Helpful Things: Get Your Youth Talking!

By Erica Jacoby

Get your youth talking! Their mental health may depend on it. Forgive the obviousness of this statement but there are a lot of scary events going on in the world right now! We are dealing with a global pandemic, racial tension and rioting, contentious politicking, and a frightening economic forecast. Now try to imagine going through all of the major physical and mental development that occurs during the teenage years at the same time. Sounds pretty stressful, doesn't it?

Before the pandemic, the mental health data on Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2015) was concerning. Anxiety, depression, and suicide among teens are at an all-time high and climbing; and this data was all collected long before COVID-19. All you have to do is Google "anxiety and depression in Generation Z" and numerous articles pop up. This uptick in mental health concerns among teens is not surprising considering up to two-thirds of American children have experienced at least one sort of serious trauma in their childhood: abuse, neglect, natural disaster, and violence, according to the Center for Disease Control.

As an adult who interacts with and teaches youth, you may appreciate having some ideas in order to facilitate conversations about  the feelings and struggles your teens are dealing with as they try to process what is going on around them. We aren't all trained psychologists, counselors, and social workers, and that's okay! That is not our vocation! But God has put you in the lives of the youth around you so that you may be a gift to them. He knows what He is doing! Keep teaching them the faith in your Bible studies, continue coordinating those fun events, fundraisers, and trips. But perhaps, in the meantime, you can become watchful for the effects current events might be having on your youth,  and can acquire some tools for your youth leader "toolkit."

I humbly offer the following tips from my experience as a former middle school and high school youth group leader and public high school teacher. Make them your own; adapt them as needed. And if they don't work perfectly the first time you try them, don't give up. Try, try again!Ask your youth how to improve on what you did. Remember, your youth do not want a perfect pastor/parent/youth leader. They want someone who cares about them no matter what. You already are someone who cares about them. Now you just need to make sure they know it!

Focus on building relationships.

 I can't emphasize this enough. I used to be very task-oriented. I'd coach myself with things  like, "Make sure you complete all the material in the hour,"  and "Sell all the sub sandwiches at the fundraiser so we don't waste money," and "So-and-so seems upset--I'll just talk to him/her next time I see them if they still seem upset." The problem with being a super type A personality and task-oriented was that I was sort of missing the mark. Had you asked me why I was volunteering as a youth leader I would have told you that I was there to help the youth continue to learn the faith and to form positive, lasting relationships with their brothers and sisters in Christ. But how was being task oriented about trivial things accomplishing that? In short, it wasn't. Sure, they got through the material during Bible Study and yes, the youth account had enough money in it, but the kids needed and deserved more from me.

So I will say it again: Focus on building relationships. It should be high up there on your priority list. We know from scientists who study the brain and human behaviors that children who are anxious and fearful have impaired cognitive ability. In other words, their ability to learn and process are affected when they are in a negative emotional state. To counter this phenomenon, work toward becoming one of those rare trusted adults, and don't sweat the time it takes away from other things. Get to know each kid and listen to him. Really listen! Below are a few of my favorite go-to suggestions to help build relationships.

Do icebreaker activities! Why? Because they foster communication, team spirit, and even help develop empathy. There are a million suggestions on the internet ranging from simple to very complex, depending on your participants. Honestly, even introverts have been known to enjoy some of these:
  1. If you have internet service where you are, play a round of Kahoot. Most students have played this in school. You can make up your own questions or you can select an already created  trivia game. If you aren't tech savvy, don't worry, one of your youth will have the skills to help you do it. 
  2. "Rare Birds" or "Three Truths and a Lie": Pass out notecards to each youth. Without showing their cards to anyone, students should write three truthful things about themselves and one lie. You should also fill out a notecard. Collect all the cards. Read the student's name aloud and each of the statements in random order. Have the other students guess which statement is a lie. Feel free to ask the student to explain any of the statements on the card. I have learned some really interesting facts about my students this way.

Peers open the door to sharing.

There is nothing worse when checking-in with your youth group and asking them how they are doing or feeling about a recent event and hearing a chorus of "okays" in response. Or worse yet, only having one youth respond and dominate the entire discussion. It's difficult to get adults to share in a group setting, let alone teenagers! It really isn't as hard as you think because there is a trick to it. And like anything else, the more you practice, the better you will become at drawing out answers and fostering  good discussions. It will also have the added benefit that some of those shy youth might come seek you out later to talk to you privately about their issues because they've seen you handle the group discussions like a pro!

So what's the trick? Use their peers first in any discussion or sharing activity you do. I recommend showing students a visual aid to assist you either on a screen or printed out ahead of time and taped on the wall. The sharing activity is called by different names by different educators (I know it as "Think, Pair, Share") but the gist of it is that you ask a question, show a visual, have students talk to a partner for a limited amount of time (about 2-3 minutes, depending on the issue). Then you let them know that they will be called on to share something important from their discussion with the entire group. Be sure to walk around as discussion goes on so that you can encourage them as needed. You will be amazed at how this opens up the sharing floodgates. The reason it works is that the kids feel more comfortable processing their ideas and feelings with someone their own age first. The response of their partner emboldens them to share with more people.

Where do I find visuals? On the internet!  Here are a couple I have used to get you started:

Mental health check: Generation Z tends to be the most open generation about mental health. There isn't the same stigma attached as there was in previous generations. I found this visual on Facebook and you can use it a couple of ways. If you want to download it and show it on a slide to your entire youth group and have them share their response with their partners, that's a good option. If you have a social media group set up with your youth group you can share it with them digitally and have them respond to you privately or to the group. It is important to check in!

Courageous Conversations Compass: This visual was made with the purpose of facilitating a classroom discussion about racism. It can be used for more than that if you wish. Sometimes students struggle to put into words how they are processing an event. This tool can help them articulate how they are working through their thoughts and feelings by giving them the words to use. Maybe they are processing stress in their body and their muscles are tense or they can't sleep. Perhaps they are in the feeling quadrant and are angry or sad. See if you can get them to move to the other quadrants or ask them where they would like to end up at the end of the discussion. You may be surprised by what you hear and learn about your youth. Be careful to listen and moderate the discussion so that no one puts down the thoughts or ideas of another person.

The Feeling Wheel. If you think your youth need further help articulating how they feel, Google a feeling wheel image. There are a lot of words to help them describe their thoughts, and sometimes that is all they need! There are also versions that they can color if you have a group that likes to do that. I recommend using the Think, Pair and Share activity after showing them the feeling wheel.

"I don't know" and "I made a mistake" are perfectly acceptable responses.

Let's face it. We don't know everything as adults and we can't even fake it. The kids can just go fact check us on the internet. This is real. It happens to teachers all the time! It happens to parents and pastors. No one expects you to be the expert on everything! Your priority is teaching the Christian faith and developing those relationships. When the youth see that you are secure enough and honest enough to say, "I don't know," it goes a long way towards building their trust in you. This is especially true if you follow through by finding answers or helping them research the answer with your pastor or other authority in the field.

My former youth group and students taught me the most in the midst of my biggest mistakes. If something you do flops, don't worry about. And feel free to say, "I made a mistake," and laugh about it with them. They will respect you and learn to emulate your honesty. Solicit their opinion about how to avoid the same mistake next time. If they love you and trust you, they may even tease you about it.

The bottom line is, God has placed you in a unique position to faithfully point your youth to the Good News in Word and Sacrament, no matter how crazy or chaotic the world around us happens to be. And the good news for you is you are not alone in this vocation. Higher Things is here to help!

Erica Jacoby is the executive director of Higher Things. She believes that youth and young adults should never be pandered to or patronized but can and should be taught the Christian faith so rigorously that they are enlivened to share that faith in love with others.  

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