Teenage Anxiety Can’t Be Ignored by Youth Ministry 

By Andrew Zirschky

Teens today are soft.

Teens need to toughen up.

They’re kids—what do they have to worry about?

We love our youth, but perhaps the statements above have run through your mind at one point or another. Sure, young people get stressed, but everyone gets stressed. The truth, however, is that teenage stress and anxiety have reached epidemic proportions in America. According to the latest report from the Child Mind Institute, nearly 1 in 3 adolescents will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder diagnosis by the time they reach age 18. For 1 in 4 teens, their anxiety will be severe enough to be life-altering.

“Generation Z reports enduring more ‘extreme’ stress than other generations and, overall, 58% say they’re at least moderately stressed, which is a really telling number,” notes Ben Graham, Vice President at social research giant Collaborata. “Not only is Gen Z the cohort that most says that the future is one of their top concerns, they also worry more about friendship and relationship issues, their appearance, their safety and emotional or physical abuse more than other generations.”

According to the Child Mind Institute report, “Researchers believe that brain changes in adolescence increase a teen’s vulnerability to depression and anxiety.” Responding to adolescent stress and anxiety, and helping young people manage and minimize these experiences is vital for parents, educators, and youth workers. Experts agree that helping teenagers overcome anxiety requires multi-pronged interventions on the part of mental health professionals, schools, parents, and community resources such as churches. Yet, while most youth workers see the levels of stress and anxiety exhibited by teenagers, CYMT is concerned that too few youth ministry professionals are responding in meaningful and well-thought-out ways. Taking prayer requests for stress, and sending students out with a hug is hardly the only thing that youth workers can or should do to address the epidemic of stress and anxiety sweeping today’s teenagers. 

It’s with those facts in mind that this month Cultivate: A Thoughtful Youth Ministry Conversation will bring together leading minds in youth ministry along with thoughtful practitioners for a case study-based examination of youth ministry’s response to adolescent stress and anxiety. Rather than inviting experts to speak broadly on topics, delivering their usual schtick, we’ve invited our guest speakers to respond directly to a case study that raises some of the issues and tensions surrounding adolescent stress and anxiety. Participants at Cultivate will then be engaged in round-table discussion to devise further actions. 

The case study is set within the context of a parent meeting where a youth pastor is investigating the decline in youth group attendance:

Lashawn Wiley, one of the most vocal and active moms in the congregation, speaks up first. “Janiece is a junior this year and she loves the youth group, just loves it,” she says with a warm smile. “But she hasn’t been coming because she’s so stressed out from homework and activities on most nights that we’re lucky if she doesn’t end the evening in tears—and there have been a lot of tears this year. My husband and I have talked about it, and while we value church participation, we’re just not convinced that the value of what happens at youth group outweighs the chaos it adds to her life (and ours) to get her there.” 

“I remember what it was like to be a teenager, and what I see my daughter having to handle today is completely different from the pressures I faced. All the tests, assessments, college prep, extracurricular activities—we have them too busy,” says Larry Johnson. “So, yes, youth group and church take a back seat for some families. I don’t think I can judge that.”

But other parents and youth ministry volunteers push back:

Bob Guffrey, a longtime youth ministry volunteer is already hot at what he’s hearing. “Look, my kids are grown and gone, but I’ve been around teenagers for years, and this ‘snowflake’ generation needs to toughen up. Church is important. Youth group is important. This is where faith is formed for a lot of these kids. Stress is nothing new, but if we’re letting them drop out of things because they’re stressed, they’re never going to be able to deal with real life.”

“I have to agree,” Susan Lee chimes in. “My son is 14. He’s as busy as anybody, but it’s non-negotiable for us that he participates in every youth event and every Wednesday youth group. Yes, he’s got to be organized to handle all the demands of sports, school, and church, but kids can handle it. We’re too prone to let them drop out, or worse, to take a pill. Ours is a culture that wants to diagnose and medicate everybody. They need to learn to deal with the stress and busyness by developing coping mechanisms, and the only way to do that is to refuse to run to a pill—or excuses.”

“I wonder sometimes how busy they really are,” interjects Sally McNash, “because it seems they have plenty of time to be on their screens constantly. I read an article by Dr. Jean Twenge just the other day in the Washington Post, and she found that smartphones are largely to blame for skyrocketing rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety. I really believe that if we get our kids off the tech, then we’ll be able to get our kids off the meds, and we’ll be able to relieve their anxiety and stress to a great degree.”

The case study goes on to explore more perspectives::

“We need to point out that these kids are truly feeling anxiety because when they go to school, the mall, or the theater, they have no idea if that’s their last day on the planet. They legitimately fear that a gunman is going to end their lives or that of their friends. It’s traumatizing to live in a state of constant fear, but that’s where our kids live,” says parent Jamie Scott.

“In my part of town, teenagers are stressed because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” says Dwayne Tucker. “They’re stressed that mom might lose her job. They’re anxious not because they fear the possibility of a gunman in their school, but because their friend actually got shot over the weekend. Our kids are stressed about the crime in their neighborhood, the gangs, the drugs, and the violence.”

All of these perspectives culminate in the youth pastor being brought in to consider how the youth ministry should best respond to the reality of stress and anxiety among Generation Z teenagers. Participants and respondents are asked to put themselves in the role of the youth pastor in the case study: How do you frame the issue of busy, stressed-out, and anxious youth theologically? And what should the youth ministry be doing practically for stressed-out and anxious youth, especially in light of falling youth group attendance?

So what about you? How would you respond?