According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 62 percent of college students said they feel overwhelming anxiety – which is up from 50 percent in 2011. Teen stress and anxiety is a growing epidemic. As recent as 2018, one-third of teens reported feeling anxiety to a significant degree. Not only is anxiety becoming more and more prevalent, but teens aren’t recognizing the mental and physical effects it can have.
School was indicated as a major factor of this stress and anxiety for all age groups.
With the school year back in session, how can we as youth leaders help families and our teens handle all this stress in a healthy way?
1. Get professional help.
First of all, we must recognize that you can’t always pray the stress away. Philippians 4 rings with truth and I believe Christ guards our hearts and minds (that verse is almost a mantra for me), BUT, mental disorders such as anxiety are health issues and must be treated with the help of a doctor. You can do what is spiritually wise and physically prudent at the same time. It’s our role to help dispel the myth that anxiety is solely a faith issue. Getting help and taking medications for mental health does not mean our faith is weak or we are any less of a Christian.
2. Partner with parents.
You can’t do student ministry without parents. Partner with them. As a parent, sometimes life can be overwhelming, and things fall through the cracks. I don’t always recognize the signs like other parents might. I don’t always get the raw story like they might. Student pastors and small group leaders are in a unique position to really make a positive impact. Build that bridge to relationships with parents and start earning trust. Give parents resources and tools to help their children succeed.
3. Limit phone/screen time.
With everything students are expected to do, sleep sometimes falls by the wayside. I’ve seen this happen with my own daughter, who is a senior in high school. I’ve seen her get up in the morning for school, then immediately go to work – where she will close at 9 p.m. – grab a snack on the way home, do homework, shower and then go to bed … But when she’s in bed, she has her phone. She’ll scroll Instagram and Snapchat and not realize how much time has gone by. Not only that, but she will get notifications during the night and that interrupts her sleep cycle. Limit that time and have students turn in their phone. Phones at night can be a tremendous drain on sleep (resulting in higher chances of stress and depression) and contributes to anxiety by increasing the pressure they feel to respond right away. If parents can help remove that pressure, students will sleep better, which has all kinds of health benefits.
4. Have a growth mindset and speak life.
Something many schools today are really pushing is growth mindset – which I LOVE! Speaking life over your situation is something God calls us to do. He’s the originator of the growth mindset. Speak truths over your teens and help your parents do the same at home. I tell my students, families and children that they are God’s masterpiece and they are created in Christ to do good things. Far too often teens are told they aren’t good enough, old enough or big enough. But Jesus says differently. All through Scripture we see God choosing young men and women to make huge impacts. Speak that over your students as much as you can and encourage your parents to do the same at home. Help students see who God is and that they can be Kingdom workers. Then release them to do so. Help your families dream God-sized dreams and God will make them realities.
5. Engage the families’ interests.
We’re all uniquely gifted to do different things. What do your teens like to do? What do your parents like to do? What could they do together? How can God use those interests to make a difference in their schools and communities? These are all questions we give our parents. We want them brainstorming ways to make an impact with their teenagers. Support them in their interests. Help your families and students see that their individual lives are a part of this massive play and God is author, director and star. Show them how their supporting roles are crucial to that play. Those good works they were created to do can help students see that their hobbies, talents and interests can be used to make their schools and communities better.
6. Support the small group leaders.
Your biggest strength in helping your students and families deal with stress and anxiety is your small group leaders. You cannot be the only voice. As a matter of fact, you should probably be the smallest voice. Students should remember some of the upfront things you have said but the people that are making the biggest impact should be your small group leaders. That keeps your ministry from being personality or program centric. And as your small group leaders build more and more trust with their students, the more the students will feel comfortable opening up. When they need an adult that’s not mom or dad they’ll have someone. When they fail a test or not make the team they’ll have someone to call. When there’s a fight at home they’ll have a port in the storm. As a parent and family pastor I’m thankful for my leaders and the time they pour into my daughter and the other teens. We need a larger circle of adults to pour into our kids. My daughter stopped hearing me (she still does ... just not like when she was little) but her small group leader, Nicole? Oh, her words are taken to heart. Her words give pause and cause conversations and questions and answers. Nicole helps drive my daughter to God’s Word. Give your small group leaders the tools they need and then watch them love on your students and families in a way you cannot (don’t even try it by yourself) do alone. Give students a space to be real and someone to talk to.
Stress and anxiety aren’t going away. Fortunately, there are things that we can do to help our families cope and move forward together. The more they see that Jesus does make a difference in our everyday lives the more they will continue to trust him and by extension you.
Joe Smith is a veteran of youth ministry, having served as lead youth minister in multiple churches over the past 20 years. He’s also served as a senior minister and preaching minister of churches in Florida, and currently serves on the ministry staff at Shift Church in Gainesville, Florida. To contact Joe, send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.