A Note from Lifeway Girls: We are so thankful for today’s post from Shelley and we believe this will be an incredible tool for serving teen girls. Shelley is a licensed professional counselor and wants to present this 4-step strategy to help your hurting teens at church.
Do you feel helpless when it comes to counseling a hurting teen? Do you ever feel anxious when a student asks to talk with you about something “big?” Are you terrified you’ll say the wrong thing or do more harm than good? If your answer is “yes!,” I’d like to share with you a strategy that helped me as a youth worker navigate conversations with struggling teens at church.
But first, here are a few things that will be helpful to you as you minister to hurting youth:
- Know your church’s policies regarding counselor referrals, handling safety issues with teens, and mandated reporting.
- Have a list of counselors you can refer students to. Some churches we’ve served in provided a list of pre-screened counselors to the entire staff. At other churches we’ve had to make our own list from scratch. Begin to build connections with Christian counselors in your area. You want to look for counselors who specialize in teens and families and who utilize a Biblical worldview. Meet with them in their office (or for coffee) to get a feel for how they work and whether they’d be a good fit for the girls you serve. Ask what’s the best way to refer families to them.
- Never promise to keep a secret. The truth is often we CAN keep a secret, but sometimes we CAN’T (Ex. when it involves health, safety, risky choices, abuse, etc).
- You don’t have to have all the answers. And you don’t have to do this alone. You do not have to “fix” anyone. Your task is to listen, love well, be Jesus with skin on, and, when necessary, connect them with others who can help.
This strategy is a tool you can use in your ministry to the girls in your church, as well as in parenting your children and teens at home. The four steps are: listen, encourage, guide, and refer. Let me break each one down for you:
- Be fully present: put your phone away, lean in toward the teen, ask curious questions (“What’s going on?,” ”Ok, tell me more about that…”).
- Normalize as much as possible…”You are not alone,” “You are not the only one…” One of Satan’s tactics is to make us feel we are the only one who has ever felt this way or experienced this situation. He desires to isolate us, to sideline us. Teens do not have enough life experience to know there’s “nothing new under the sun,” and what is happening to them has been experienced by many others too.
- Don’t judge or lecture. Wait for bleeding to stop first. Begin with empathy, reflecting what you hear, how she feels (“So what I hear you saying is…,” “Sounds like you’re pretty angry about…”), etc.
- Usually the first thing they share with you is not the real issue. Stick with them and hear them out til the very end of their story. Then ask, “Is there anything else?”
- Acknowledge the courage it took for her to trust and share with you. You may be the first person she has ever shared this story with. Vulnerability is HUGE! And it’s scary. And it can be painful. Let her know you appreciate the courage it took for her to seek you out and share this with you.
- Remember: teens lack perspective. Most students have not yet lived through enough seasons in life to know that while today may be hard, joy will come again (Psalm 30:5). Most teens believe the way they feel in the midst of a tough season is the way they will always feel. Teens need us to show them that seasons come…and seasons go.
- Give her hope. Remind her nothing is impossible with God. When we are struggling, we forget the simple promises in Scripture like Jeremiah 29:11 and Isaiah 61:1. We need someone to give us encouragement and hope.
- Affirm her worth as a person, as a child of God, as a unique individual with gifts and immeasurable potential. Remind her of who the Bible says she is in Christ (“You are a daughter of the king, You are more than a conqueror, you are precious in His sight,”, etc).
- Pray: out loud, over her. There is something powerful about hearing the prayers being prayed over you.
Help her develop an action plan. Remember to hold her accountable and followup with her in a few days. Depending on the issue, you might encourage her to do one or more of the following:
- Establish a regular quiet time with God.
- Get involved in youth group activities (small groups, large groups, worship, etc).
- Place specific Scripture on notecards, her mirror, etc as a reminder.
- Work out any differences between her and her parents.
- Get out of her room and engage with family some.
- Fast from social media for a period of time.
- Avoid certain situations and/or friends.
- Participate in a hobby, sport, or exercise.
- Find a mentor or someone to disciple her.
- Reach out to extended family members who have a positive influence in her life (maybe her relationship with mom and dad is not great, but how about an aunt or grandparent or older cousin who she can more easily talk to?).
- Help her begin to change her thinking, using Scripture to counteract the negative feelings.
Here are a few examples of truths she can use to battle lies she may be believing:
Lie: Things are never going to get better.
Lie: I’ll never be able to change.
Lie: I’m unlovable.
Lie. I feel like God won’t forgive me.
Truth: Jer. 29:11; Ps. 27:14
Truth: John 15:15; 2 Cor. 5:7; Col. 2:7; Phil. 1:6
Truth: Rom. 5:6-11; Col. 3:12
Truth: Col. 1:13-14,22; 1 John 1:9
For bigger issues like eating disorders, risky behaviors, sex, drugs/alcohol, cutting, self-harm, suicidal talk, etc, or when a student’s “not-so-big” concern seems to persist or worsen, or anytime you feel a student requires more than you are able to give:
- Know your church’s protocol for mental health referrals and handling safety issues with teens. Do you need to consult with or report to your supervisor first? the Pastor? A Christian counselor on staff?
- Contact her parents. I prefer to involve the student in this. I begin by saying: “This is important, I’m concerned about your safety, and I believe your parent(s) needs to know about this. We can tell them in one of three ways: 1) I can tell them for you. 2) We can meet with them, and you can tell them. Or, 3) We can meet with them and I can tell them. Which do you want to do?”
- Refer her parents to a Christian counselor you trust.
- If needed, consider giving her a Suicide Hotline number.
- Focus on the Family has Christian Counselors you can speak with by phone for one session. This may be helpful for a parent to get some direction or answers for themselves…or for you as you seek the best way to support this student. You call and they’ll have a counselor call you back: 7a-9p 1-855-771-HELP.
- Follow up with the student (and her family) afterward via text/phone call. Keep the relationship going. Let her know you’re thinking about her, praying for her, and looking forward to seeing her again at church.
Regarding Suicidal Talk
- Listen for hopelessness, talk about death, thoughts of ending her life, phrases such as “my parents would be better off without me,” “I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up,” etc.
- Watch for depression, sudden change in behavior, withdrawal, sleeping a lot, an increase in risky behaviors, etc.
- Don’t be afraid to ask: “Are you thinking about taking your own life?”
- Take every indication seriously, even if you believe it’s just for attention. It’s an unhealthy form of attention-seeking and needs to be reported to parents, so they can get the student help.
The truth is: in a world of social media and texting, many students are simply looking to be heard and to know someone cares. But…
The more concrete their plans, the more dangerous the situation: Have they thought about how they’d do it? Do they have access to the tools needed (gun, pills, etc)? If a student has attempted suicide or has a plan to end her life or feels she cannot keep herself safe for the next 24-hours: Get parents involved & have them get their student to a mental health hospital or emergency room immediately. Do not leave the student alone until she is in the care of parents or a mental health professional.
Regarding Abuse and Neglect
- Abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological (emotional/verbal), or neglect.
- You are a mandated reporter and required to report any suspicion of any form of abuse to a minor. You do not need to have all the details. You simply need to have reason to believe abuse or neglect may be happening.
- Know your church’s policy for reporting suspected abuse.
- Contact your state’s Child Abuse Hotline. You can choose to report anonymously.
Whew! This is heavy stuff. Relax, take a deep breath. The good news is: You don’t have to have all the answers! And you don’t have to handle this alone. You simply need to be a supportive, non-judgmental, listening ear and then assist the teen (and her parents, when necessary) to develop a plan for the next steps. Thankfully, the majority of your conversations with teens at church will not require safety plans, referrals, and parental involvement. But, when the situation arises, my hope is that you would draw near to those who are hurting and walk with them to find help.
Resources for Further Reading:
The Youth Worker’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis by Rich Van Pelt & Jim Hancock
Handbook on Counseling Youth by Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler
Shelley Spence is a youth pastor’s wife, mom to two teen girls, and a Nationally Certified Licensed Professional Counselor. She specializes in working with parents of angry or difficult children and teens and runs a teletherapy counseling practice in Tennessee. Her passion is equipping parents and leaders in the body of Christ to help hurting children and teens.