When Teenagers Cause Distress
By Joel Williamson
What do we do when a teen causes us distress? The countless ways our youth can put us into turmoil is staggering! Perhaps they aren’t listening or they’re being disrespectful. Maybe they made a terrible choice in their life. Maybe they are flat out being defiant.
If you are like me, and deeply feel your way through life, it is super easy for a teen to wreak havoc on your heart.
Even if they don’t mean to.
“Emily” had always been an important part of our ministry. When we started reaching out on our middle school campus, Emily was the first girl that responded. It was Emily that got her friends to come, and Emily that helped spark our ministry into existence. She was kind, funny, sweet, and innocent.
I clearly remember the moment, a few years later, when I had to tell her mentor that I found out she was pregnant. Emily was still in high school, trapped in poverty and continuing to look for acceptance and love. She had made a bad decision. I remember her mentor’s tears, and I remember my own heartache.
I wanted to go yell at her. Didn’t you know this might happen? Don’t you know what this will do to your life? Can’t you see the pain you are causing everyone?
Ultimately, that last question has shaped how I respond to my own emotions in youth ministry.
When I am leading teens in our ministry, it is not about me.
When you are leading teens in your ministry, it is not about you.
“…The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Matthew 20:28) If we are in our ministry to serve our teens, not ourselves, that shapes our response when our teens cause us distress.
Emily didn’t need me, or her mentor, to yell at her. She needed a shoulder to cry on, someone to say, “I still love you,” and someone to hold her hand through a very scary new thing in her life. And that’s what we did.
Start Actively Reacting
If you are having an emotional reaction, that emotion is about you. Yes, maybe someone’s actions helped cause the emotion, but your internal response is your responsibility.
That’s hard to swallow when a kid breaks in your car and damages your stuff. (True story).
But the reaction that happened inside of me was more about me than the kid.
Christian leadership is not about you.
It is about who you are serving.
I’m not at all saying you shouldn’t experience emotional reactions to things that cause you stress in ministry. When you are trying to talk to a group, and the same kid interrupts you for the 30th time, you are going to feel frustrated. You can’t help that. It is just how it is.
But you can choose how you respond to that emotion and that situation.
Usually, at least for me, whatever just happened to stress me out is during a game or a lesson or some other moment in ministry where I don’t have time to stop and strategize.
So what do we do? You have to do something when that kid interrupts you again, or that girl tells you that she is pregnant and is looking in your eyes to see what you will say.
Take A Step Back.
I know in the moment there may not be a lot of time. I encourage you to pause and breathe for a second anyway. Lift a silent prayer. Most things are not so urgent that a ten second pause will cause a catastrophe. But that pause may be the difference between you reacting harshly and creating a ministry moment.
Consider their perspective?
Maybe they were just making a joke with their friend and didn’t know you would feel disrespected. Maybe their Dad yelled at them just before they came into your ministry, and they were extremely hurt and grumpy. Perhaps the girl already feels awful and ashamed and was terrified to tell you what happened. What if we gave the teen the benefit of the doubt?
Ask, How Can I Serve this Kid?
If ministry is about serving, you must ask yourself “What does this kid really need?” Maybe they are acting out because they are needing affirmation and attention. Perhaps they are testing boundaries and need an appropriate, gentle consequence. Consider, prayerfully, the “why” and how you can respond in a way that will help move this kid closer to Jesus and a thriving life.
You never need to yell at a kid. I have raised my voice to get a teens attention in a serious moment, but I do not yell at kids. Part of this comes from my perspective with working with at-risk teens, who get yelled at and condemned all the time. Yet, even our average teens tend to get guilted and shamed regularly. Most of the time a student already knows they are breaking the rules, or have let you down, or have made a bad decision. You don’t need to add to their guilt – it is the Holy Spirit who convicts. Jesus says there is now NO condemnation for those who believe.
When you are put in distress by a teenager, it is okay. It happens to every youth worker, usually lots and lots of times. I strongly encourage you to not react out of your emotions. Instead, actively choose to lead your teen closer to Christ.
If your emotion is particularly intense, find some help. If a defiant kid riles you up to no end, you need to figure out why that is causing you such distress and work through it. Perhaps counselling or going to a seasoned ministry veteran can help.
If you are in distress because a student is suffering and hurting and it breaks your heart, that makes sense. That’s where I find myself regularly. But if you find it causing harm to your life, making you unable to function, you need to find some help. Learn how to create healthy, emotional boundaries.
Our teens have so many issues. Just like us. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and value who they are, regardless of how they affect us emotionally. May we lead them by serving, and may our ministry be about them.
Joel Williamson has been working with young people for two decades leading a non-profit reaching at-risk youth. He loves youth workers and is passionate about equipping them for effective, transformational ministry. Joel currently works as the Chief Strategist and CFO for Youth Core Ministries, serves on his church's youth team, and lives with his wife and daughter in Noblesville, IN.