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Youth Ministries That Nurture Resiliency In Vulnerable Youth


Young people are living in a world that seems hell-bent on breaking those who try to navigate it successfully. Likewise, the church in America has a tendency to break people as well, especially its young. If our students, children, and community youth are going to move out of adolescence into functional adulthood they will need to be resilient.

So, what exactly is resilience? Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ after a tough situation or difficult time and then get back to feeling just about as good as you felt before. It’s also the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances that you can’t change, and keep on thriving.

Rick Little and the fine folks over at the Positive Youth Development Movement have identified the 7 Cs: Essential Building Blocks of Resilience. They say “Young people live up or down to expectations we set for them. They need adults who believe in them unconditionally and hold them to the high expectations of being compassionate, generous, and creative.”

Competence: When we notice what young people are doing right and give them opportunities to develop important skills, they feel competent. We undermine competence when we don’t allow young people to recover themselves after a fall.

Confidence: Young people need confidence to be able to navigate the world, think outside the box, and recover from challenges.

Connection: Connections with other people, schools, and communities offer young people the security that allows them to stand on their own and develop creative solutions.

Character: Young people need a clear sense of right and wrong and a commitment to integrity.

Contribution: Young people who contribute to the well-being of others will receive gratitude rather than condemnation. They will learn that contributing feels good and may therefore more easily turn to others, and do so without shame.

Coping: Young people who possess a variety of healthy coping strategies will be less likely to turn to dangerous quick fixes when stressed.

Control: Young people who understand privileges and respect are earned through demonstrated responsibility will learn to make wise choices and feel a sense of control.

carl-jung

This is a great grid to think through when creating programs, purchasing curriculum, and planning events. Can our efforts increase resilience in the most vulnerable youth? I think they can but it will take thoughtful intentionality.

  • What if our we created more opportunities for students to lead (in big church)? Would that increase their competence to have their leadership validated and nurtured by other leaders?
  • What if we taught a series on confidence (I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me)? Sound familiar? Are we driving this truth deep into the hearts of young people? I’m not talking about the notion that I can achieve but more the notion that I can overcome.
  • What if we continued to beat the drum of integrity and character but laced it with grace so when they fail they are able to get back on track without having to avoid the shame monster?
  • What if we did more than just allow our kids to babysit for the Women’s Fellowship Coffee? What if we actually gave our students meaningful work in the church and community? What if they led teams with adults? What if they helped plan services? What if they researched their community needs and church leaders valued their work so much that it might actually alter the organization’s mission?
  • What if we offered more than shallow platitudes to manage the hurt and pain they experience as they navigate life? What if we deliberately included emotional and social intelligence in all our teaching and small group curriculum? What if we actually modeled self-control and appropriate vulnerability of emotions? What if we taught coping skills to kids in our youth group?
  • What if we allowed teens the power of choice? What if we allowed them to make wrong choices and were there to help them process the consequences of those choices? What if we encouraged rebellion (minor rebellion) and autonomy instead of conformity? What if we didn’t overindulge youth so they develop a sense of entitlement and instead taught them the value of work and earning respect?

I wish I had learned many of these lessons growing up. More than that, I wish I had been surrounded by a great herd of adults that walked alongside me while I learned these lessons, encouraging me, walking beside me, challenging me by raising the bar, modeling resilience, and not giving up on me when I screwed up. I imagine that sounds a little like heaven to a vulnerable teenager and that’s the point, isn’t it?

Trauma-Informed Youth Ministry


I went to a training on creating trauma-informed systems of care. I was impacted by the implications on schools and youth ministries. People often took to the church for hope in the midst of tragedy. The church can be a place of good new and healing if they take steps to be trauma-informed in what they do.

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Trauma studies report 70% of all adults have experienced some form of trauma. Trauma experiences can range from a simple car accident that results in injury, to gang violence in the city, to physical or sexual assault, to repeated name calling, to being in high stress environments such as jail or prison. 90% of those people suffering from trauma end up in public behavioral health systems seeking support and therapy. 70% of teens who seek treatment for addiction report having traumatic experiences in their young lives, often repeated trauma. New research has revealed trauma can actually derail normal development of the body, brain, and cognition.

SAMHSA (2012) reports “individuals can be retraumatized by those whose intent it is to help”. Trauma clearly interferes with healthy brain development and coping measure become problematic (i.e., substance use, avoidance, aggression, risky behaviors).

As we engage youth in our programs (especially schools and churches) we must understand the principles of trauma informed care.

Understanding attachment theory should be required for all who work with children and adolescents. Attachment theory is best explained as the type of connection (attachment) one has with their primary care givers as a child. When the infant/child is cared for and nurtured the growing infant develops a sense of security that their needs will be taken care of. As a result, the child will likely develop into an adolescent/young adult who is autonomous, self-controlled emotionally and behaviorally, well-formed identity, and can adapt to changing circumstances.

A child who experiences high levels of stress or trauma is more likely to develop insecure or avoidant attachment styles of interacting with the world around them. If they are victimized, they will likely be extra weary of people and see the world as unsafe. Due to this worldview, the child has to develop maladaptive ways to interact with the dangerous world they live in.

When a child experiences trauma the architecture of the brain is changed and emotions and cognition are not integrated. The separate regions of the brain do not communicate effectively with one another so, when something triggers a memory of trauma that fear signal cannot be challenged with rational thought because the pathways have been disrupted. This means everything is a potential trigger for re-activating the trauma.

One example of this is when a young person, that has been sexually abused and threatened or coerced into not reporting the abuse, is told by a well-meaning youth worker that she cannot have her cell phone on the retreat away from home. The reason for this is so the student can focus on God without the distraction of modern mobile technology. Unfortunately, a trauma-impacted student may experience this as a loss of safety that reignites the feeling of being powerless to call for help if needed.

Children and youth are vulnerable populations but there are intersections that increase their vulnerability because we live in a society that marginalizes anyone that is different from the norm (i.e., LGBT, people of color, disables, gender, religion, class, etc.). The greater the number of identity intersections the higher the likelihood of victimization and trauma. Think about the homeless black teenage girl who was kicked out of her house because she identifies as a lesbian. She also recently dropped out of school because she has a learning disability. Now, in order to survive on the streets, she resorts to survival sex with strangers just for a warm bed and a hot meal. This is traumatizing if it happens just once but for many marginalized youth, this becomes a way of life.

If a young person is handled with care, healing can occur. Our school or church can help this precious child begin the healing by creating a trauma informed program or ministry. This starts by educating staff and volunteers. Bring a local therapist, who specializes in trauma, to speak to your team about the impact of trauma and how to be more informed as a team. There are also plenty of resources on the web. Conversations on the Fringe has several blog posts dedicated to trauma.

Another way we can help a hurting student is by creating safe spaces for them to walk with Jesus. Their journey may not be as linear as most of their peers. Cultivating an environment for vulnerability is of the utmost importance but remembering the classroom or youth ministry room is no replacement for a qualified and trained therapist.

Trauma impacts whole family systems. They will need support as they begin the journey to freedom and healing. Trauma alienates and can lead to isolation for families who are ashamed, embarrassed, overwhelmed, and hurting themselves. They need your friendship more than anything. Be present. Sit quietly. Cry with them. Bring meals to families sorting out their trauma stories. Incarnate real love and support. Prayer is good and essential but no replacement for a hug or wiping away tears or a warm dinner.

Lastly, creating a trauma-informed program is a justice issue. If a traumatized young person is to ever recovery a sense of goodness and justice in the world, if they are ever to let go of the natural anxiety of being victimized and move out into the world a whole-hearted person, they need to know and experience goodness that brings balance to their life. Trauma leaves such a powerful and deep impact on the mind and soul that it will take good people doing good to re-establish equilibrium to their mind and soul. The issue of justice cannot be avoided in human service or ministry organization because, it is the heart of why people seek help for trauma in the first place.

What does justice work look like for victims of trauma? What does it look like for perpetrators of trauma?

Building Bridges (pt. 3 – LGBTQ-Related Stress)


In the third part of our series on LGBTQ themes, our research/interviews revealed to us that there are extra layers of stress for LGBTQ students compared to their non-LGBTQ peers.

Growing up as a teen in today’s fast paced culture is hard enough as it is. To compound those struggles with stressors related directly to being an individual that identifies as LGBTQ can be overwhelming. So what are “normal stressors” all you are at risk for experiencing? Let’s take a quick look:

  • puberty/physical changes/body image issues
  • peer comparison
  • performance anxiety (school, athletics, roles at home, church, etc.)
  • pressures to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as; drug use, drinking, and sexual activity
  • academic stressors/college prep/career planning
  • family life/expectations (child care of younger siblings, household chores, etc.)
  • challenges related to managing emotions
  • onslaught of negative messages (self/family, peers, media, culture) and filtering them

Now let’s take a look at specific stressors identified by LGBTQ teens related to being LGBTQ:

  • internal/external homophobia
  • bullying/assault/death
  • stigma
  • social isolation/alienation/minority stress
  • academic struggles due to not feeling safe at school
  • higher risk of depression, self harm,, substance abuse, and suicide
  • fear of or actual rejection from family and friends
  • misconceptions by public related to what it means to be LGBTQ
  • pressure (internal or external) to suppress sexual identity/gender identity
  • incongruent identity
  • intersections, such as; disability, race, gender, gender norms, religious background/beliefs

These lists are probably incomplete but it gives you a clearer picture of what the average LGBTQ student is likely to deal with on any given day. High levels of relentless stress contribute to feeling hopeless and helpless, which is a precursor to suicidal ideation. This alone sets apart LGBTQ youth from their non-LGBTQ peers. This also contributes directly to further alienation and isolation. Regardless of your faith tradition and its respective doctrine about the issue of homosexuality, this kind of collateral damage to God’s beloved children cannot be acceptable to anyone calling themselves followers in the way of Jesus.

So, what might be a better way of engagement?

Building Bridges (part 2 – acceptance/rejection and coming out)


“I was born a female but identify with the male gender. My sexual identity is gay. I am 16 years old and was kicked out of my home recently. Sometimes I think killing myself would save everyone a lot of trouble. I don’t know what else to do or where to go. There is no place that I know of that will accept me as I am. I never wanted this. It’s not like I want to be hated by everyone and all alone. I’m basically on my own now.” – Homeless transgendered teen

In an attempt to better understand the lives of young LGBTQ students I interviewed several teens looking for common themes related to the topics of rejection/acceptance, coming out, LGBTQ-related stress, other intersections of identity, trauma/bullying, mental health/substance use, suicide, community/sense of belonging, and faith and spirituality. What I discovered has changed me and I don’t think I will ever be the same and I’m hoping it will change how the church engages these precious and beloved children of God as well.

During the course of one interview, the student I was talking with used the term “straight privilege”. It stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, let alone heard of. Those with privilege rarely do consider it. I mean, come on. I get white privilege or male privilege, but straight privilege? How much privilege could one man have? I quickly learned that the world I lived in lent itself to being straight. I have never experienced the stress of coming out or being rejected because I liked the opposite sex. The term “Hetero” has never been used as a derogatory term. Nobody shouts, “Look at that dude, he looks so straight!” or “That shirt is so straight. He must like girls.” I have never had to wonder if me being heterosexual was pleasing to God or if I was damned to hell because I was attracted to the opposite sex. I learned through these interviews that I am biased because of straight privilege and it was preventing me from seeing the world through the eyes of an LGBTQ individual.

Rejection/Acceptance

All of the students interviewed had a sense they were different at a very early age, some reporting as early as 7 or 8 years old. Most had a definitive awareness by 10 – 13 years of age. Most report initially rejecting the notion that they had same-sex attraction and many said they were repulsed by the idea. One teenage boy, who identifies as gender fluid and gay shared that when he was 6 years old he asked his mother if he could like boys.

The most common fear of identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered was the fear of rejection and all correlated this with not coming out at an earlier age. This shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this but it was an overwhelming majority of LGBTQ students that echoed this sentiment. Mallory, a 22-year-old lesbian told a story about being the center of gossip in her small rural town when she came out. She said repeatedly that her fear was that those closest to her would begin to look at her differently, like a pedophile who intended to steal and eat all of the children in town like a monster.

Coming Out

Most of the students interviewed report coming out to the safest people possible at first. This usually consisted of closest friends and siblings. Ironically, most of them report that the individuals they first came out to already had suspicion that they were not heterosexual. The average age of coming out among those interview was 16-18 years old. They all indicate that the time period between accepting they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered and when they came out were the most difficult years. We’ll explore that a little later.

Several indicated that the process of coming out never ends. With each new person they tell the process starts over for them. The fear of rejection and anxiety resets and with each new person they meet for the rest of their lives will likely provoke some measure of anxiety as well.

One young woman shared that she believed there were three layers of coming out; to the first individual, family and friends, and publicly, each with their own unique factors.

Bree, a 20-year-old lesbian reminded me that these are issues I will never have to deal with because I identify as a white, heterosexual, Christian male and since I won’t have to deal with them I am likely biased to expect the rest of the world (including LGBTQ individuals) to experience the world just like I do.

If it’s possible to summarize issues so complex I would say this; the time between when a young person identifies internally that they are gay, lesbian, bi, or trans and when they actually come out to others is the time they are at the greatest risk for substance abuse, depression, self-harm, suicide and other mental health related concerns.

If that is even remotely true it beckons a response. So, then what is the best response(s) from people of faith?

The Functionality of Sin


ducttapeTraditional youth ministry training didn’t really prepare me for the acute problems my kids were showing up with at our youth ministry. I got into to youth ministry because the first time I walked into a youth ministry gathering I felt a connection, a calling to speak into their lives. I wanted desperately to impact their lives for the Kindgom. The typical fare in most youth ministry training programs is maybe a psych 110 class or an adolescent development overview but very little in the way of preparing me to minister effectively to them. Take Whitney, a 15 year old high school sophomore who had recently been hospitalized for depression, self-injury and suicidal ideation. When she was brought to our youth group by one of our “professional evangelism daters” we just weren’t sure what to do in order to walk with her and her family through the next couple of years. This started us on a journey of seeking to understand these fringe issues (which really aren’t fringe any longer), to be better equipped to love these kids that God was sending us. We believed we were called to be good stewards of the kids He sent us and that meant pulling our head out of the sand, rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty.
Sin is such a complex issue, everything from understanding what it is to what it isn’t, to what are the systemic causes of it, to how we deal with the fallout of sin, to how we put programs in place to create an environment that not only discourages sin but fosters the belief that everyone, EVERYONE, is a child of God and treated accordingly.

Dr. Brene` Brown, in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power explains her research on the subject of shame as a study on the power of connection and the dangers of disconnection. When one considers the process to the product that is a sinful individual we must first understand that our primary drive is to be connected. God first existed in community and we are created in Their image, aren’t we? The longing to belong serves many purposes; survival, fulfillment, success, and procreation. Growing up as blank slates our families, environments, and culture shape how we “learn” to connect. We are taught skills and styles of connecting to others. Sometimes these means are healthy and affirming, and God honoring, placing God at the helm and others accordingly. Other times we are not taught healthy ways of connecting. We are taught that violence, aggression, manipulation and other illegitimate means are what are necessary to get what you need and want.

When we are not affirmed as worthy of being connected to others we learn to see ourselves as deficient, broken, not valuable, insignificant, etc., but our need for connection doesn’t leave us, we simply learn other ways to get what we need.

If this is done well, as God first intended, then it significantly increases the likelihood of having generations of people who choose to enter into a relationship with Him, just as He ordained from the beginning of time.
When this doesn’t go as God intended the opposite result is the outcome. Brokenness in God’s creation exists. God’s children all fighting and pining instead of cooperating to satisfy the deepest longings of their heart. Longings placed in them to direct them to God and each other, in that order. We experience sin and its collateral damage when we invert that order, placing me and others before our relationship with God the Father.

This is where sin becomes functional. Sin becomes a means to an end. For a long time we have demonized our sinful youth as just giving in to their hedonic nature. What if there was more going on than just simple pleasure seeking? What is we began to ask the question, “What purpose does sin have?”. Would this change the way we approach our youth and their sinful behaviors? What if we started having conversations about other ways, more God-honoring ways, to meet the deepest longings of their hearts? What if we spoke the language of their heart and longings? What if we told them of a God who can satisfy these longings in real ways, so that it is God’s love that draws them not the fear of Him. What if we created space in our homes and gathering places where youth felt they belonged and mattered? If we could do this, with the help of the Spirit, would they drop their cheap substitute (sin) for the real deal (God)? What do we have to lose?

The Art of Connecting with Kids on the Fringe


After a workshop I facilitated on working with kids who have been abused, an elderly woman approached me to ask me a question.  She shocked me with the simplicity and depth of the question.  Here’s what she said,

“I love the kids in my community but I don’t know how to connect with the.  I want to reach out but don’t know where to start.  How do you do it?”

I can’t really remember what I told her, probably an overly simplified answer.  I never thought about it to be honest.  I just did what felt natural when reaching out to others.  Plus, I have the added benefit of being pretty simple, if I didn’t know someone I would just introduce myself and talk to them.  It wasn’t until I talked to my wife that she opened my eyes to the idea that for some this comes easy.  For others though it is an anxiety inducing event.  Imaging, you long to reach out to this generation, a generation that is slipping through the cracks right before your very eyes, but the words escape you when needed.  You don’t know how to connect beyond a simple “Hello, how are you today?”

My wife and I talked about this for several hours over the next few days.  We explored what is involved in connecting with these kids that seemed so different from us.  Asking me how I connect with fringe kids is like asking a fish to describe water.  I spend so much time out there on the fringe that it has become normal.   I have developed, over the years, skills to navigate those waters.  But many others haven’t and don’t know where to start.  That’s what this series in aimed at doing, equipping willing adults to connect with a generation where the gap is ever increasing.  Our thoughts are not exhaustive and it is my hope that other voices will chime in with their experience, wisdom, and insight.

We will cover the following over the next several weeks:

  • Bridge Building – How to make that initial contact in a meaningful way?
  • Cultivating a spirit of learning – Curiosity is key in connecting with others.  How do we foster a spirit of curiosity?
  • Law of the Lid – We will explore our preconceived expectations of these fringe kids and how they impede our interactions with them.
  • The Culture of an Individual – Each student is a culture unto themselves.  We will discuss how to explore that culture as it relates to effectively ministering to them.
  • Doing away with my Agenda – How my agenda actually breeds a distrust that is nearly impossible to overcome.
  • What is our Purpose of our Interactions – Moving from meaningless to Meaningful interactions.
  • Checking our Personal Bias at the Door – Often our personal biases impact how well we connect with others, especially those different than us.
  • Finding Common Ground – Discovering shared experiences, dreams, fear, and failures.
  • What is being said without Words – What story are they telling with their clothes, hairstyle, and nonverbal communication.

I hope you will contribute to this discussion because at the end of the day it will close the gap between us and the adolescents that reside in the world beneath…

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week


For more information on and help for eating disorders please visit the following:

 

National Eating Disorders

National Institute of Mental Health

Something Fishy

Conversations on the Fringe

Mercy Ministries

Examining False Core Beliefs


Research has found that a number of core beliefs identified by the psychologist Albert Ellis are consistently linked to self-dislike and depression.  I see these in many young  people today and they go largely unchallenged by adults because many of the adults in their lives are handicapped by the same irrational beliefs.  Below is a list of commonly held false core beliefs.  As an exercise, print this list and have your students circle those that they hold.  You might further discuss scriptural responses that challenge these false beliefs.

 

 

  1. I must be loved or approved of by everyone I consider significant.
  2. I must be thoroughly competent and adequate in everything I do.  I should not be satisfied with myself unless I’m the best or excelling.
  3. If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome I must be terribly concerned about it or keep on guard in case it happens.
  4. It is easier to avoid than face life’s difficulties and responsibilities.
  5. It’s bad to think well of oneself.
  6. I can’t be happy unless a certain condition – like success, money, love, approval, or perfect achievement – is met.
  7. I can’t feel worthwhile unless a certain condition if met.
  8. I’m entitled to happiness (or success, health, self-respect, pleasure, love) without having to work for it.
  9. One day when I make it, I’ll have friends and be able to enjoy myself.
  10. Work should be hard and in some way unpleasant.
  11. Joy is only gained through hard work.
  12. I am inadequate.
  13. Worrying insures that I’ll be prepared to face and solve problems.  So the more I worry the better.  (Constant worrying helps prevent future mistakes and problems and gives me extra control.)
  14. Life should be easy.  I can’t enjoy it if there are problems.
  15. The past makes me unhappy.  There’s no way around it.
  16. There’s a perfect solution, and I must find it.
  17. If people disapprove of (reject, criticize, mistreat) me, it means I’m inferior, wrong, or no good.
  18. I’m only as good as the work I do.  If I’m not productive, I’m no good.
  19. If I try hard enough, all people will like me.
  20. If I try hard enough, my future will be happy and trouble free.

How Thin Is Thin Enough?


Our friends over at Fuller Youth Institute published a great post today about the messages we are sending our young girls.

They referred to an article in the Huffington Post about photos of models that have been touched up to make the model look thinner.

As a father of three young girls I’m concerned that when they see the touched up photos they compare and contrast themselves to a fictional image.  We have got to continue to pull back the curtain on these tricks of the trade or our girls will kill themselves striving for something that is impossible.

Now I know this may sound fanatical but we work first hand with young girls who suffer from image distortions and eating disorders.  It’s no wonder they struggle so much when confronted with images such as this.

Here’s a great song by Jonny Diaz called “More Beautiful You” that speaks to this same issue:

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