Youth ministers play a lot of roles, but when and how do you navigate referring teens to counseling? Teacher, friend, advocate, taxi-driver, event planner, travel agent, cheerleader, smoothie date, paintball player, communicator, worship leader, technology guru…it’s no secret that the typical youth minister serves in a capacity that requires that she is available to a congregation in many different roles. Though not listed specifically in any official job description, this one person, who set out to love Jesus by loving teenagers, might in any given week exhaust himself in so many different ways that surely he feels his life worthy of a very funny Saturday Night Live skit.
“Specializing” in youth ministry requires an emotional, physical, and spiritual readiness that leaves a healthy youth minister recognizing not only her need for a Savior, but also the need for others to come alongside and help shepherd teenagers into a godly life of integrity and transformation. Because life is tough on youth, the support of a professional counselor can, at times, be helpful in encouraging teenagers and their families toward fuller, richer living.
We all have problems because life is hard, and Jeremy hears many parents of youth in counseling say, “It’s so much harder for today’s teenagers than it was for me.” Youth are up against so much: pornography, depression, anxiety, bullying, addiction, cyber-temptations and drama, etc.
But when are the problems so big that professional help is needed? When do we need to pursue counseling for youth rather than just relying on what is already in place in teenagers’ lives to buoy them through touch times or situations?
First, any problem you recognize with a youth, if left unaddressed and unresolved, will only get more complicated as he or she gets older. Second, it is important to recognize why a teen might have a problem that warrants counseling versus relying only on the experience youth group offers.
Most problems fall into one of two categories:
Category 1 addresses how we deal with suffering. We all develop skills to deal with problems; these skills involve either assuming too much responsibility or too little. For example, a child can either believe that his parents’ divorce is all his fault (too much responsibility) or that his parents’ divorce is just proof that life is out of control and he can do nothing about it (too little responsibility). Youth will generally need counseling when the way they have dealt with problems no longer works and begins to itself cause them problems. For instance, a youth who assumes too much responsibility, when faced with a difficult situation, may put unbearable pressure on herself to get it right, robbing herself of joy and peace in the process. In contrast, youth who assume that they are victims of life’s problems may stop making healthy choices, withdraw, and/or become depressed.
Category 2 includes youth who have God-given strengths and weakness that keep them from growing in healthy relationships with themselves, God and others. Youth who are gifted, or have Aspergers or ADD, for instance, while amazing in many respects, often have deficits that keep them from enjoying relationships fully. Some are also inhibited from offering themselves sacrificially and miss opportunities to live into more of what God has for them.
Often the teens who fall into either category have such ingrained patterns of relating to life that active involvement in youth group only leads to limited change. Counseling can play an important role in complimenting all that a youth group can offer a teenager to help bring about a more balanced, realistic, and healthy approach to life. It may also help a teen see more clearly his or her God-given value and place in His creation.
Some specific signs to look for to know when a teenager may be struggling with more than an average youth include the following:
-His pattern of relating causes him to oppose authority or isolate from community.
-She is “acting out” (for example, cutting, smoking weed, or bullying).
-He discloses in confidence to you or someone else that he is regularly struggling with sexuality, an eating disorder, pornography, violent thoughts, suicidal feelings, etc.
-She experiences something life-altering like divorce, the death of a loved one, sickness, a parent remarrying, etc.
In these circumstances it is often best to suggest counseling.
1. As you become aware of a need for this extra support, talking to the youth’s parents is important. Consider telling the parents what behavior you have witnessed, how you have seen it affect their child and others (if applicable), and how long you have noticed the behavior taking place. You may want to make yourself available to the family or counselor during the counseling process, recognizing that the counselor legally cannot be in contact with you unless the parents sign a release giving the professional permission to discuss their teen with you. In some cases it could be helpful to have this extra insight into how you might reinforce what the youth is working on in counseling as you walk with him or her during the week. Even if the family chooses not to involve you in the counseling process, continuing to occasionally give the family feedback as time progresses could be really helpful to them.
2. Community building, recreation, and serving all give youth the chance to step outside of themselves, which encourages feelings of purpose and perspective. A lot of what may already be in place in a youth’s experience at church may supplement counseling. Small group conversations and Bible studies could bring forth accountability and could also expose youth to the truth of scripture, which reminds them of who they are outside of what causes them to struggle. Community building, recreation, and serving all give youth the chance to step outside of themselves, which encourages feelings of purpose and perspective. This environment may soften the heart of the youth for the work of counseling to be more effective.
3. Be encouraged. Eat another slice of pizza, play another group game, pray for a youth to fall in love with Jesus, and sleep (again) on the gym floor (or not, because who really sleeps well on a gym floor?). Your job is big. Thankfully, there are professional counselors who can come alongside the families you love who might need some extra support with however they may be experiencing the roller coaster ride of their particular lives.
Jeremy and Erika Shapiro met on a blind date arranged by a middle school boy who they had in common, and they have been married for almost eight years. Jeremy, LPC-M.A.P.C. is the director of Group Counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville, Tenn. He leads many of the boys’ groups there and also counsels boys on an individual basis. Erika was a youth director at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville for eight years before deciding to stay home with their three small children. Now she is a Staff Consultant with Youth Ministry Architects.
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