A Note from Mary Margaret West: I’m so thankful for women like Shelley whose expertise is so critical as we lead girls. As a licensed professional counselor and student pastor’s wife, she’s had a ton of experience when it comes to navigating life with teen girls. I hope you find this as helpful as I did!
Wednesday night programming was about to start, as I sat next to a sobbing Sophomore girl on the floor of a busy church bathroom. She could hardly talk and had no words to describe the tangled hair ball of emotions she felt in that moment. She was clearly overwhelmed with anxiety and fear about recent friend drama…and I had no idea what to do.
As leaders of girls, we often are met with girls who are anxious and frantic. For many years, I applied “emotional first aid” in the moment. I encouraged them to take some deep breaths, and be still. After listening to their stories, I reminded them that He is God…He is in control, on the throne, with them, and He is the God who sees!! He knows how scary and hard it is to be human (just think about all the times Scripture says “do not be afraid”)…and He cares for them. He can handle their big scary stuff! He’s got this…and He’s got them! This was (and is) a helpful strategy to get them through the moment. However, as I’ve grown in my walk with the Lord over the years, my desire and vision for the girls I serve has grown. I desire to take them a step further and pro-actively equip them to discipline their minds for the long-haul…to overcome these anxious and fearful thoughts.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7
When my children were much younger, they would sometimes test the limits I had set for them. Often, I would set a boundary and tell them not to cross that line. Inevitably, they would venture toward the line, (with a sly smile, of course) to see what I would do. When I caught them looking for trouble, I learned to say, “Are you choosing to obey or disobey in this moment?” To my surprise, more often than not, this verbal cue about the choice they were making somehow helped them to choose to do right. I often think about this illustration as I am battling the choice to allow fearful or anxious thoughts to run wild and free in my mind. I check myself: “Am I choosing fear or faith in this moment?” While we cannot control the events and situations of life, we can control our reactions to those events and situations. We have the power to choose how we will respond.
The good news is: fear is a learned behavior, a learned response. What we have learned, we can unlearn. God created us with the ability to renew our minds…to unlearn negative, anxious, fearful thoughts that steal our joy. His word gives much practical counsel on how to overcome fear, anxiety, and worry:
Take thoughts captive
“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,” (2 Corinthians 10:5 ESV)
Encourage girls to observe their thoughts and notice those that are harmful or feeding the fears. If it helps, they can picture literally grabbing that loose thought and throwing it behind bars…or laying it at the feet of Jesus. We are able to choose to cultivate either a sound (disciplined) mind filled with peace and wisdom or an unsound (undisciplined) mind filled with constant worries, fears, and distorted thinking.
Renew your mind
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 NLT)
Surrender those captured thoughts to Him and seek to replace those thoughts with truth. It might be a quick prayer: “God, right now I confess I’m fearful about (you fill-in-the-blank). I choose to take this thought captive to You. Show me what Your word says about this situation. Help me to replace my fear with truth.”
Have girls look up verses that counteract the fearful and anxious thoughts they have identified. Encourage them to recite these verses each time the unwanted thoughts pop up again in the future.
Keep your mind focused on Him
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” (Isaiah 26:3)
Anxious teens tend to think about and focus more on themselves, fearful things, and all the “what-if’s” that could happen.
Encourage your anxious teens to:
- Choose to believe truth (replace fearful thoughts with truth from scripture)
- Meditate and marinate on His Word
- Keep post-it notes with Scripture on your mirror (or wherever you’re tempted to be fearful/anxious)
- Keep scripture on your lock screen
- Memorize and apply Philippians 4:8, Psalm 46:10, Isaiah 41:10, etc.
- Volunteer and serve others
Renewing the mind is a hard process. Encourage your girls regularly as they attempt to overcome negative and anxious thoughts. It takes about 21 days to develop a new habit. Consider challenging your anxious teens to spend the next 21 days intentionally capturing each negative, fearful, anxious thought, surrendering them to the Lord, renewing their minds with Scripture, and intentionally keeping their minds focused on Him.
(If this post sparked your curiosity, and you’re interested in learning more about how the brain was created to overcome fear and anxiety, check out Dr. Caroline Leaf’s book: Switch On Your Brain.)
Shelley Spence is a youth pastor’s wife, mom to two girls (a tween and a teen), and a Nationally Certified Licensed Professional Counselor. She specializes in working with families of angry or difficult children and teens. Her desire is to live according to the Word and lead others to do the same… at home, at church, and in her work.