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In a span of two weeks, I sat with four high school students who expressed how overwhelmed they were with life, especially school. In tears, one asked, “What is wrong with me?” Each one wanted to succeed in school and felt the pressure to keep their grades up, along with a long list of things they just had to do before college.
I was astonished. As someone who graduated at the top of my class and had no trouble getting into the college of my choice, I never felt the pressure these students were experiencing. I racked my brain to find comparisons from my story, yet I couldn’t find anything. When did expectations rise to such extreme levels for our students?
I’ve found that the stress (or sometimes anxiety) they feel isn’t the same across the board. The pressure to perform well and exceed expectations in school is not a drive for all students. Some feel this pressure from sports, others from social media. There’s a lot out there we could discuss, but I’d like to specifically look at those students stressing out about succeeding in school and how we can help them.
Before we get into how we can help our stressed-out students, we need to recognize a few things.
First, school is not the same as when you and I attended. All I worried about was making good grades and what I would do that weekend—not maintaining a high GPA in order to stay at the top of the class and get into a specific school. The competitiveness of college admissions wasn’t a thing for me, but it’s very real today.
Second, social pressures are different, and a lot of it comes back to social media! I can confidently say that I am so thankful social media did not exist when I was a student! Anyone else? The pressure to conform or fit trends and the fear of going viral for the wrong reasons shouldn’t be something breathing down a 17-year-old’s neck.
Third, their feelings are genuine, and as leaders, we need to validate those emotions. We have the advantage of experience and wisdom to help them work through their problems. Don’t let those same things dilute your ability to empathize with your students.
Finally, anxiety is often used as a blanket term, and it’s a pretty hot buzzword. I intentionally avoided it and used “stress” when writing this post. The term “anxiety” can be used either as medical or societal verbiage. It’s important to discern which one of these our students are referring to when they say they’re anxious. While both are valid and require attention, they need different approaches.
Now that we’ve got those things out of the way, how can we help students survive the stresses of their school days and walk into adulthood healthy and whole?
Pray for them often and let them know you are praying. And ask if there is something specific you can pray for them! A simple text goes a long way. It’s so important for teenagers to know that someone other than their parents and family is praying for them. And it’s a bonus when you’ve built the level of trust to a point where they really believe you. Do they have any tests this week? Is there anything else going on? Text them that day with a prayer!
Consistently point them back to the Gospel. Ultimately, it is the one thing that matters, and we all need the reminder. Help them understand that these few years are only a small piece of the puzzle in the grand scheme of life. Challenge their perspective and push them to look beyond what’s happening to them. Remind them of the power of the Gospel to change their lives even in the things they don’t think are important to God. While this feels very real and like it may never get better, sometimes all it takes is a nudge from someone else for them to grasp a different view.
Recognize that some issues are much more than you can handle and have a trusted counselor to whom you can refer students. It’s okay not to have all the answers, and it can even be helpful for students when you say, “I don’t know,” because they realize that they don’t have to have all the answers either. Just don’t leave it there. Go the extra mile with them and help them get the help they need. Know your limitations and be constant in prayer, asking when to listen, when to respond, and when to point them to the professionals.
The catch and beauty of teenage years is that they do not last forever. We have a few short years with them, and then they move into adulthood. Being invited into their world is beautiful, and I’m always honored when given the opportunity.
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- What’s the biggest or most common thing that your students struggle with? How do you help them with that?
- What other significant things do your students have to deal with today that you didn’t when you were their age? How do you think that’s affecting ministry?