Helping kids experience Emmanuel—even when they’re anxious
“We are already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” – Richard Rohr
Not too long ago I was chatting with one of my high school students over a cup of coffee before school. “I’ve been feeling really anxious lately,” she admitted. I was thankful for her honesty and I wanted to know more. “Is something going on at school?” I asked. “No,” she continued, “I watched a YouTube video on climate change yesterday and it stressed me out. Things aren’t looking good for our planet.”
While I agreed with my student’s sentiment, I quickly realized how different her struggles are from mine were when I was her age. As an older millennial, I didn’t have streaming platforms offering me millions of videos at my fingertips; videos not only warning me of the perils of plastic, but also educating me on the horrors happening across the globe. Anxious feelings creep up for young people these days in ways that can seem foreign to many of us who weren’t raised with smartphones.
It’s true, young people today are more connected globally than ever. It is also true that many young people are using technology for positive means like advocating and raising awareness for social issues—but as we know, this doesn’t come without side effects. While Gen Z is a generation of realists and activists, research shows that they worry more about social issues than any other generation, leaving them susceptible to higher levels of stress. The constant pressure of having to keep up with peers, do well in school, all the while worrying about climate change, increased gun violence, and many other concerns can leave our young people more vulnerable to experiencing anxious feelings.
Tweet this: While Gen Z is a generation of realists and activists, research shows that they worry more about social issues than any other generation, leaving them susceptible to higher levels of stress.
Anxiety tells us something
When speaking about anxiety, it’s important to differentiate between regular anxious feelings and anxiety disorder. If a young person in your life is experiencing ongoing, debilitating anxiety, it’s important to walk alongside them in seeking professional help.
However, general, everyday anxious feelings are in and around us and the young people in our lives in all seasons. And oftentimes, there is a lot we can learn from it. In fact, anxious feelings often exist to communicate something important to us. For example, they inform us that something is wrong or that we’re in danger. They’re also our normal reaction to stress, communicating to us about our bodies, our workload, our environment, or our basic needs like food and sleep.
An important step in leading our young people well is teaching them to listen to what their bodies are trying to say. I often encourage my students to identify the trigger: is it an upcoming test that is causing anxious feelings? Perhaps an unexpected bad grade? A particularly busy week? Or even a difficult conversation with a parent or peer? We can’t learn to respond healthily to anxiety if we’re unsure of why we’re feeling it in the first place.
God is with us in our anxiety
When we’re overwhelmed with life, it’s not uncommon for us to also feel disconnected from God. However, as Christians we understand that with the Holy Spirit on our side, we are never alone. It’s important that we engage the Holy Spirit in the process as we listen to our anxiety.
While the holidays can be a time when we’re susceptible to heightened feelings of anxiousness due to travel and family stress, they’re also a perfect time to reflect on the reality of Jesus and his coming into the world to be with us. The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel reinforces this profound truth as we are told that Mary would bear a child and her son would be called Emmanuel, which is translated as “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Mary was most likely a young woman in her teens when she heard that she would give birth to a son. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the anxiety she must have felt. But immediately upon hearing the announcement of her pregnancy, God assured her (and then Joseph) that he’d be with them. Her son being named “God with us” must have been huge reassurance for Mary, as names had overwhelming significance in this specific cultural context.
We—along with the young people in our lives—can rest confidently in the same promise: our God is one who became a human in order to dwell with us, to be close to us. This is an important truth to rest upon when we are overwhelmed by all of life’s anxieties. We are not alone because God is with us. God is on our side.
Reflect, re-center and reconnect when we’re feeling anxious.
God is always with us and with our young people during the most intense times in our lives. Whether dealing with the stress of school and tests or the social pressures around them, reminding ourselves and our teens of this truth can be comforting. Try teaching young people these three practical steps to help tackle stress and anxiety this busy season:
First, reflect on the reality that we’re not alone, that God is with us. The Bible offers us a myriad of examples of Jesus taking time to care for those in his midst.
Next, we can re-center on God through his Word, reflecting on not only the life of Jesus, but on the truth that when he ascended to heaven, he left us the Holy Spirit within us as a guide and a comfort. When we are feeling overwhelmed, we can focus on that still, small voice, offering us insight into what our anxiety is trying to tell us.
Lastly, we can reconnect with the community around us. God designed us to be relational, so finding people around us to share our struggles with can not only reinforce the notion that we’re not alone, but will also encourage us to work together to continue building a more beautiful future for and with our young people.
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