Youth ministers weigh in on how we can help girls navigate one of the biggest pressures they face.
A couple of weeks ago, I was engaged in a lengthy text conversation with a good friend of mine who’s a youth minister. She dished on what she deals with regularly among her teens and I was surprised when she said: “They’re not able to be kids. They’re bred to be little adults … and they’re not happy and they’re already burning out.”
I’ve heard others say the same thing. In this fast-paced society, there’s apparently little time for young people to be, well, young.
I decided that since I happen to know two other exceptional women in youth ministry, I’d gather information from all three in an attempt to find out what these teens — specifically girls — are dealing with, and how their parents, the most influential adults in their lives, can help.
Based on what they shared with me, there are two main messages that our teenage girls need to hear from parents…
They need our permission to slow down and be imperfect
Two out of three of the youth ministers were adamant that their girls are experiencing extreme anxiety far more frequently than any youth should.
“They are over scheduled — all of them,” declared Mary Nelson, a youth minister at an Ohio Methodist Church. “They have so much pressure from coaches, parents, teachers to be the best, do the best, and don’t let yourself do less than your very best.”
In a culture where every resource a child could possibly need to succeed is just a click away, the pressure to perform impeccably in all areas is constantly weighing on them.
“One image in particular comes to mind,” explained Gina Cecutti, youth minister at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Ohio. She described sitting in a small group with 10 girls between ages 14 and 17. “They had been so talkative until they had to go below the surface and suddenly everyone sat there holding their breath. [Finally], the oldest [spoke] up about the crippling anxiety that she had been experiencing trying to juggle everything on her plate. Her bravery burst the bubble and as tears ran down her face, she was joined by almost the entire group sharing their experiences of panic attacks while trying on clothes, digestive issues from school stress, and so much more. The weight of the anxiety was so tangible and the hopelessness that accompanied it.”
Personally, I was surprised by this rampant anxiety among teens today. If anything, I would’ve guessed that radical apathy was more common and problematic. But a recent New York Times article about severe anxiety among American teens confirms Nelson’s and Ceccutti’s sentiments, stating, “High school administrators across the country … increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students.”
So how can adults help? Cecutti said one of the girls told the group that her teacher had sensed the class’ anxiety and told them, “They did not have to be perfect and give 100 percent to everything … [because] their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing was more important and sometimes they just needed to take the lower grade for sleep’s sake and sanity’s sake.”
“Suddenly the energy in the small group shifted,” Cecutti continued, “and I realized that they simply needed validation and permission to be human because they don’t get that very many places and that just perpetuates the anxiety.”
Ultimately, these anxious teens are in need of some reassurance that not giving 110 percent does not equal failure. “Give them time to be kids and not have it all together,” Nelson urges. “Just because they are being treated as an adult, does not mean they have the capability to process and think … like an adult.”
It’s easy to forget that the brains of adolescents do not yet function like mature adults. Teens require far more patience, reassurance, and encouragement as they become familiar with the world around them and their place in it. What they need most from us is validation in spite of and especially in the places where they do not excel.
As Nelson advised, “Give them time to struggle … in a loving, caring environment and [don’t] expect them to [be] perfect.”
They need to be shown how to live the faith
It’s no secret that teens need faith just as much as adults. Author, wellness coach, and chronic stress specialist Fawne Hanse cites a 2008 study that sought “to determine the relationship between religiousness or spirituality and adolescent substance use, anxiety, depression, delinquency, and suicidality.” Evidently, 92 percent of the surveyed data showed a strong correlation between the practice of religion and improved emotional well-being.
All three youth ministers were clear that faith begins at home and “no program can replace the impact of a child’s parent,” as Teresa Whiteside, youth minister at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Ohio, put it. “Make sure you are living an authentic faith,” she urged. “Your kids are always watching.”
If we want our daughters to learn to lean on Jesus, they need to see us doing it first. From that comes the foundation of their personal and intimate relationship with Christ. “Ultimately you want your faith to become her own,” Whiteside explained, going on to emphasize the importance of honoring our teens’ thoughts, voices and questions in regard to the faith.
“She will likely have some questions, even some doubts about Christ and his Church,” she cautioned. “This is normal … as she becomes her own person … so don’t shut her down or react out of fear. Listen to her. Find out the why behind the question. For example, is she questioning the church’s teaching on same sex attraction because she has a friend who just came out [as homosexual] to her?”
Even when our teens present us with questions or doubts that leave us stumped, it’s an opportunity to seek answers together. “Encourage questions!” Cecutti exhorted. “Be humble and honest if you do not know the answers.”
Similarly, Nelson advocated an empathetic openness with our daughters when it comes to religion. “Let them know that if they’re just not feeling [the] faith, it’s okay because we’ve all been there.” In other words, we should never make our teens feel they’ve done something wrong if they’re not ignited with passion for the faith.
All of us go through dry spells in the spiritual journey in which prayer and church feel blah. Our children need to be prepared for this and know by our example to continue living faith throughout the desolation, knowing that it will end.
More than anything, all three youth ministers were passionate about helping girls appreciate God’s love through our unconditional love, and that was my favorite takeaway.
“Let her know how wildly and unconditionally you love her,” Whiteside insisted. “Your love for her will allow her to understand the depths with which God wildly and unconditionally loves her as well.”