Photo by Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro.
Can I tell you a secret?
Will you promise not to tell anyone?
Am I safe with you?
If you’re like me, I’m guessing you’ve been asked questions like these before. Teenagers, like all of us, long to have safe places to be heard, known, and loved. But what makes students feel safe? And what does “safety” actually mean?
Providing safe places for students results in emotional well-being. Ultimately, reflecting God’s love and care for our students also helps them to feel free to be the people God has made them to be.
Students at Peace
A young person’s well-being is impacted by their environment, including their community, family relationships, and support. Research on well-being encompasses emotional, mental, and physical health as well as social competence and healthy relationships. 1 In other words, well-being is a comprehensive term that indicates wholeness, safety, rootedness, and a sense of being at peace with self, others, and God. Teenagers who know they are loved and have purpose in life feel this sense of wholeness.
But for many, that peace is elusive.
What Makes a Teenager Feel Safe to Share?
There was a knock on my office door. It was one of our ministry’s high school students. She was a youth group leader, and overall a good kid at seventeen. But she wanted to talk with me because she’d been hiding a secret.
Earlier in the year, she had fallen in with the wrong crowd. She got involved in drugs and partying, involving some choices that she now regretted. Shame and fear now consumed her. She anticipated rejection both from God and from her church family. She came to me hoping that her secret would be safe, and that I would still love and care for her. She was looking for a safe place where she wouldn’t be judged or rejected; she was looking for help with how to begin again.
The biggest enemy of safety in teenagers is insecurity among their peers. In a Girl Scouts report entitled “Feeling Safe, What Girls Say”, surveys and focus groups with girls ages 8-17 revealed girls’ primary concerns as being made fun of, being teased, and not being accepted, all ranking higher above their concern for natural disasters and their physical well-being. When they feel insecure, they don’t feel safe. When they feel unsafe, they have challenges in making decisions and have difficulty paying attention in school. The girls in the study said that people matter more than places when it comes to safety. One 16-year-old said, “It’s not where I am but who I am with that makes me feel safe.” Trusted relationships that create support and value for teens lead to a sense of emotional safety.
What’s the Impact When Teens Feel Safe?
When young people feel protected, there are outcomes beyond “safety”. Teenagers who experience increased well-being grow in self confidence, connectedness to community, and a more authentic life. Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence identifies kids’ five emotional competencies basic to social and emotional learning that are a result of a sense of well-being:
- Self and other awareness: understanding and identifying feelings.
- Mood management: handling and managing difficult feelings.
- Self-motivation: being able to set goals and persevere toward them with hope.
- Empathy: being able to put yourself "in someone else's shoes" and show that you care.
- Management of relationships: handling friendships and resolving conflicts.
Our investment today with our students can reap benefits for years to come. In my own early years, my grandmother played a key role. She made sure I knew that with her I was safe and valued. She communicated this through words, prayer, and presence, which I carry with me today as an adult.
Ministry of Presence
I became a police chaplain 15 years ago while serving as a youth pastor at a local church. Police chaplains provide spiritual and emotional care for law enforcement officers and communities at large. Central to that impact is our “ministry of presence.”
In “Toward a theology of the Ministry of Presence,” Neil Holm defines this concept as “a faith presence that accompanies each person on the journey through life.” This presence in each of us reflects God’s presence, love, and peace. Central to this ministry philosophy is the idea of “being with.” The love and presence of God is embodied as we are with the other person in their moment of crisis.
A ministry of presence can bring comfort and express care without words. Presence encompasses physical, emotional, and spiritual care. This is sacramental presence. It is a revelation of Jesus’ care and compassion through listening, being with, and affirming.
During the baptism of Jesus, the Father speaks affirmation and value over Jesus in Matthew 3:17 saying, “This is my Beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.” Ministry of presence communicates the beloved value of God over each person no matter where they are on the faith journey. Ministry of presence reminds individuals that they are made in the image of God and are deeply loved by him.
Not Just a Friend: Defining and Understanding Your Role
We begin creating safe places for students by embodying the presence of Jesus. As we recognize our roles and responsibilities, these are a few key areas to think through:
- Understanding the nature of your relationship and the role you play. We often wear multiple hats in a relationship, including youth leader, mentor, and friend. It is imperative that we recognize our role as an adult in their life. I am not a teenager’s peer, and not just a friend.
- Establishing boundaries for both our students and ourselves creates expectations and responsibilities. An example of a boundary is confidentiality. If we are pastors, we are obligated by clergy confidentiality. Confidentiality means that we keep things shared in confidence, or privacy, within the context of the relationship. We also must know when to keep and when to break confidentiality. For example, in many states, adults who work with kids are generally considered mandated child abuse reporters. If a student confides that they are being abused, the adult leader is required to report the abuse. If a student threatens to take their own life or someone else’s life, the adult is required to report that information to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. We need to be careful not to make promises that we can’t and shouldn’t keep. Understanding your church/organization and state regulations about confidentiality (and how to limit liability) is a necessity and will create safe boundaries both for you and for the students.
A few years ago, one of the students in my youth group called me late in the evening. She had been abused by a parent, had run away, and now wanted me to come pick her up. She wanted me to create a safe place for her. She also wanted me to keep her secret. However, this was a secret I could not keep. As a mandated reporter of child abuse, I had to file a report to the Department of Children and Family Services. For her well-being, my own sense of ethics, and the requirements of the law, confidentiality did not apply here. I was obligated to report the abuse, a decision that may have initially left her feeling betrayed, but in the end reflected me being a safe place. (For more information about determining if an adult is a mandated reporter in a particular state, please see https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/manda.pdf)
Ways to Create Safe Spaces for Students
Parents and Caregivers
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), there are several ways parents create emotionally and spiritually safe places for their teenagers, beyond providing a safe and loving home environment:
- Create an atmosphere of honesty, trust and respect.
- Allow age-appropriate independence and assertiveness.
- Develop a relationship that encourages a teen to talk when he or she is upset.
- Teach responsibility for teen's belongings and others’.
- Teach basic responsibility for household chores.
- Teach the importance of accepting limits.
Youth Leaders and Mentors
As youth leaders and those committed to the well-being of young people, there are many things we can do to create safe places for students, including:
- Use your observation skills (paying attention to what they say/do and don’t say/do), utilize active listening, ask thoughtful questions.
- Discuss issues honestly, creating an environment that breeds authenticity and respect.
- Help students to walk through crisis situations, questions, and general teenage struggles, pointing them toward positive ways to move forward (i.e. conflict resolution skills, increasing their emotional and social competencies, and positive self image.)
- Keep your commitments to them, but don’t make promises that you can’t keep.
- Do not try either to fix or to judge their pain and suffering.
- As appropriate, share your own struggles and stories with students; this will create trust and credibility.
One of the most important things we can say and do to help a young person feel safe and secure is to remind them of their core identity as God’s beloved son or daughter (Matthew 3:17). Knowing who they are will significantly shift their perspective and sense of emotional safety. Praying this truth over them, speaking it to them, and treating them in this way will reinforce that they are more than the world around them might say.
- Identify, assess, and nurture your “ministry of presence” with students. What skills and strengths do you bring to this role? What might you need to develop further?
- Become familiar with your church/organization and state requirements and expectations regarding confidentiality, as well as policies about being alone with students or allowing them into your home or vehicle. Communicate these boundaries as needed to students.
- Share your own story and lessons you have learned or are learning with students; this will help to cultivate safety, credibility, and trust.
- Evaluate ways to make yourself and your team more available to your students. Look at other examples of how to create safe spaces and community. Read Father Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart, rich with examples of how to create safe places for young people in danger.
- See The 2002 Child Trends Research Brief, “Promoting Positive Mental and Emotional Health in Teens” ↩