Stuck in a pit: helping young people through struggle and failure

Photo by Chloe Smith

As much as I wish I could surround my kids in bubble wrap and prevent them from ever suffering, I can’t. Pain happens—to all young people. As a parent, the question then becomes, How do I stand—or sit or maybe sometimes crawl—with my kids when they face failure and struggle?

Last week, a faculty friend described a cheer he and his wife have taught their three elementary-aged children. Either parent will yell out, “How do we learn?”

All three of their children respond in unison, “Failure.”

Three cheers for failure as a learning tool!

Fast forward a few decades of development to another colleague whose children are entering young adulthood. Not too long ago, one of his kids described one of her most vivid memories of his parenting.

It wasn’t his wise words. Or his astute questions.

It was the way he knelt next to her bed and held her when she felt too overwhelmed to pull back the covers and face the day before her.

In both cases, I applaud these parents (both of whom happen to be dads) who are helping their kids embrace failure and struggle—and sitting with them when the failure and struggle feel just too overwhelming.

Empathy is about with.

In order to better love and care for young people, we at FYI are trying to learn how to empathize with them—and train other leaders and parents to do the same. Last week we gathered with some sharp youth leaders to watch this video on empathy featuring the insights and voice of Brene Brown.

As the video makes clear, when we feel like we are in a pit, we don’t need someone to try to make us feel better. Or to offer us a sandwich. We need someone who literally feels with us in our pain.

As much as I respect Brene Brown (and have devoured her writing), a few youth leaders pointed out that maybe this video is a bit off. Sometimes saying to someone in a pit, “I know what it’s like down there,” feels either forced or inaccurate (more often than not, we haven’t walked through exactly what they are facing).

But the second part of her sentence is 100% true: it’s important to communicate to people who feel like they are in a pit that “you’re not alone.”

If you’ve journeyed with young people, you’ve likely been near them when they felt overwhelmed with failure and struggle. But being near them isn’t enough. The goal is to help them feel like we are with them.

Being *near* young people isn't enough. We must help them feel like we are *with* them. (tweet that)

What can you do to help young people who feel stuck in a pit?

1. Don’t try to fix or solve their problems immediately.

It’s tempting. You’re the adult. And you might have a really good solution for what ails your favorite young person. But diving in to fix the problem too soon—without empathizing first—might create a short-term win but also a long-term feeling of emotional distance and relational separation.

2. Physically communicate you are with them.

Eye contact, hugs, even how you sit are all crucial in helping young people sense you care. Show young people how much you care by nodding gently as they share and periodically summarizing the emotions and thoughts you hear them expressing.

3. Invite, but don’t force, them to talk about how they are feeling.

Sometimes they will want to; other times they go radio silent. When it’s the latter, don’t push too much. Wait. Talk about other things. And see how your conversation unfolds.

4. Maybe, just maybe, see if they can identify a next step to take.

The key is that they identify the next step and not you. And they do so on their terms and their timetable, not yours. For some young people, that next step might be to talk with their parents about what they are feeling.

5. Pray and let them know you are praying.

Talk to God about them as much as you talk to them about God. Text them to let them know you are praying for them.

6. Show them you haven’t forgotten them.

Nothing spells lack of care like pouring your soul out to another person and then not hearing from that person for a few weeks or longer. A day or two after a young person shares their struggles with you, reach out and let them know you’re thinking of them. Do the same thing a week later. And a week after that.

What else do you do to let young people know you are with them in the pit?