Helping Youth Develop Coping Skills
Students often share their struggles with me. Maybe a teen’s parents are fighting, a grandparent died, a sibling is acting out, the teen was sinning or was sinned against, or maybe the teen didn’t make it onto the soccer team.
How are you coping with this?
This is the one thing I always ask people who share their hurts and struggles with me.
Why is that?
Ministers are often hardwired to want to fix people who are hurting. Over time, I’ve learned that the people who share their hurts with me aren’t people who want quick fixes—they’re people who want to be heard.
I learned to listen while working for three years with at-risk youth in a mixed social-work and ministry setting. Many who work with youth in the social-work field are trained to use the term coping skills to describe the mechanisms a person uses to deal with a situation. All people, young and old, have ways they cope with life’s situations. The important thing is to cope in ways that are beneficial.
Instead of immediately offering solutions, ask questions that will help you hear the story in its entirety. The best questions include:
How are you dealing with this loss?
Who have you talked to about this?
How does this make you feel?
What have you tried to do to help you deal?
What has worked? What hasn’t?
Offering Effective Solutions
After carefully listening to a person’s story, you might offer a few suggestions. Here’s a short list of ways people cope:
Healthy Friendships: Every person needs to feel safe somewhere, and when your safety is threatened, your world can seem to fall apart. Ask the teen: Who is the person that makes you feel safe? How can you rely on this person to help you through difficult times? What can you do if this friendship turns sour? What are some unhealthy relationships that you may need to terminate?
Music: For many people, music helps them cope. Ask teenagers what kind of music makes them feel better, and then ask why. Never judge a teen’s taste in music. One time I walked through Borders with a hurting teen, and I listened to her as she talked about the music she loved—which she said her parents didn’t like. I listened to the same bands when I was her age, and I affirmed her love of that music. That affirmation created a safe place and helped her cope.
Journaling: A teenager once told me, “Miss Heather, I just have all of these emotions I’m not allowed to say out loud.” I told her to write them down on paper, which she thought was really uncool. But then I became really cool when I offered some unconventional advice: I told her to fill the page with all her thoughts—no matter how extreme they were. If she had to fill the whole page with cuss words, she wouldn’t get in trouble with me. And that’s exactly what she did. When she was done, she proudly showed me a piece of paper filled with the f-word. Together we ripped it up, and then we ate ice cream. Encourage teens to put their unfiltered thoughts on paper—even if these thoughts aren’t considered “appropriate.”
Exercise: I’m a believer that fresh air can help with many of life’s problems. Encourage teens to keep their bodies healthy, because it helps keep their minds healthy. Something as simple as a walk to cool off can change a person’s outlook on life.
Sharing/Counseling: Who is a safe person this teenager can talk to? Every teenager needs to have an adult they can share their feelings with. Pay close attention during your conversations with teenagers so you can discern if they need professional help—then you can offer resources to their families. You may have a teenager who already has a counselor. In this case, when they share something with you, ask, “Did you tell your counselor this?” This helps teenagers stay accountable to the professional help they’re receiving as well as transparent with you about that aspect of their lives.
Inappropriate coping skills: Many times, hurting teens will share with you that they are coping in ways that are unhealthy. Never promise complete confidentiality, and always bring in a parent when you suspect a teen of self-harm. This is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, but it demonstrates that you truly value teenagers’ lives and their ability to get through life with healthy coping skills.
What are some other coping skills you suggest to teenagers?
HEATHER is a Junior High Director in Indianapolis, working with a talented and diverse team of staff and volunteers. Heather has the privilege of writing on various youth ministry platforms across the interwebs, but you can find her blogging about her life in ministry over at HEATHERLEACAMPBELL.ME.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.