When I started working in student ministry a decade ago, I was 21, finishing up college, and thought it was all about … well, students. My focus was entirely on the youth group and my relationship with students.
A few years later, our church joined a Sticky Faith cohort. Here I learned that while youth group and direct discipleship are very important, students also need much more than that to nurture their faith. One finding that really struck our team in particular was the importance of partnering with parents, because they are the primary spiritual influence in their kids’ lives. That means one of the best ways I can invest in students is by coming alongside their parents.
While this made a lot of sense to me, I felt insecure about the fact that I was young, single, and not a parent. I saw my age and lack of parental experience as huge barriers to being able to partner with, let alone “equip” parents.
How was I supposed to support or even lead parents when I was closer to their kids’ age than theirs?
I shared this insecurity with another pastor, who was also a parent of teens, and he encouraged me to focus on what I do have to offer parents from my experience and perspective. I could support and yes, even equip parents, not as someone who has been in their shoes, but from the perspective of someone who also deeply loves their teens and sees them in a context other than home. I can partner with them as someone who spends lots of time studying and learning about adolescent development and culture, and as someone who can foster connections to the wider community.
Four ideas any leader can implement with parents
Over the years, I have learned there are 4 significant ways to partner with parents:
1. Affirm what you see in their student
In youth ministry we have the privilege of seeing students grow, open up, embrace one another, serve their community, wrestle with big questions, have fun, and engage with life’s joys and challenges. At the same time, this is a stage in which teens are individuating or establishing new independence from their parents. While this is a healthy and normal part of their development, it can also mean changed and, at times, difficult dynamics between parent and teenager.
Thus, one way I can encourage parents is by affirming the positive things characteristics I see in their student in my context, which they may not be seeing as often in their context. Every parent I know is encouraged by affirmation of his or her kid, especially when we see positive sibling interactions!
As we think about sharing what we see with parents, we must also be careful not to violate students’ trust. Typically, this means I will not share something a student told me (unless it falls under a mandated reporting category, such as abuse or self-harm), but rather I will share with parents the action I see a student doing, like a way they befriended a newcomer, or handled a stressful situation maturely. We can encourage parents by sharing our positive experiences of their student, and the ways we see their student growing or flourishing.
2. Give insight into teens’ world and social context that may benefit parents
One of the unique contributions I can make as a youth worker is my growing understanding of youth culture and development. As someone who has been in youth ministry for years, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy learning about teenagers and how to minister to them! Like many youth workers, I have attended conferences, read numerous blogs and books, and earned a seminary education. From all this input, I’ve gleaned valuable information which I can share with both leaders and parents in our ministry to help all of us better come alongside students.
For example, a few years ago a parent asked for my advice and insights on Snapchat. Not surprisingly the app has caused quite a bit of concern for many parents, yet this one’s teenager was insistent that everyone was using it, and that not being allowed to use it was becoming a hindrance in his friendships.
Based on insights from Chap Clark’s work in Hurt 2.0, along with the book Every Parent's Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, I explained the student was not just being melodramatic when he said not having Snapchat was a social hindrance. Students often inhabit a “world beneath,” which is their social world apart from the eyes and agendas of adults. A space away from adults is part of the normal teen individuation process; where students used to gather on their own in the cafeteria or at the mall, they now largely do that online through apps like Snapchat. That means this parent’s son really could have been missing out on potentially significant social connection.
Now, that doesn’t mean I told the parent he should let his son have Snapchat. In fact, I didn’t tell him what to do at all. What the parent really wanted was to better understand why this was such a big deal to his son. Sharing my insight encouraged him to have an honest conversation with his son about those things so their family could make the decision that was right for them. My role is not to tell parents how to parent, but to come alongside and be a support line as they navigate the tricky waters of parenting teenagers.
3. Connect parents to others who can teach or encourage them
Whether it’s about navigating social media or managing adolescent emotional whiplash, I can share what I have learned over the years with parents. Or better yet, I can be a bridge to a wider network of others with expertise beyond mine.
One woman in our community made herself available as a resource for parents however she could be helpful. A doctor specializing in adolescent health, she saw so many patients who felt they had no one else to talk to about things like their changing bodies, sexuality, or mental health. She also knew that even though faith could speak to these crucial areas, many well-intentioned Christians don’t know how to talk to their kids about these things. Together we ended up creating a series of parent seminars on sensitive topics like body image, depression and anxiety, sexuality, suicide, and self-harm. I worked with her to tailor her material to parents in a discussion-oriented seminar, and she offered invaluable insight and expertise both to me and to numerous parents.
4. Create opportunities for parents to be in community with one another
Parenting is no small feat, fraught with all kinds of surprises, joys, and challenges. As Christians, we know that we are made to be in community with one another, cheering each other on, mourning the struggles and pain together, and celebrating life’s joys and blessings together. Yet often the demanding and busy schedules of families, particularly of teenagers, make it hard to forge and maintain those connections with others. We can partner with parents by creating spaces for community.
One simple way we’ve done this in our ministry is to share a meal together whenever we host a parent gathering. We also are intentional to include both large and small group discussion time within any parent training seminar. While the content is important, the conversation around that content is equally—if not more—important.
We’ve also created spaces where parents connect with others in different stages of the parenting journey. Often in these gatherings parents linger long after it “ends” because there is such a richness in encouraging one another, sharing trials and errors, processing questions, and praying together.
Partnering with parents is not about being a parenting expert. Whatever parenting experience we may or may not have, we can offer encouragement, a listening ear, and a different perspective. We can create spaces for connection and community. We can pray with and for not only our students, but parents as well.
The list of ways to partner with parents is long, and being a parent is not a prerequisite. Whatever it looks like in our context, we care well for our youth by also caring for their parents.
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