well and so they end up doing what they can, and too often they focus as much on the ceremony they’ll be preparing as they do the relationship that follows.

Leslie: Soon after graduating from Fuller, we took teaching positions at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school, and quickly learned that our students who were headed toward marriage weren’t getting much from their own churches when it came to launching lifelong love. That’s when we started holding an annual event in Seattle we called “Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts” – SYMBIS, for short.

Les: SYMBIS became pretty popular. We soon had hundreds of couples attending annually. So we wrote a book (and his/her workbooks) by the same title. And then Oprah invited us to talk about it on her program. Since then, that book has sold more than a million copies.


FYI: What are some of the most common surprises couples find after the wedding that could have been prevented by preparing better ahead of time?

Les: We sometimes liken pre-marriage work to teaching someone how to use Excel on their computer when they have no real-life application for it. Their eyes roll back in their head and it becomes a real snooze fest. If pre-marriage isn’t done effectively, it’s the same thing; it leads couples to thinking they have prepared for marriage when they really haven’t.

Leslie: That’s the biggest surprise for some couples. They thought they knew what married life would be like and it didn’t turn out that way. Of course, that’s not their fault. Those of us who are preparing them have to take responsibility to do a better job.

Les: So true. And on a practical level, we can do better at helping couples get healthy. We often say that a person’s marriage can only be as healthy as the least healthy person in it. This is key, helping two individuals be healthy. That means spotting caution flags for them so they can work on their issues. Awareness is sometimes the biggest part of the cure. Holding a figurative mirror up to couples before they are married to show them a clear picture of their psychological and spiritual wellbeing is imperative.


FYI: When you think about your experiences with ministry leaders, and youth pastors in particular, what do you think are the top few mistakes we tend to make in helping couples prepare for marriage?

Leslie: The biggest mistake by far is not knowing what content to cover, and then not covering the right content in a personal fashion – so it applies to the couple in specific and concrete ways. It’s a fatal error, because as ministers we can feel like we are doing “the work” with a couple when we are simply going through the motions. And the heartbreak of it is that ministers don’t even know it.

Les: Exactly. Research is very clear on what works and what doesn’t. And some of what works can be counter-intuitive. For example, most ministers don’t know that there are “marriage mindsets.” Every individual about to be married has an attitude toward marriage. It might be “romantic,” or “rational,” or “resolute,” for example. And the attitude of both persons in a couple, when they mesh, can predict fairly accurately the kind of road they will travel together early on. But most ministers don’t know about this research.

Leslie: Another mistake occurs when we project our own story of marriage onto the couples in our care. Every couple is unique. We can’t afford to assume they will have the same experience we did. What helped you may not be nearly as helpful to them. We’ve got to understand the couple we are working with – really get an accurate picture of their personalities, for example.


FYI: What are the most important two things a leader needs to know about counseling a couple prior to marriage?

Les: Every leader needs to know that each person in every couple has unique needs, expectations, pain-points, wounds, goals, and aspirations. Every person relates to God and to their partner in distinctive ways. We give and receive love uniquely through the lens of how God made us. So when you are counseling a young couple, don’t project onto them, don’t assume you know what they need before you understand who they are.

Leslie: Another important point, in my opinion, is to have a roadmap. Know where you want to take a couple through the pre-marriage process. Be their guide. Know when to go “off road” in the process, but ensure that you get them to their destination. And what is that? It’s to a place where they are equipped as well as possible to enjoy lifelong love that honors God. That’s an incredible task. But it’s more doable today than ever. The roadmap is readily available. It stems from God’s Word and helps couples begin their marriage journey – not with mere optimism and hope – but with proven skills and in-depth understanding of one another and God’s path for one of the greatest journeys this life can provide.


FYI: How has your approach to pre-marital counseling and preparation changed over the years?

Leslie: So much has changed – primarily because we have better tools than ever before. And more research to know exactly what helps most (and what doesn’t help that we once thought did). It’s one thing to teach communication skills, for example. But it’s entirely different to teach those skills in the context of each person’s unique personality.

Les: We often say to couples: “There has never been a marriage like yours before, and there never will be again.” Why? Because the combination of two unique personalities has so many facets.

Leslie: That’s why these days we can help couples understand their “talk styles” – how God hardwired them for communication – rather than trying to teach universal skill sets that may or may not work for them.

Les: It’s very exciting to teach skill sets, whether it’s communication, conflict resolution, spiritual intimacy, and all the rest, through the lens of each person’s unique personality.

Leslie: Can you tell we are pretty excited about this? It’s fair to say we are actually obsessed with helping pastors help couples launch lifelong love successfully these days – more than ever!


FYI: You are currently updating SYMBIS and have built something you say is a game-changer around it, right?

Les: That’s right. We have a completely updated edition of the book, workbooks and video curriculum. But we’ve poured a ton of effort and resources into building what we call the SYMBIS Assessment. After completing a “listening tour” with hundreds of churches, asking what they are doing when it comes to pre-marriage and what would help them do it better, the thing that bubbled to the surface was clear: Ministers wanted a robust, contemporary, and full-featured assessment they could use with today’s couples.

Leslie: We took that as a mandate to create that kind of assessment.

FYI: How does the SYMBIS Assessment work for pastors – especially youth ministers?

Les: It’s simple. You get trained and certified as a SYMBIS Facilitator. That takes 3 hours and you do it at your own pace online. Then you invite the couples in your care to take the assessment online and it generates a 15-page report on their relationship. This report is what you unpack with the couple (you can do this in small groups and classes, as well).

Leslie: It makes the pre-marriage process so much easier and effective for any pastor. The SYMBIS Report has discussion starters baked right in. You’ll never wonder what to do with a couple. It provides structure and a map for your sessions, making the process engaging and nearly fool-proof.


Special deal for leaders who do premarital counseling:

FYI and the Parrotts are partnering to offer you a FIFTY PERCENT DISCOUNT on Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts Facilitator training! Enter the Discount Code F7DFFD1 at SYMBISassessment.com/facilitators between now and April 30 to become a facilitator at half the normal rate (a $100 value).

It’s probably no surprise that we think relationships are pretty valuable here at FYI. Research continues to affirm what we know from Scripture and experience: young people need strong relationships with their parents and with other adults in order to truly thrive. That’s why we interviewed 50 amazing families as part of our research for The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family so we could understand more about what makes family relationships sing.

Along the way, we have learned from folks who are experts in family relationships. At the top of that list are Fuller School of Psychology grads Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott. I’ve had the joy of learning from the Parrotts’ wisdom, and invited them to share insights with parents like you.

Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott are #1 New York Times best-selling authors of numerous books, including The Parent You Want to Be, Helping Your Struggling Teenager, and the award-winning Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. Leslie, a marriage and family therapist, and Les, a psychologist, are professors and founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. They’ve appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, Today Show, The View, and Oprah. The Parrotts are also founders of the highly acclaimed pre-marriage tool, the SYMBIS Assessment. To find out more about them, visit www.LesandLeslie.com.

FYI: You’ve been talking about relationships for decades. What can parents of teenagers do when it comes to their own marriages?

Leslie: I love this question because it almost subsumes the answer within it. Parents of teens need to nurture their marriage. We know from research it’s the most neglected season in a couple’s life. You will find the lowest levels of satisfaction in marriage across the board with couples who have teenagers in their home.

Les: And that’s not all because of the teens. It’s mid-life and other factors, as well. But teens contribute to it, for sure.

Leslie: We’ve all heard that the most important thing parents can do for their children is to have a loving marriage. There’s so much truth to that. So what can parents of teens do for their marriage? One answer will come across as so hackneyed but it’s so true: build a consistent date night into your relationship.

Les: But not just any date night. Why? Because research reveals that couples who fall into a predictable routine of a movie and a dinner for their date night, for example, don’t get nearly as much out of their dates as couples who do novel experiences. If you want to really turbo power the positive effects of a date night, try unique experiences together.

Leslie: We actually went to a trapeze class on a date not too long ago. Crazy, right? We also went paddle boarding. Trust me, these kinds of activities do not come naturally. It would be easier to just go to a nice dinner (and we do that, too), but we know that your neurochemistry actually changes as a couple (like it did when you were first dating) when you do things together that get you out of your rut. Every mom and dad of a teenager needs to consider that.

FYI: What questions do you hear most from parents about their teenaged kids?

Les: Parents wonder about a lot of things, some of the most common being eating disorders, identity issues, video game addiction, peer pressure, masturbation, alcohol, loneliness, and so on.

Leslie: But we also hear questions like, “How do I get my kid to do such and such?” Parents seem to want a magic technique or formula for eliciting the kinds of behaviors they desire. Understandable, for sure. But if there’s any advice we feel compelled to give parents of teenagers, it’s this: Focus more on the kind of parent that you want to be than the kind of kid you want to raise. Why? Because when you do the former, the latter almost takes care of itself.

Les: We wrote a book called The Parent You Want to Be that’s all about the qualities you want your kids to see in you. And that’s what we’ve focused on most with our two boys. We want to be affirming and visionary parents, for example. Wanting that and being that are two different things. We fail miserably some days. But we know that being is often more important that doing because it’s what stays with your child years from now.

FYI: When parents see their kids start to explore dating and romantic relationship interests, they often freak out. What words or advice do you have for parents in that phase?

Les: Every teenager is different. We can’t give blanket statements, for example, about when it’s appropriate for your son or daughter to start dating. That has so much to do with each teenager’s maturity level. Some 16-year-olds seem like 14, while others seem like 18.

Leslie: Well, not only that, but “dating” is not what it used to be. It’s worlds away from what you as a parent experienced. Asking to “hang out” is more frequent than dating.

Les: So when you ask for words of advice, our answer is simple: empathize. Work diligently to put yourself in your child’s shoes and see their world as they do. This doesn’t mean pestering them with a million questions, but it does mean not projecting your own assumptions onto them. And it means listening with a “third ear” to their feelings – even when they don’t express them out loud. The more your child feels understood by you and feels that you genuinely want the very best for them, they will open up and come to you for advice.

Leslie: That’s when you can have conversations about their relationships, being ever so sensitive, of course. But empathy doesn’t mean you don’t set up guidelines for your child’s dating world, too. And the dating decisions you make with them at 15 are different than 18.

FYI: For parents slogging through the deep waters of the teenage and young adult years, what two relationship tips would you give them to help keep their own marriage strong?

Les: First, slay the time dragon that can so easily wreak havoc on your relationship. Few things pull a couple apart more significantly and sometimes subtly than simply not having enough quality time for each other.

Leslie: I completely agree. Time is a precious commodity for couples in a busy household with teenagers. Managing your kid’s schedules on top of your own can sabotage your time as a couple.

Les: That’s why you’ve got to carve grooves into the routine of your day, your week and your month to ensure you have couple time. It may be as simple as having 15 minutes together after dinner, just the two of you, to take a walk or chat about your days. It may mean reserving a time for date nights. It may mean having a weekend get-away every quarter. Whatever it is, you need to be intentional. Otherwise, it just won’t happen.

Leslie: And the second thought that immediately comes to mind is prayer. Sure, this may sound a bit perfunctory. After all, church-going parents already pray, right? But if there is ever a time to envelop your child, your marriage, and your home in God’s wisdom, grace, and guidance, it’s now.

Les: It seems like my continual prayer these days, with a pre-teen and a 17-year-old, is for the Holy Spirit to help me do the things as a father and a husband that I already know to do. I can’t do them on my own strength.

Leslie: Amen to that. Most of us don’t need new things to do to be better on the home front. We just need God’s strength and abiding Spirit to do what we already know needs to be done today.

Watch for Part 2 of this interview with Les and Leslie, especially for leaders:Practical help for the ministry leader preparing couples for marriage,” coming soon!

Photo by paul.

How do I know if he’s depressed or if this is just normal teenage behavior?

This mom could no longer tell the difference between teen angst and moodiness and something more serious. She brought her son to my counseling office and asked the question that echoes concerns I’ve heard from parents through the years, both as a therapist and a ministry leader.

Under this mom’s concern is the fear many parents have when it comes to the issue of depression and teenagers: Am I going to miss something crucial in their mental health which could lead to serious consequences?

This is a good instinct, because like many issues related to mental health, there are two really important factors that frequently obscure the true nature of what is going on: First, depression itself can be somewhat tricky to diagnose, not to mention deciding what type of depression is at hand. Second, there are cultural contexts in which talk of depression (like that of anxiety) brings about lots of shame and guilt, often driving those who suffer from it underground in order to avoid any stigma.

Discerning depression

Most parents can paint a picture that describe their teenager’s behavior as (though not limited to) moping around the house, spending inordinate amounts of time alone in their room, seeming emotionally short-fused in verbal tone and responses, and generally refusing to engage in family activities. These are some of the things that often stand out when concerns begin to creep up about depression.

The problem, of course, is that most of us can recall times in our adolescent years when we mimicked similar behavior, and we may have not been depressed. I vividly remember a time when I was about 17 years old and my dad sat me down and told me that it felt like they were running a hotel and restaurant for me and that I showed little desire to engage with the rest of the family. Was I depressed? Possibly. But I was also 17 and in the midst of significant transitions in my life surrounding school, identity/relationship/faith formation, not to mention all the changes in brain development. 1

So how do we understand depression at work in the lives of our teenagers?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America write that:

“Depression is a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested in life in general. When these feelings last for a short period of time, it may be a case of ‘the blues.’

But when such feelings last for more than two weeks and when the feelings interfere with daily activities such as taking care of family spending time with friends, or going to work or school, it’s likely a major depressive episode." 2

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that “About 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18" 3 and that in the past it was thought that young people actually couldn’t suffer from true clinical depression. But today we know so much more about depression. The NIMH reports, “We now know that youth who have depression may show signs that are slightly different from the typical adult symptoms of depression. Children who are depressed may complain of feeling sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent or caregiver, or worry excessively that a parent may die. Older children and teens may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative or grouchy, or feel misunderstood." 4

When you look at the research on depression and its symptoms, you will find a list that runs across organizations and resources like the NIMH, ADAA, and the DSM. Some of the symptoms of depression that you might notice in your teenager include:

  • persistent feeling of being sad or anxious, or describing themselves as feeling “empty”.
  • a loss of interest in activities that your teenager used to find pleasurable like a particular hobby, sport, or time with friends.
  • change in eating habits (not eating/overeating) and sleeping habits (inability to sleep/sleeping a lot).
  • describing themselves in ways that are shaming, as well as talking about feeling worthless and helpless.
  • decreased level of energy and fatigue, and an inability to concentrate on tasks or make decisions.
  • change in mood (irritability, irrationality, etc.)
  • thoughts and talk of suicide.
  • physical issues such as aches and pain, or digestive issues that don’t seem to go away.

If you are a parent or work with teenagers it can be difficult to determine the difference between “normal” teenage behavior and a teenager who is depressed. Back to my story above, when I was 17 and my dad confronted me about my behavior, was I depressed? I had always excused that phase as some type of adolescent angst, until I began to work more on my own family of origin issues (specifically the death of my mom when I was 11 due to breast cancer) as well as learning more about depression. I’m now convinced I actually was pretty depressed at that stage of my life, but the resources and tools were not available then to help those around me make discerning decisions about what I was going through.

So when you wonder about depression and teenagers, you may find it helpful to ask yourself a couple of questions:

1) Do the behaviors I am witnessing deviate from the typical and “normal” behaviors of this teenager?

2) Has there been some recent event that might be related to this change in behavior and mood in this teenager?

Once you can answer these questions, a few follow-ups help the process of discerning what to do next:

1) Is this behavior some form of depression brought on by the onset of something such as the death of a loved one, a rejection by a close friend, or failing to get onto the team or into the school they had hoped for?

2) Is this behavior a part of their personality?

3) Have I always thought this was part of their personality, but could be a form of long-term depression? In my own teenage story, what was probably seen as some quiet and withdrawn personality trait or some form of teen angst was probably an ongoing struggle with depression that was being masked.

As a therapist these questions often help me formulate some type of possible diagnosis so that I may begin to know what steps to take next. But sometimes I have a hard time knowing what to do next. If you find yourself unsure of what the next steps are for you, this is when I would recommend that you seek out professional help.

What can we do to help?

Depression, like talk of suicide, is one of those mental health issues that many people find overwhelming. It’s easy to feel helpless. I believe we all can utilize a specific set of skills that can be helpful to those teenagers around us suffering from depression.


One of the worst things we can do to someone who is suffering with depression is to judge them. When someone is depressed they are already wrestling with feelings of worthlessness and shame, and further judgment only perpetuates this shame cycle and drives the person further into hiding. Often people look at those with depression and think, “If they just do this … or that,” but what we fail to realize is that depression can have a decimating effect on even basic actions like eating, sleeping, exercising, and prayer.

Instead, work towards approaching those with depression with empathy and compassion. Ask yourself the question, “What do I need to do to get in their shoes and see things from their perspective?” These forms of understanding defuse judgment and make it safe for the person with depression to come out of isolation and hopefully engage in a way that is life giving.

Unfortunately, one of the more unsafe places for teenagers to talk about their depression has been in the Christian community, which has historically been stuck in all kinds of unfortunate stigmas related to mental health. I have voiced my concerns before about the perception of depression in the Christian community 5 , but we have a long way to go still.


Depression is multi-faceted and needs a very robust approach. If you know a teenager struggling with depression, I recommend that you keep your options open and explore all kinds of possible treatment. Pastoral caregiving, professional counseling, and psychiatric medication could all be helpful at different times, as well as looking at various aspects of self-care and the young person’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual lives.

Begin by engaging that teenager in a non-judging way to best determine what they may need. In my experience, some teenagers navigate through depression in a healthy way because there is someone present in their life who cares about them. Sometimes a teenager may need the safe space of counseling for a few months to work through depression, and other times playing pick-up basketball with a friend may do the trick. The point is that not one size fits all, and it’s helpful to experiment with different approaches and see what works.


One of the most powerful transforming agents in the life of someone who is struggling with depression is the healing presence of someone else. A presence that is non-judging, compassionate and empathetic, and willing to just be with the person suffering from depression. Too often we find ourselves wanting to try to do something to fix the person who is depressed, when one of the only things we can really offer is our ability to sit with them. I believe that one of the reasons people struggle to be with someone they know who suffers from depression is because it bumps up against their own feelings of inadequacy and inability to find a quick fix.

In his beautiful book Let Your Life Speak, 6 educator Parker Palmer talks quite vulnerably about his own seasons of depression. He notes that one of the most helpful things he experienced was a friend who was willing just to be present. Palmer talks about how this friend asked permission to come by every day at four o’ clock in order to take off Palmer’s shoes and massage his feet. In an interview with On Being host Krista Tippett, Parker states:

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side. 7

An Opportunity for Growth

I know few teenagers who escape adolescence without some brush with depression. The teenage years are full of difficult transitions, broken relationships, peer pressure, struggles at home, school and work, which make that time of life a ripe environment for depression to take root.

Ultimately, I believe one of the best things we can offer a teenager who is struggling with depression, is the opportunity to help them see their pain and suffering as a catalyst for growth in their lives. But it is a journey they can’t enter into on their own, and you may be that trusted guide they are needing and wanting.

Action Points

  • Is there a teenager in your home or your ministry who is showing signs of depression? Check the list in the “Discerning depression” section above and think about whether those signs exist in ways that are becoming disruptive to everyday life.
  • Think about ways to talk with your teenager in a non-judgmental and non-threatening posture about what is going on, and offer to help or to seek help. Try to identify someone they can go to who they already trust to talk with about this, if they don’t want to talk to you.
  • As Rhett suggests, consider a cluster of support that addresses depression from multiple angles rather than assuming one counseling session or prescription will resolve the issue. Locate and talk with other parents whose children have suffered from depression, and other adults who face depression themselves. Ask them what helps, what doesn’t, and what resources in your community might be particularly useful.

Photo by battle14

It all happened in the same week. My mentor in youth ministry (who also happened to be my boss) was called to serve at another church. And a student attempted suicide.

I was out late three nights in a row running youth events and going to meetings. Those three nights were my weekend.

Then Monday came, and I went right back to work.

That week happened over six years ago, but I remember it well. I remember thinking that I could not wait to get it all as far as behind me as possible. Plus, I was a youth pastor. Youth pastors have a special, God-given ability to bear heavy burdens and keep up to speed... right?

Maybe I didn’t know how to reflect on and grieve those losses. Or maybe it was just avoidance.

The truth is, what I experienced that week was intense. I experienced a lot of loss. There was emotional loss, physical loss, relational loss, and more. I am not alone in experiencing these losses as a youth pastor. We sit with students and their families in their stuff all week. It often can feel like too much to deal with our own stuff too. It can be easier to just ignore our losses and start planning the next talk or retreat.

The majority of youth ministry programming is now almost completely “downloadable.” From youth talks to inspiring videos and game ideas, the majority of that stuff is just one click away. What is not downloadable is caring for the soul of the youth pastor. It does not matter if you are just starting out in student ministry or if you have been doing this for over thirty years, self- and soul-care will always be challenging for us. We have to practice self-care, and part of that is naming and facing our losses.

Naming Our Losses

Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, pastoral care experts, identified six primary losses that most pastors experience. [1] Working from this list, I surveyed fifteen youth pastors of varying age and experience in order to get a snapshot of how these losses resonate with everyday youth ministry leaders. What I found was that the survey became a safe place for youth pastors to unload their grief. The research suggests that loss is a serious issue for pastoral leaders, and that our losses are seldom addressed.

Role Loss

Seventy-five percent of the youth pastors I surveyed spent the majority of their reflection on role loss.

One of the most common experiences for the young adult youth pastor is finding community for themselves. A lot of youth pastors stand in a generational gap in their church community and find it difficult to develop close friendships in the church that are differentiated from their role in the community as youth pastor. This situation adds to the difficulty for many youth pastors to maintain spiritual life in their own community.

When I attended social functions with families from the church, I often found myself surrounded by teenagers because they knew I was the only adult who would not ignore them. As a result, it was sometimes difficult to engage in meaningful conversations with other adults.

The fact of the matter is that as youth pastors, we spend the majority of our time with youth. It is common to find ourselves feeling isolated from peers our own age as well as the greater church body.

Pastors in general struggle with isolation, role conflict, inability to trust on some levels - all of this leads to lack of community.

Not only is the youth pastor’s ministry to the church public, often our private lives are more public than desired. We have to think twice about where, when and how we go off the clock in our communities. As one leader lamented, “Everyone is watching you.”

Another possible role loss is rooted in the stereotypes often placed on youth pastors. I have heard a lot of them over the years. Youth pastors are seen as young, rowdy, uneducated, careless, full of energy, and likely to move on just when you get to know them. It can be an uphill battle to change these stereotypes, especially if the leader before you validated any of them. Stereotypes become losses leaders have to live with, grieve, and work against.

Relational Loss

Ministry leaders experience relational loss in our personal lives. Just like anyone else, we lose family members, co-workers, spouses, friends, and pets. Amidst the grief of our own losses, we must continue to be sources of support and spiritual guidance for our congregations through their seasons of loss.

Relational loss is just part of the game. It's painful, difficult, and inevitable. However, the loss of relationship could be lessened if the church would do a better job of taking care of youth ministers, giving them monetary and vocational value, and making the possibility of retaining youth ministers for a longer period of time.

While everyone experiences relational loss, there are some losses that are particular to the youth minister’s world. We lose students to graduation. We have to send them off well, honoring their time in our program while in the same breath building excitement and momentum for the new incoming class.

I often found that by the time a student was finishing high school, I was just beginning to really know them on a deep level. Then, in many cases these students left town to attend college somewhere and our relationship changed significantly.

This can often feel like losing a family pet on Monday and adopting a new one on Tuesday. Even if we said goodbye well, it still hurts.

Youth pastors can’t please everyone. We make people angry with some of our decisions, including students, parents, head pastors, and volunteer leaders.

When I had to “fire” my first small group leader… My reasons to let her go were extremely valid, but I lost her friendship and the friendship of her family in the process. The church subsequently lost a supportive family to another church down the road. My pastor was supportive, but it strained the life of the congregation. This was a painful, but real… loss.

There are a myriad of ways that youth pastors lose relationships with our students and leaders. Regardless of the reason, when a student or leader leaves, we lose a relationship in which we have invested deeply.

Loss of Identity

The youth pastor’s vocation comes with many challenges and expectations. Often there are layered and conflicting expectations from church staff, parents, and students. As one leader shared, “The expectations/disappointments that the youth pastor faces within themselves can lead to a lot of shame, guilt and further problems.” Grief experts call this “intrapsychic loss,” or the loss of hopes, dreams, and identity.

Because of all of the pressures on the leader, questions arise like, “Can I do this job for the rest of my life?”

For some, the dream of a happy marriage (or a marriage at all) and personal family life seems challenged by the call to be a youth pastor.

It is hard not to let your identity get wrapped up in the ups and downs of a student’s journey or to take their mistakes as signs of personal failure. As one leader shared:

Our spirituality becomes so enmeshed with growing the spirituality of others that we lose touch with ourselves in the process.

Our spiritual journey is not easier simply because we are pastors. We experience the complexities of the spiritual journey too. The youth pastor is often on the forefront of making theological statements about cultural issues. Students ask tough questions all the time, and we are supposed to be able to answer them. If we do not know the answer, what does that mean?

Finally, there is the loss of our own walk with God. There are weeks when we read the Bible only because we are teaching from it. There are weeks when we pray only because we lead two prayer meetings and there was prayer at the staff meeting. There are long stretches of time where we do not Sabbath… because we are too busy.

Functional Loss

This may sound surprising, but youth ministry leaders also often lose physical function. There’s the twisted ankle sustained while playing three straight hours of dodge ball. There is also the loss of staying in shape, which according to the survey is a common struggle for youth ministry leaders.

It's probably unfair for me to blame youth ministry, but I gained a lot of weight during my time as youth pastor because I didn't have the healthiest diet. Lots of pizza and ice cream bars.

It can be hard to take care of our bodies because of all of the fast food and because of our erratic calendars. Sometimes ministry schedules change dramatically from week to week. Youth events during the week are built around times that students are available, which means late nights, long weekends, and very few evenings spent at home during the workweek. These losses can directly affect our mood, our ability to sleep, and our ability to function well when we are “off the clock.”

I never felt encouraged to rest well. I always felt like my value as a youth pastor was tied to how many activities and events I was organizing.

Early in my career, because of the pressure put on me by my driven pastor, I sacrificed a lot of family time. Even though I changed my priorities, it is time I will never get back.

Functional loss may be one of the toughest losses to recover in youth ministry. As a result, this vocation has a history of burning people out … and quickly.

Systemic Loss

When I was hired on as a young youth pastor at my first full-time calling, my mentor was also on staff as a pastor. Within six months of my hiring, this close friend and boss received a call to another church over 400 miles away. After he told me, I cursed him under my breath and started praying that God would make his new job fall through… it didn’t. I had to grieve the loss of my mentor and friend, and I had to submit to new authority. My position on the church staff was never the same.

Sometimes our church staffing models and polity can be extremely frustrating. When the youth pastor disagrees with something, we often find we have little to no power, and that our voice is at the bottom of the ladder.

Our church session met on Tuesday night (when we had junior high group). As a result, I was assigned an elder who would represent the concerns of the youth ministry. During some years, the elder assigned was someone I had a close relationship with who I trusted to represent the youth ministry well. During the last few years, this was not the case, and there were several times I wish I had been able to participate in important discussions that directly affected me.

Youth pastors leave their positions. Sometimes we get fired. The process of leaving well and processing that loss can be very difficult, whatever the reason.

The one major career change I had in my life was due to being forced out of a church I had been at for almost 11 years. At the time, it was a devastating loss. I didn't know what to do with myself.

Hope in the Midst of Loss

It is important to keep in mind that loss is loss. No one can tell us how big or small our losses are, or how significant or insignificant our feelings of loss may be.

Our hope as ministry leaders is that God is present with us in our losses. When we voice our losses, it validates the real pain we experience. Finding others with whom we can be honest about our losses is one way we can begin to care for our own souls in the midst of grief. Working through our losses will grow and shape us in ways that will be obvious to our students and other leaders. Below are a few ideas to get started.

Next Steps for Youth Ministry Leaders

  1. Enter into a mindset of self-care, also known as “self-compassion.” This means acknowledging to yourself that it’s okay to give energy to your own care.
  2. Work through the types of loss named in the article and list one or two examples that come to mind for you right now for each category.
  3. Write down your feelings about these losses.
  4. Intentionally create space and time to grieve your losses. Consider inviting other trusted voices into this conversation who can hear you and grieve with you.
  5. Consider seeking out professional help from a spiritual director or a therapist.

Further Resources

[1] Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, All Our Losses, All Our Griefs: Resource for pastoral care (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983).

If you are a church ministry leader, pastor, Sunday School teacher, or small group leader, we think this resource will be perfect for you!

These five short films capture insights from the best research on family faith, as well as confessions and practical ideas from real parents like those in your group. Here are a few tips to help you set up and lead a series for parents:

1. Plan a 5-Week experience.

Depending on how much time you have available and the nature of your group, it’s possible you will want to spread out sessions every other week over 10 weeks instead. Note that the videos in sessions 1 and 5 are shorter, giving your group time to get to know each other and the topic on the front end, and then to process the series and formulate a family plan to conclude the series. Sessions can flex between 60-90 minutes depending on your context and the length of the group discussion.

2. Consider your audience.

Are you using the films within an established small group, or are you attempting to gather a new group of parents for this study? If you need to market this opportunity in your context, feel free to point parents to our website for background information (this is a good starting point), and make use of the #stickyfaithfamily hashtag. We think the films work well for parents of younger AND older kids, so feel free to cast the net wide to capture parents of young children, elementary-age kids, and teenagers. Single parents and grandparents raising grandkids should feel more than welcome. If you are not a parent, it may be wise to invite a seasoned parent or two to help lead the discussions. It will increase your credibility when you lean into the wisdom of experienced parents.

3. Watch the films ahead of time, and review the reflection questions before and after each film.

The films differ in length, and sessions 2-4 include both a dramatized story and an unscripted parent discussion. In particular, the content of Session 3 (Warm) includes a fairly intense narrative around a young adult daughter’s addictive lifestyle. You will want to prepare yourself for the kinds of emotions that may be stirred among your group during the post-film processing time.

We wrote reflection questions for each session, and created a downloadable handout that includes all of the before and after questions in a format your group can use to jot down their thoughts and capture ideas from others. Be sure to print these ahead of time for each participant. We also put the questions onscreen to facilitate group dialogue. They are geared to help participants connect the dots between the films’ insights and their own families. Guide the discussion time toward practical and implementable ideas that families can try right away.

4. You may want to link this series with a book study of The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family.

While the content is not identical, a few of the book chapters line up thematically with the films, and give more research and concrete examples for families wondering how each topic plays out in other families. The content in these videos relates to chapters 1-5 in the Guide, specifically:

  • Session 1: Why—Chapter 1
  • Session 2: Mirror—Chapter 2
  • Session 3: Warm—Chapters 3-4
  • Session 4: Spark—Chapter 5

Read the full product description

The remaining eight chapters in the book could be great fodder for an ongoing group discussion on building family faith.

5. Help parents live into the uniqueness of their own kids and families.

Hearing other parents’ stories can make parents feel inferior about themselves, their kids, or their own family practices. Remind your group that each family is unique, with unique personalities, relationships, and family dynamics. What works best for each family is different, which also means the parents within your group may disagree or take a different approach to the same issue. Be sure to affirm the diversity that exists between families throughout this series. 

6. Parents don’t really need another class. They need partners for the journey.

Please resist the temptation to see this as “just” a five-part series. We find that what parents need more than just about anything else is to know that they are not alone in the process of raising their kids. One of the best gifts you can give the parents in your context is an opportunity to forge lasting friendships they can lean into when the winds of discouragement are blowing strong. We encourage you to create space in your gatherings for parents both to connect deeply as well as to share fellowship. For example, you might begin each group by sharing a meal, followed by the video and discussion. Or if you are meeting in a Sunday morning context with limited time, consider adding a parent and/or family potluck into the mix at some point during this series. The more you can get parents connecting, the more likely they will carry these friendships beyond the course of this series.

Finally, we would love to hear from you! Please direct any feedback, stories, or ideas to stickyfaith@fuller.edu.

Buy the video curriculum

Photo by Mathijs Delva.

As the year kicks off and we look ahead to an innovative 2015, we took a few minutes here in the FYI office to look back at our top traffic for 2014. Here’s what you liked best this year, or what you might have missed that others thought was worth reading!

10. How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media? – One in a multi-part series on helping young people navigate technology.

9. New Research about Teens, Social Media, and What They Need from Us – Perhaps it’s not as complicated as it seems.

8. Reimagining the Gospel in Relationship – What does the gospel mean for teenagers and friendship?

7. FYI Playlist: 20 Free Resources for Transition Season – Our best articles, videos, and downloads for saying goodbye, hello, and walking through transitions with students.

6. 4 Steps to Help a Stressed Teenager – Because they need it more than ever.

5. How I Blew It With My Kids’ Bible Verse – How do you help students define themselves as God sees them?

4. Four Words That Can Transform Your Conversations with Teenagers – They may not be the words you’re thinking of.

3. The One Truth I Want All Kids (and People) to Know About Lent – Grace, grace, grace (yep, that’s a spoiler).

2. What Should I Do When My Kid Says, “I’m Not Going to Church”? – A little help for responding to one of the toughest parenting questions for people of faith.

1. The Only Six Words Parents Need to Say to their Kids about Sports—Or Any Performance – This post stirred up more conversation about youth sports than we imagined, with nearly 2.5 million views, over a million shares, and nearly 200 comments. Who knew?

… With an honorable mention shout-out to our Can I Ask That? page, which garnered the most traffic this year on our Sticky Faith site. Check out the video trailer and free sample of this best-selling 8-week curriculum for high school students.


Happy New Year from the FYI Team!