Last week I was filling up the water cooler for youth group when one of our 16-year-old girls came into the kitchen. She leaned back against the counter, looked at the ground, and said “Danny and I broke up.” No small talk, just straight to the center of her hurting heart.
Sometimes teenagers will open up all on their own. Granted, I had a close relationship with this teen that I had built over the past three years. But few teens, especially without a strong relationship built, will come straight out and speak their pain. We need to recognize that the majority of the teenagers in our lives are carrying around the burden of secret pain.
We must learn to create a safe environment for teenagers to open up, whether at home, church, or somewhere else.
Teenagers who carry around secrets they feel they cannot talk about eventually take out their pain somewhere. Often times, on themselves. Hidden pain eats away at one’s health mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally. It is our privilege and duty to help provide an environment in which the teenagers within our circles of influence can share uninhibitedly.
This past January, I was able to attend a class facilitated by Megan Hutchinson titled “Secret Survivors: Helping Students Reveal and Heal From Their Hidden Pain.” She is the author of Secret Survivors and an experienced youth worker. She shared with us many approaches and truths about creating a safe environment.
Our past three years in youth ministry and classes such as Megan’s have taught me important lessons about creating a safe environment:
1. It Starts with YOU
As adults, parents, and youth workers, we have all lived through some of our own pain. I know when we went through our miscarriage last year, I was tempted to bury all of the pain and ignore it. But when I saw how many other women were suffering through the same thing, I knew that God wanted me to deal with my pain so that I could provide an understanding hug and listening ears to others going through the same pain. Your testimony of past hurt and subsequent healing can be a powerful tool in helping your teens open up.
Megan Hutchinson shared some great ideas on modeling to teenagers how to share pain that I found extraordinary:
– Share with your teenagers who you were B.C. (before you met Christ) and then who you are A.D. (or after Christ entered your life—what was your road to healing?) And finally, why you choose to volunteer with teenagers?
– Ponder the question, “What could God use in my background to help students?”
– Don’t minister out of your present hurts, rather out of your healing. And remember that filters are your friend! For example, if you suffered through rape or abuse, share that experience, but not all the nitty gritty details.
2. Create Expectations
Creating a safe environment starts with you, but it also involves your teenagers and how they treat one another. Set guidelines on how you expect the teenagers to interact with one another as they share. This was a big challenge we encountered in youth ministry. Mitch and I may have solid trust built with our teenagers, but when they don’t trust each other, there is no way they will open up in a group setting. All must belong. All must have an understanding of trust.
Megan Hutchinson shared her guidelines with us from her curriculum Life Hurts, God Heals:
1. Share about your own thoughts and feelings.
2. Do not engage in dialogue that excludes all the others in the group.
3. We are here to offer support—meaning don’t attempt to fix someone else’s problem.
4. What is shared in the group, stays in the group! With the exception of someone who shares about hurting themselves, others, or about being abused.
5. Try not to use offensive language.
I agree with all of these, withholding something we’ve found in ministry (in the case of #5): Some teenagers do not know “proper” vocabulary, and we should allow them to use the words they do know, but in the process teach them better vocabulary for the future. Especially when dealing with sexual issues, teens may only refer to body parts or sexual acts in slang terms or through a euphemism. Get down to the truth, and train them to use correct verbiage in the process.
3. Familiarize Yourself with Legal Responsibilities:
When you are working with hurting teenagers, you will inevitably run into a situation where you legally must report something. If you are a youth volunteer, you may be able to take the information to the youth minister to report. But chances are that you may have to be the one to report it since the student talked to you.
Make sure you communicate this to your teenagers so they do not feel betrayed. Let them know that you are on their side, you love them, and you will only break confidence if they are talking about hurting themselves, others, or being abused. If you do need to go to someone else, such as a parent about the information they are sharing, you need to tell the teen that you are going to do so. Don’t go behind their back—that destroys trust.
What do you need to report? Sexual or physical abuse, serious consideration of suicide, and homicide. When? Right away, preferably within 24 hours. Where do you take this information? Most states have a Department of Social Services that handle reports on abuse.
In the case of suicide or other issues where you believe the parents need to be involved, give the students a choice of action:
– I can tell them
– You can tell them (but I will follow up)
– We can tell them
If a student is struggling with suicidal thoughts, research has shown that if they are going to act, they usually will within 30 days. If you know a teen who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, consistently check in with them every day for 30 days.
4. Approaches and Questions to Help Teens Open Up:
– Practice empathy and understanding. If you can mirror their emotion and genuinely listen, it will help teens let their guard down as they share. Do you best to not show shock or disgust at what they tell you—this will cause them to close up fast. This is especially true for parents!
– Offer consistency. Creating a safe environment once only helps once. Whether at home or church, work toward consistently offering a safe place.
– Encourage anonymous sharing or storytelling. Stories help students connect and open up. It also often communicates that they are not alone. When I was in Megan’s class, she modeled this through a simple activity with sticky notes. Each one of us got two sticky notes and we wrote a childhood secret pain on one and a current pain or hurt on another. With teenagers consider a question such as “One of my scars would be _____” and “I deal with it by _____”. We placed those on the front wall. As you read what the teens wrote, the anonymous sharing helps them realize they are not alone in their pain. (Keep in mind that this works best in larger groups. It may not work with only five kids.)
– One safe way my husband utilized this personal story telling was through an object lesson with a jacket. He shared his personal testimony, then opened it up to the teenagers and volunteers. Each person used the jacket as a depiction of their faith. Maybe they are interested in it and carrying it around, but not wearing it. Maybe they are wearing it fully and buttoned down! Maybe it is lying on the ground and they are shooting it with imaginary bullets (we saw all three responses and more). Allow the teens to talk through the process as much or little as they would like. Even though it was voluntary, all but two of our teens participated. Including several that we did not expect!
– Sharing is only the first step. You must provide follow up for hurting teens. This means equipping yourself with the tools you need. One necessary tool is a counseling referral sheet. Keep a list of resources, especially of local Christian counselors who can step in and help a teen find healing. You will not be equipped or able to deal with every student’s hidden pain.
5. It Doesn’t Happen Overnight:
Whether you are a parent or youth worker, don’t expect your first attempt at creating a safe environment to cause all your teenagers to magically open up. Teens may hold out a while to see if the safety is “real”. Trust is earned slowly.
Resources to consider:
Megan Hutchinson’s site and books can be found here: http://thinkbig320.com/books/
A great resource for parents and youth workers: http://www.stickyfaith.org
For teenagers struggling with porn addictions: http://www.xxxchurch.com
For dealing with the risks of smart phones and technology: http://www.techsavvyparenting.com
And, of course, this wonderful site: http://www.anchorofpromise.com
Nathana runs The Engaged Home Blog where she writes on a variety of topics aimed at encouraging families as they pursue faith and learning in the home. Her husband is a youth minister and they have worked in different capacities with teenagers for many years. They are expecting their first child this April.
Please visit http://www.theengagedhome.com for family devotionals, DIY projects, recipes, and a lot more!