"Maybe next time!"
"Sorry your grades just weren't good enough!"
"Sorry you're having family problems."
"Too bad you didn't make the team."
There are many everyday conversations and situations in the life of a teenager that can cause pain and struggle. As youth ministers, we accompany young people in their joys and sorrows. It can be challenging to find the right ways to respond. Rosy Hartz recounts a recent experience of responding to the hurt her young people were experiencing:
Why do our hearts hurt so much when teens struggle? Perhaps because we walk so closely with them in youth ministry. We serve alongside them on mission trips, listen to their deepest thoughts and prayers, and spend retreat time with them. As youth ministers, we have a unique perspective into their lives. We hurt for them because God gave us a role in their lives. We hurt for them because we care about the whole person. We know that they often tried their best and continue to struggle. When a teen is struggling, I turn them over to prayer. Then, after time, I move on to another teen with a different pain, or another problem weighing them down. Their pain becomes my prayer. I care about all the young people I know and when they hurt I often take on that hurt too.Rosy Hartz, CMD adjunct and parish youth minister
Recently, I prayed a novena for all the young people I know who are hurting and struggling. I dedicated my prayer to the teens who did not meet someone's expectations, those who are misunderstood, and those who feel overburdened.
A friend shared with me a novena prayer through an online service that she heard about at the National Catholic Youth Conference. I signed up and followed it completely and was thrilled to pray in a way I normally would not. Every day I was excited for the email to come and help me stay accountable in this prayer journey. Yet, while I was praying my novena, I was still receiving daily text messages of another struggle in a young person's life. My nine days of novena consisted of crying, yelling, and periods of silence... I felt my best prayers were when I really prayed with my heart; not out of frustration but prayers of passion. I have a passion for teens to know they are loved, they are good enough and that they are welcome just as they are. When I concluded my novena, I felt a sense of peace even though I knew the world outside was still in chaos. My prayer time had awakened my ability to keep hope alive. I decided after my novena experience was over, to visit a small chapel, and attend a daily mass.
With nothing on my mind, a clear and open heart, I sat just as I was. In that moment, I knew I was God's and the teens I am so passionate for are Gods. Prayers will always be enough because my faith is stronger than any sadness or disappointment. Everyone belongs to God, especially those teens who are hurting.
Rosy's experience reminds me of the important role we have as ministry leaders to accompany young people. We need practical ways of reaching our young people and walking with them. While many of us have been through trainings and workshops about responding to more urgent situations, like that of abuse or suicide, we may not always know how to respond when young people seem 'down' or struggling with difficult situations. While it is important to know when certain situations require a referral and or require we take extra measures to ensure the safety of our young people, we should also be able to accompany young people in times of struggle.
Below are some practical suggestions that may you can share with young people who are struggling with a difficult situation:
1. Help Others
When teens reach out to others, they are more likely to feel better about themselves. Encourage projects where teens can work together to make a difference in their communities. Attend a summer mission trip, plan a day of service, or regularly schedule a community outreach for your young people to actively practice their faith.
2. Be Present
As a youth minister, practice on your attentive listening skills. Help young people to know that you are available to listen to them and accompany them when they struggle. You are not there to "fix" their problems but rather your there to listen and help them to discern their own solutions. Let young people know that you fully support them and truly care about their well-being.
3. Practice Self-Love
Affirm teens in the good that is already happening in their life. Share with young people the importance of practicing gratitude for all that they are already blessed with. Teach them to have compassion for themselves and not to fall into the trap of comparing themselves to others.
4. Get Moving
Research shows that teens benefit from regular exercise (especially when their tendency is to sit in front of a screen). Physical activity alone can improve self-esteem and self-concept in adolescents. Encourage your young people to get active by organizing a church sport's league, a youth ministry hiking or biking club, or regularly schedule some other active ways for youth to gather together.
5. Pray With and For Teens
In times of need, teens may feel unsure as to how to pray. Provide young people with a variety of prayers and prayer methods. Ensure that they understand that there is no wrong way to pray. Make time to sit with youth in prayer and encourage youth to pray for each other in times of need.