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The Tools You Need to Help Struggling Teens: Part One

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Talking to adolescents who are struggling can be hard.

We may know they are having a difficult time with pressure at school, problems at home, or conflicts with their peers. Or worse, we see an adolescent who is experiencing loss, pain, crisis, or debilitating stress, coping in less-than-healthy ways. Like a bystander at the pool, we can see them struggle to stay afloat and we want to help. Do we jump in and try to save them? Stay back and trust they will figure it out? Or is there a third way forward?

Learning from Lifeguards

Our first reaction may be to jump in and save teenagers with good advice, clear instruction, wise warnings and an adult perspective. We may feel our years of experience have given us the lessons and foresight necessary to swiftly solve the problem. As if watching a struggling swimmer, we valiantly jump in.

Others of us may react differently, unsure of what to do or say. We may find ourselves overwhelmed with an adolescent’s struggle and crisis, and we freeze. We stand poolside as the swimmer struggles, wanting to help but unsure of what to do.

Yet as any lifeguard would tell us, neither swimming directly toward the struggling swimmer nor letting them struggle on their own will help. In their attempt to stay afloat, struggling swimmers may inadvertently push and kick those coming directly toward them, or may latch on in panic, hindering both their chances of reaching safety.

The same thing often happens when taking a direct approach with teenagers. Good advice and clear instruction may go unheeded. The teenager may shut out those they think are telling them what to do or perceive them as trying to fix a situation they don’t fully understand. Other teens may latch on, becoming dependent on someone else to help them out of their struggles without developing the skills to healthily cope with their problems on their own.

On the other hand, we know we can’t just stand by, even if we don’t know what to do. Struggling swimmers, like struggling students, may find their way to the shore. Yet sometimes their panic and fear can make the situation worse, and they end up in real danger.

Reach or Throw, Don’t Go (…or Stay)
Lifeguards teach a third way to assist a struggling swimmer. “Reach or throw, don’t go.” Instead of standing by or jumping in, they advise using a floatation device, stick, or buoy to help a struggling swimmer. Even the strongest lifeguards push their red rescue tube in front of them for the swimmer to grab.

Likewise there are certain tools and techniques youth ministers, parents, and caring adults can learn to help adolescents who are struggling with pain, crisis, loss, and stress that are often much more effective than direct advice and instruction. When faced with a struggling kid and tempted to freeze, these tools and techniques act as a guide for how to help.

Move Toward
When you become aware a young person is struggling, the first technique is to move toward them. When you catch a hint a teen may be hurting, find at least one way to acknowledge the pain. Stop what you’re doing and make eye contact, or sit down with them. Acknowledge the problem with a simple phrase, like, “Wow, that sounds really hard,” or “sounds like there is a lot going on right now.”

Resist the temptation to let it go and see if it comes up again. Tell yourself, “I may not be sure what this is yet, but I’m going to move toward it, and toward this person, and find out.” If you’re in an inappropriate setting to talk, invite the adolescent aside or look for the next appropriate setting and engage.

Be a Compassionate Presence

In my favorite scene in the movie The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock’s character Leigh Ann goes to meet the birth mother of the homeless high school boy she has taken into her home, Michael Oher. Ms. Oher is sitting on the couch in a living room cluttered with bottles and trash, talking with Leigh Ann, who is sitting across from her on an old floral print chair.

“Do you happen to have his birth certificate?” Leigh Ann asks. Ms. Oher sighs and nods no. “It’s alright. We’ll figure it out,” Leigh Ann says, with the slightest air of frustration. Ms. Oher begins to look away and you can see she’s trying to hold back tears of remorse. Leigh Ann pauses, and says, “Ms. Oher, you’ll always be Michael’s Mamma.” Ms. Oher doesn’t respond. “Would you like to see him?” “No, not this way,” Ms. Oher says, and pauses, beginning to cry. “It’s Williams. His last name’s Williams. Couldn’t even remember who the boy’s father is.”

Leigh Ann pauses and looks up, like she knows what she should do, but hesitates for a moment. She then pushes off her thighs and stands. She walks over to Ms. Oher on the couch, who is looking away in shame, tears in her eyes. Leigh Ann sits down a few inches away, and a moment later, simply reaches over and holds her hand. No words needed to be said. But she sensed the moment, took a risk, and offered a compassionate presence. Use your body language liberally to communicate care and compassion. Move toward them physically, pulling your chair closer or leaning toward them. Get on eye level. Find a quiet place for you both to sit down. Don’t stand over them. If appropriate, put a hand on their shoulder. Use eye contact and facial expressions to show concern and care.

Offer kleenxes or water when appropriate to comfort a crying or stunned teen. Lower your voice and speak slowly in caring tones. Sitting still and staying put communicates to a teen that they are not alone. A compassionate presence often offers more comfort than words, assuring them that they are loved and cared for.

Resist an Agenda

When helping a struggling kid, resist going in with an agenda. The best way to avoid diving in to directly fix their problem is to avoid having a plan of where you want the teen to go or what you think they should do. If you want to walk alongside a teenager through their struggles, you have to move through their processing with them, not ahead of them. Move along at the teenager’s own pace. Accept them where they are now, not where you think they should be. Move from a position of teaching and expertise to one of learning and curiosity.

It may sound counterintuitive, but struggling teens need you to help them hold their pain and problems more than they need you to attempt to solve them for them. Resisting an agenda allows you to move along with them, supporting them in their pain.

Moving towards the young person, offering a compassionate presence, and resisting an agenda are simply the first tools and techniques youth pastors and caring adults can use to care for teenagers who are struggling with pain, stress, and loss. Learning from lifeguards not to hold back nor jump right in to fix the situation are difficult lessons in themselves, especially when we want to do the right thing and keep kids from harm.

But there is even more we can do. In part two of The Tools You Need to Help Struggling Teens, we will explore more tools and techniques to help adolescents in pain once they start talking.  


Maria Drews

Maria Drews worked in youth ministry in Madison, WI and Chicago before moving out to Pasadena to pursue her Masters of Divinity at Fuller Seminary. She loves the church, living in community, learning new things, and a good cup of coffee in the morning. Maria and her husband are part of the Kairos LA church community and love going on adventures with friends.

...read more by Maria Drews

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