This fall, a generation is returning to school with more than books and laptops in their backpacks, and to our youth ministries with more than their typical questions and fears.
They carry with them the remnants of a year and a half of disruption, loss, and trauma.
Resilient beyond the imagination of most adults, students will attempt to make up for social, academic, and emotional losses that span from the obvious to the obscure. They’ve missed out on belting the finale of the musical to a packed auditorium. Walking down the hall hand-in-hand with a new crush. Exchanging knowing looks across the classroom with a best friend.
Losing a year at 16 is so much different from losing a year at 46.
A defining moment for a generation
The pandemic has become this generation’s defining moment. Born post-9/11 and living through a childhood shadowed by economic recession and school massacres like Sandy Hook and Parkland, young people are coming of age in a pandemic-stricken world and a country grappling with racial and political strife.
What does this mean for our teenagers?
Unlike the defining moments of prior generations—like the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, or witnessing 9/11 unfold on TV—these kids are survivors of a dramatic global meltdown followed by a long, slow burn. They walked out of school in March 2020 expecting to see friends in a couple of weeks. But in some cases, the start of this school year was the first return to campus since then. And with rising infections in many communities, plenty about this year remains uncertain.
Our teenagers have suffered unspeakable loss. Isolation. Uncertainty. Many have watched family members die—sometimes saying disembodied goodbyes through FaceTime. Given all this, it’s no wonder we’re seeing a mental health crisis among young people like never before. One national poll found that one in three teen girls and one in five teen boys have experienced new or worsening anxiety since March 2020. What’s more, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds visiting emergency rooms for mental health reasons rose 31 percent for most of 2020 compared to 2019.
So many questions
This prolonged trauma leaves young people with so many questions. Forever defined by what they missed, they feel like their government officials, school leaders, families, and God have some explaining to do.
How could this happen?
Why is there so much suffering all around us?
Why have I had to lose so much?
Their questions are understandable. If we’re honest, we have a lot of these same questions ourselves.
We think about questions a lot at the Fuller Youth Institute. Over the last couple of years, our research team has been conducting surveys and focus groups with over 2,200 teenagers, as well as in-depth multi-session interviews with 27 diverse youth group high school students nationwide. Out of this research, we’ve written our newest book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, for adults like you who want to take a next step with the teenagers in your life.
This generation is swimming—and sometimes drowning—in questions. Thanks to today’s technology, they can instantly receive dozens of possible answers to just about any question. But young people often experience adults who shy away from what they wonder about most.
Underneath all the questions teenagers ask, the three biggest center on identity, belonging, and purpose:
Who am I?
Where do I fit?
What difference can I make?
Learning to listen for these questions can unlock a generation. As we do, our hope is not just to produce happiness, success, wealth, or even stability on the other side of instability. Our hope is to help young people flourish.
In the midst of all they’re carrying this fall, the young people in our lives need more than a thin response of platitudes, dogma, or culture-war debates; they need a robust vision of who they are, where they fit, and how they can matter in our world—a vision that holds up under their trials, both past and future. We believe the identity, belonging, and purpose journeys of young people can lead them toward holistic flourishing, even when the road is paved with adversity.
That’s an all-too-familiar road for the teenagers around us. But most adults who care about the post-9/11 cohort of kids don't actually know where to start with real young people. We don't know how to get past the first question. We struggle to empathize in a way that can help us be the youth leaders, mentors, coaches, teachers, and parents young people need.
Getting past the first question
Teenagers need adults in their lives who take time to listen to their questions, and to listen to the questions beneath the questions: the big questions of identity, belonging, and purpose. When we can hear the bigger question bubbling beneath a rant about friends, school, or a current crisis, we can move beyond assumptions to truly connect with teenagers.
Assumptions keep us at a distance and lead to judgment. Young people feel this judgment. In our research, when we asked teenagers about adults’ misperceptions, we heard reactions like, “Teenagers are underestimated a lot. It’s weird when adults act like we’re less, or like we don’t know what we’re talking about. Even small comments. We notice.”
The antidote to quick judgment is taking time to listen.
Listening leads to empathy, which helps us access a whole new way of seeing and understanding the young people around us. Perhaps this year more than ever, that’s what they need most.
As students are showing up in our ministries this fall, we need to be willing to make space for their questions, doubts, and laments to be heard. We also need to make space for students to process what they’ve just been through—and what they’re still going through—in ways that allow them to be honest with one another and God.
One simple practice I’m committed to this year is asking students to stop and take a few deep breaths together before we get into any “content” in our gatherings. This practice helps us center ourselves with each other and God, and reminds us to keep breathing through the struggles of each week.
In this season of ongoing uncertainty, let’s lean in and help this generation not just survive, but thrive. They’re counting on us.
Tweet this: Let’s lean in and help this generation not just survive, but thrive. Learn more about the questions today’s young people are carrying with them back to school and church.
A new vocabulary for teen discipleship
Want deeper discussions with the teenagers you care about most? Gain over 300 questions you can use any time at any place, plus insights from our latest research with 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.
Image by Andrea Sánchez
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