group magazine: January-February, 2000
HOW TO HANDLE YOUTR HOT EMOTIONS WHEN A TEENAGER FRUSTRATES, ANGERS, OR BETRAYS YOU.
Ever felt like throttling one of your kids? I have. His name was Shawn. He was a lost sheep who took me for a long ride on an emotional roller coaster. His life was one sad dilemma after another. I can still remember the time he told me he slept most nights in the drama-room closet at the local high school. "It’s either there or I sleep in the dugout at the baseball field," he said...
So my wife and I invited him to stay with us. And he promptly stole money from us, called at all hours of the night, and basically upset our apple cart with alarming frequency. I still remember the night I spent with him out in a cow field. Finally, he was asking God to step into his messed-up life. I was energized as I drove home that night. Many months of struggling to reach him had been worth it. This is how it’s supposed to work out in youth ministry.
End of story, right?
Later, after returning from a year’s sabbatical, I heard Shawn had gotten into serious trouble. The upshot: Shawn will be eligible for parole in the year 2016. He’ll be 45 years old. I was devastated.
1) If you have aggressive or violent kids in your group, Boys Town has a great new resource that’s full of practical help, written by people who know what they’re talking about. It’s called Dangerous Kids by Michael Sterba and Jerry Davis (Boys Town Press)—call 800-282-6657 to order a copy. The book offers an in-depth, step-by-step approach to engaging troubled kids and offering them real hope. It is, however, a clinical resource for adults who deal with aggressive kids in a group home setting—you’ll need to pick through the strategies for ideas that’ll work in a youth group setting.
Recently a youth pastor friend told me that two of his key leadership kids had stepped out of a youth worship service to play video games. In that moment he felt a rush of anger and bitterness that scared him. "I’m not supposed to have ugly feelings like this," he thought.
When we feel betrayed, frustrated, angered, enraged, or devastated by what our teenagers say or do, our typical response is to make believe these hot-potato emotions will dissipate if we wait long enough. So we put on our ministry face and carry on like nothing happened. Or we end up venting our emotions—usually in some backhanded way. If we give in to either of these temptations, we miss an opportunity to help our young people grow.
The adolescent years are marked by relational experiments. Kids are looking for an interaction style that fits them. Disappointing, failing, and hurting people are all part of this messy, but necessary, process. They need people in their lives who can model Christlike responses to their emotional tests. The way we interact with teenagers who’ve sparked hot emotions in us can help set the stage for significant growth in them—it’s a powerful form of discipleship.
DASHBOARD WARNING LIGHTS
It was a good commute—great music on the radio and traffic was moving along nicely. Suddenly the red engine light flashed. That’s the light that means: "Stop at the next gas station." Later, after the junkyard worker handed me a $30 check for my car, I realized that red light really means: "Pull over now, oh, mechanically challenged youth worker!"
Our hot emotions are like a car’s red warning lights. They’re trying to tell us something is seriously awry. It’s our job to stop immediately and look under the hood of our life to explore what’s going on in there. So...
1. The first step in handling your hot emotions is counterintuitive—you need to stop and think. Ask yourself what’s going on inside. Specifically, what thwarted goals are fueling your response?
I know a pastor who reacted in anger when his daughter attempted suicide—he didn’t speak to her for three weeks. He felt a truckload of self-contempt, and that’s how he justified staying away from his daughter. This should’ve been a blazing red light on the dashboard of his soul. Anger like this is often a sign of a much deeper, demanding, and selfish rage.
It would be difficult for this father to take a serious look at his life in the wake of his daughter’s embarrassing, and public, "failure." If he did look beneath the surface, he would see his own selfish goal to look good at all costs and to pull away from anything (including his daughter) that revealed his own "incompetence." These goals superceded listening to the very important distress signal his daughter was sending about the pain in her life. His isolating punishment led to his daughter’s near-successful second suicide attempt a few months later.
Our dreams and desires for young people can easily digress into angry and demanding goals. When kids crinkle up our adult blueprints for life, we’re left to cope with a world that’s filled with pain and confusion. Ministry isn’t supposed to go this way.
Instead of struggling with this reality, and wrestling with a good God, it’s an easy temptation to pour out our frustration on ourselves or our young people. Their impulsive decisions are easy targets for the arrows of our hot emotions.
2. After we’ve explored what’s going on under the hood of our life, we must admit what we feel. Not all our hot emotions reveal something that needs to be changed. Sometimes our anger and disappointment are legitimate.
Jesus is well-acquainted with hot emotions. The night before he was crucified he asked his closest friends to pray for him during the most trying hours of his life. He made a very personal and vulnerable request for them to stand with him. They slept instead. What a bone-crushing disappointment. I believe Jesus faced and felt anger and dismay at the deepest level. And he found a way to express those emotions: "Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour?...There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God. But there’s another part that’s as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire" (Matthew 26:45, The Message).
Christ let himself desire good things and let himself feel the pain when those desires were dashed. We have a hard time doing both. It’s respectful to require much of our teenagers. If they fail, disappoint, and even betray us, we’re in good company. This is a normal part of ministry.
3. After we admit our pain, we must find Christlike ways to express what we feel. We’ve been taught that expressing our feelings is dangerous. So instead we spiritualize, minimize, or deny them. If those strategies don’t work, we resort to blaming. And we’ve taught our teenagers to expect these dead responses from us.
I know a teenager who hurt an adult leader with his callous use of humor. After noticing the pain he’d caused, he attempted a quick apology. He expected the Christian-mantra response: "That’s okay, I forgive you." Instead, the adult decided to be transparent with him. She told him how she’d felt around him and how his cutting humor hurt her and others. He was stunned. The silence that followed provided a platform for real forgiveness.
A friend once gave me a great working definition of forgiveness: "The reconciliation of relationship at high personal cost." Real forgiveness is costly—that’s one reason it’s so precious. Young people desperately need adults to lovingly help them see the kind of impact they have on others, thus giving them a taste of real relationship.
Sometimes the response we get when we try to reflect truth to kids will make us wonder why we bothered in the first place. But don’t assume you’ve had no impact. I remember a teacher in high school pulling two friends and me aside to tell us that we’d made school unbearable for him. From my outer reaction, this man had no clue how he’d affected me. Inside I was haunted by his words.
Mark, a youth worker friend, was floored when one of his group members—a guy he’d poured himself into—stole a computer from his office. When he discovered who took the computer, he felt anger, betrayal, and disappointment.
He filed charges against the boy, and a week later invited him to go river-rafting. The teenager was so taken aback he assumed it was a set-up for revenge. My friend assured him the invitation was genuine. He sent a strong message to this young man: "You’ve done something wrong, there are consequences for your choices, and I’m disappointed and personally hurt by what you have done. But I still want to be involved in your life." The boy was amazed to think Mark would want to be around him after what he’d done.
IT'S ALL ABOUT GRACE
Many of today’s young people know little about grace—yet their souls ache for a taste of this life-giving spring. They desperately need experiential moments where our responses resemble Christ’s example with Peter, James, and John in the garden. n
Steve Merritt is an adjunct professor of youth ministry and adolescence at Western Seminary Seattle, in Washington state.
HOW TO RE-PARENT A TROUBLED TEENAGER
By Julie Theophanes
The answer: The child tries to parent herself using coping strategies—anything from drug abuse to perfectionism. The goal is to make herself feel complete. But coping skills are like pingpong balls—they fill an empty glass, but they’re empty inside.
Mayhew says well-meaning youth workers often try to deal with the "pingpong balls" first—problems such as immoral behavior or drugs. Of course, these behaviors should be discouraged, but a youth leader’s "do-and-don’t list" could end up as just another coping skill the teenager uses to earn approval and help himself feel good. That teenager really needs to be re-parented by God. As God fills up her glass, the floating pingpong balls come popping out.
Mayhew uses a 10-step approach to help youth leaders re-parent troubled kids...
1. Find a teenager who’s ready to be helped. Share the pingpong ball illustration with your youth group. The illustration will capture some of your troubled kids—make arrangements to meet with them privately.
2. Commit (or ask an adult volunteer to commit) to give a struggling teenager one hour a week of your time for one year. Healing takes time—there’s no shortcut or magical cure. Hurting kids need time to see God work in their lives, to develop trusting relationships with him. And they need guidance and accountability along the way. Make sure struggling teenagers understand that real change will take time. You’ll be surprised how many are willing to spend a year with you.
3. Tell the teenager, "I’m not your answer." You may long to fill the hole in a hurting teenager’s life, but you can’t. If that young person is drawn closer to you instead of God, he’s missed the real source of permanent change. Make clear from the beginning that God, his new parent, is the only one who won’t let him down.
4. Ask the young person to list qualities of a perfect parent. Give the teenager a spiral notebook. For the first weekly "assignment," ask her to list 25 to 35 positive qualities she thinks a perfect parent should have. If she doesn’t know where to start, ask: "What qualities do you wish your father or mother had?" "If you had a child, what would you want to give him or her?" Resist the temptation to give the young person the "right ideas." The list must come from the teenager—it will represent his or her deepest desires.
5. Talk over the list. Ask the young person to share his list with you at your next meeting. Make sure he’s written at least 25 qualities—if he hasn’t, help him think up a few more. When the list is complete, go through each item and ask, "Did you get this as a child?" More often than not, the answer will be no. Invite the teenager to talk about each one. Sometimes, you’ll hear a yes to every question when no is the true answer. It’s likely that this person is afraid of blaming his parents. Explain that the exercise is focused on forgiveness, not blame.
Then tell the young person: "Your new father has all the qualities you’ve listed. You just don’t know him very well yet. This exercise is going to help you get to know your father."
6. Over time, work through the list of qualities with the young person. Explain to the young person that, before she gets to know her new father, she must forgive her parents for not demonstrating the qualities on her list. One by one, help her focus not just on the bad things her parents did, but the good things her parents didn’t do. Mayhew says, "Most of the time, forgiveness doesn’t get at that half—and that’s the bigger half." she said.
7. Help the young person find five to eight Scripture passages that relate to each quality on his list. Use a concordance, and if you get stumped, ask God to give you guidance. One girl challenged Mayhew by choosing the quality "funny." Mayhew found lots of Scriptures that reveal God’s sense of humor, but it takes a thorough knowledge of the Bible to understand them. So she prayed for examples, then remembered the animals God created. She and the girl talked about God’s funny animals.
Have the teenager write each Scripture reference in his notebook, one reference for each page. The notebook then becomes his devotional guide for the week.
8. Ask the teenager to focus on one of the Scripture passages each day. Have the young person "pray the Scripture" by talking to God about it, then accepting its truth by faith. She may invite God to be that quality for her. Ask her to rewrite the Scripture with her own name in it. Then have her use the rest of the blank page to write her thoughts or observations.
9. Give weekly feedback to the young person. Ask him what he’s learning and what’s happening in his life as a result. Mayhew says God often tests what a teenager is learning about a particular quality. Once two girls told her: "God is supposed to be our protector, but we were put in unsafe situations. Where was God?" Mayhew responded: "That was an opportunity for you to trust God. How did you do?" The counselor’s job is to help kids stay focused on what God is teaching them.
10. Work at the pace of the teenager’s growth. Some hurting young people need to spend a month, rather than a week, on a particular quality. So be flexible. Also, be an encouragement by reminding her that people who persist in seeking God can dramatically change.
Julie Theophanes is a free-lance writer in Oregon.