Beccy Thompson has been involved in youth ministry since her own youth pastor trained her to lead her peers in high school. Beccy went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Christian Education and has been working in the field since 1994, either as a volunteer or professionally. She's been Director of Youth and Christian Education for a small church and Junior High Associate for a mega church.
Now that Beccy's a military spouse, she takes her ministry on the road with her as her family moves around the country (she's done youth ministry in six states and counting!). We interviewed Beccy in November 2007, and she shared some of her insights about interacting with her teens on MySpace (you can read that interview here). Along the way, she also shared the following observations about how youth culture has changed over the past 10-plus years that she's been in youth ministry.
"Students are busy — and they are stressed out and overtired as a result. They don't have time to just hang out with their peers or youth leaders at church. You have to plan to get together, and you have to sell it to them that it is worth their time."
"Students do the majority of their communicating with each other through electronic media like the Internet and cell phones. Texting is almost like breathing to many of them."
"Students used to love when I gave them attention. They would just open up. Now students act like all adults are stupid, and like they don't really want to be around grown-ups most of the time. However, if I continue to show up and care about them they slowly let me into their world."
"I hear over and over how betrayed students feel — how everyone in their life has broken their trust. They are wounded inside and wary of all relationships. They want things to be different, but don't see how that is possible. They lack the skills necessary to build healthy relationships and boundaries in their lives."
"About 2000 I started to see a real change in the way Christian girls dress and carry themselves. They started buying into the lie that you cannot be attractive as a woman unless you are 'sexy.' They no longer were interested in what God — or their youth leader — had to say to them about modesty."
"When I ask students what character qualities they are looking for in someone to date they rarely know what 'character qualities' are. Usually I get answers like, 'Good looking… I know that isn't the most important thing, but….' They have ambiguous answers, not related to character issues like honesty, hard-working, sense of humor — answers I used to hear regularly. Also, I cannot remember the last time I heard a student say that religious values were important in a date."
"Sex is commonplace, something to be experimented with, no big deal. Teens often use sex to try to feel loved. They are left feeling used and empty, regretting choices they have made, but not knowing any other way to deal with their feelings and relationships."
"Eating disorders and cutting used to be major crises that required getting parents and professional counselors involved. Now they are more commonplace among girls, and sometimes they're even glorified (for example, there are 'pro-ana' websites and blogs for anorexic girls to encourage each other to lose weight)."
"Cheating has become a necessary means to an end. In order to be 'well rounded' and get into their college of choice, and because they are so busy and their time so regimented, cheating is a way of life among teens today. They do not see it as lying or stealing someone else's work."
"According to teenagers, an action isn't wrong unless they get caught. There are no boundaries that cannot be crossed. Nothing is sacred. Those who try and force boundaries on students become the adversary. Adults who question and criticize their choices are labeled 'judgers' and 'haters.' They have been taught tolerance to the point of having no personal standards, so the standards they have are made up and often contradictory. They don't see the contradictions, however."
A 2006 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics says kids' lives are overscheduled way before they enter their teenage years. The AAP faults "changes in family structure, competitive college admissions process[es], federal education policies [and] fear a child may fall behind academically" for making parents feel that they must enroll their children in plenty of "developmental activities." Sadly, kids get too little unstructured playtime, but they truly need this time to develop creativity and problem-solving skills and to discover their true talents and interests.1
A study published by Duke University in 2005 confirms that 75 percent of high school students admit to academic cheating. And if the definition of dishonesty is expanded to include copying someone else's homework, that percentage increases to a whopping 90 percent.2
University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus recently completed a study of the influence of religion on teen sexuality. The results — presented in a book called Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teens — show that fewer than 10 percent of American teens have internalized their faith to the point that it actually makes a difference in their sexual practices.3
Beccy's observations are particularly corroborated by Chap Clark's book Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers, which she highly recommends. Clark spent six months at a diverse Los Angeles high school, becoming part of the students' world and conducting an ethnographic study on how teens view their own lives. He suggests that the middle adolescents (ages 14-18) with whom he interacted feel betrayed and abandoned by the adults in their world, because the grown-ups have, "abdicated [their] responsibility to nurture the young into adulthood."4
This series of articles aims to give practical advice on how you can enact that solution in your teen's life. It will take time and purposefulness. But if you put forth the effort, your ministry is likely to expand beyond your own teens to their friends who are also adrift in a hostile culture.
In many ways, American teens have never had it tougher. Perhaps a surprising statement, given the United States' obvious affluence compared to the rest of the world. If you're a parent today, you know what I mean. Social pressures are more pervasive and destructive than ever before in American history. Parents often feel helpless to equip their teens with the tools to navigate – and steer clear – of harmful relationships, attitudes and behaviors.
Ideally, the process of equipping our kids to live and thrive in an often Christian-hostile world begins as soon as they are born. In fact, parents are the single most important developmental influence in a child's life, apart from the Holy Spirit himself. But even if time has slipped away, and your teenager seems out of reach, you can begin to lay building blocks to help your teen grow to maturity in Christ and make a positive impact on his or her world. Love, commitment, self-discipline, perseverance and a lot of prayer are required, but you can do it.
Assisting your teen in forging a strong, positive identity is one way to help her form convictions based on truth, and then stand firm in them regardless of what everyone else does.
As parents, we can build our teen's identity by using a brick mason's approach. Masonry is an art that requires intense study of the project's design before setting the first brick in place. The job is messy, requires hands-on application and commitment.
Parental brick-layers labor alongside our teens as they experience the joy of discovering their significance in Christ and their identity. Teens today are overscheduled and often lack the skills to communicate or set boundaries. They need our help to decide which bricks fit and which ones don't.
The challenge? To encourage them to be who God made them to be, rather than who we want them to be.
Brick-by-brick, we can make a difference for our teens and in their world.
My husband Derek shared a devotion about integrity with our fourteen-year-old son Justin and his friend Tim* (name changed). Derek asked them, "How committed are you to integrity?"
"I'm not that committed. But I want to be," Tim answered.
Derek said, "Telling the truth is integrity. Thanks for being honest."
"I get in trouble with certain friends," Tim said. "The pressure to be liked affects me."
"Until you decide who you are," Derek told Tim, "you will be like a chameleon, blending in to whatever situation or whoever you are with."
Derek mentioned a former game show and said, "Will the real Tim please stand up? Until you figure out who the God-designed Tim is, you will struggle with your friends."
Teens yearn for our support and relationship. It's important to affirm their natural abilities. Be their cheerleader. Attend activities even if they say, "It's no biggie."
Encourage athletes to stay involved in sports throughout high school. Challenge the artsy to try a new instrument, audition for a play, take a watercolor class or voice lessons. If they love to argue, consider the debate team. Talk about career choices that use their talents. For example, math skills are priceless for computer software engineers.
When my friend Beth's three teens were growing up, their family motto was "We aren't quitters." Anytime her son or daughters wanted to stop short of a commitment, they heard this phrase. Eventually Beth's children believed, "I belong to a non-quitting family."
By creating a tagline, our family identity is established. Then when difficulties arise, our motto serves as a stake in the ground declaring who we are as individuals — and as family.
Physically and emotionally, teens' lives constantly change. They can feel overscheduled, unknown, abandoned, or even betrayed. Adolescents still want a unique place in our home. They need to know they belong and that they matter.
Encourage busy teens to enjoy down time, which strengthens their creativity and problem-solving skills. Inform your son his sense of humor is missed when he's gone. Tell your daughter you notice her thankful heart.
Ever since our son Justin was little, he has shown kindness to kids that are different. As a high school freshman, he continues to tap the heart of the lonely.
Justin's gym teacher asked the students to share who their best friend was and why. Both a popular and unpopular guy picked Justin. Their reasons: "He shows interest in me. He makes me laugh. He sits by me. He sticks up for me."
We affirmed Justin for using his gift of mercy with his friends.
Study verses about spiritual gifts with your teens: Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; 1 Corinthians 14:1-40; Ephesians 4:7-16; and 1 Peter 4:7-11.
No brick is more foundational than this one. When teens understand their worth in Christ, they can reject negative thinking that peers, insecurities and problems hurl on them. Just because teens fail — which they will — doesn't mean they are a failure.
Teens develop confidence when they believe they are loved by God — no matter what. This inner strength will carry them through trials and peer pressure. As they search for significance, our teens can influence their peers to do the same.
Google "Who I am in Christ." Print and review with your son or daughter. If someone tries to embarrass them about a mistake, say, "There is no condemnation for those in Christ" (Romans 8:1). Don't criticize them when they are knocked down. Instead extend your hand and your heart.
Building our teens' identity is a long process. The Great Wall of China took years of extensive labor before it fended off enemies. Our teens live in a hostile culture too. They need a wall of protection. As parental masons, we can help them stand up under fire.
The challenge is to be like Beth's family — and not quit.
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Why do today's teens answer the question, "What is character?" with good looking? Since when did physical appearance become a character trait?
Society and pop culture send unchristian messages like:
What's at stake with this kind of thinking? Our culture's moral compass — and our sons and daughters' future.
Can we help our teens reclaim Christian values so their lives make an impact for Christ? Yes. Our influence still matters.
The cliché is true: Values are more often caught than taught. Jesus' followers learned to be like him by modeling his behavior. "Follow me," Christ told his disciples. They did, but not without questions, doubts and some resistance.
Actions speak louder than words. St. Francis of Assisi put it this way: "It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching" (emphasis mine). For years, your teens have followed you — sometimes resisting, sometimes not. They determine what is important based on observing you. If this thought makes you cringe, don't let your past failures stop you from showing love and patience today. Continue to grow in your relationship with God, so that your teens will see your faith and want to know more.
Faith. Hope. Love. So many positive character traits are reflected in the meaning behind these three simple words. If we want our teens to emulate these character traits, we need to live them out at home. Here are just a few to start with:
As parents, let's make our wrongs right by saying, "I'm sorry." Our sons and daughters will more easily forgive others when they've experienced forgiveness at home.
Teens need to hear us say, "Thank you," when they watch their younger brother or load the dishwasher. Especially thank them if they confide in you. Teens tend to share their secrets and struggles with their friends, so if they pick you to talk to — stop and listen. Let them vent and cry if they need to. Offer understanding and a prayer instead of a long lecture. Ask them if they want your advice.
When you do give advice, talk about how to handle temptation before your teen attends a party or a game. Encourage firm boundaries. Talk about the consequences of premarital sex. Share your testimony if it relates. To promote modesty, buy a fun and trendy — but modest — prom dress. When your teen is walking out the door, say, "I believe you'll make wise choices tonight."
Who's following your teen? Chances are, someone or some group is observing your son or daughter, whether it's a classmate, teammate or coworker. Teenagers already have the opportunity to spread the light of the gospel. Most of their opportunities for talking about their faith in Jesus will come from first living their faith. This is what St. Francis of Assisi meant when he exhorted, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." Encourage your teen to live a life that emulates the faith, hope and love of Christ so anyone who's watching will be attracted to Jesus.
Are you showing your teen mercy when they need it?
I don't always. For example, Justin got in trouble for laughing in class so I gave him the cold shoulder. My message? Shape up, buddy, if you want my love! A bad mom moment, I know. Whenever issues arise between me and my son, I try to remember that God's unconditional love for us isn't based on our behavior.
Next time your son or daughter disappoints you, shake things up a bit. Think of Jesus' example with the woman caught in adultery. Offer a hug and forgiveness instead of a hard word and see what happens. There are times when that treatment isn't the best option. But there are also times our kids desperately need grace. The Bible says mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).
By offering mercy, my friend Beth saw results in how her teens responded to one another. Once when Beth disciplined her daughter, her oldest son interrupted and asked, "Mom, can you show mercy to her this time"
If we show our teens compassion, they learn to be compassionate, which carries into their jobs, college campuses, relationships, and into their marriages. When people are hurting, they need a safe place and understanding — not judgment. Inspire your teens to be that place for someone in need.
In a me-focused world, we need to challenge our youth to see beyond themselves. We start by serving our teen and others in need. Simple gestures go a long way.
Beth served her two teen girls by making their beds for them after they left for school. She helped them when they were drowning in classes and activities.
After driving past a homeless man, Scoti turned around and bought the best meal at McDonalds. Her teenage sons handed the meal to this man and said, "Take this in the name of Jesus."
Our Christ-like examples are the most powerful influence to persuade our teens to be Christ's disciples. We can equip our teens to offer the world something better — something of eternal value. "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV).
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How can parents intentionally focus on their teen in our fast-paced, hi-tech culture? We often feel like spinning plates. If one more thing is added, we'll crash into pieces.
Our teens are no different. They are overscheduled. Academics, athletics and school activities exhaust them. These demanding pressures fill their lives, while they juggle to maintain their friendships and hobbies.
Sometimes our schedules are so crazy that we put off spending time with our teenagers until vacation. When we're home, sports practice, homework, school commitments and daily chores distract us. Family trips tend to free us up to focus on one another without interruption. What if it were possible to develop a vacation mentality, even when we're home and going about our daily routines? By adopting a vacation mentality, we intentionally focus on what matters most: relationships.
Can we purposefully engage with our teens without cracking? Yes, by changing our perspective and being purposeful. We don't need to stop everything and travel a long way to make a difference. Instead, we can engage with our teens with what they are already doing — by caring about what matters to them.
Friendships take a high priority in our teens' lives. One way we show interest in our teens is by caring about their friends. Whenever they are in our homes or cars, ask them about their activities, classes, jobs, or family. Sincere questions make both them and our teen feel valued. Or ask our teen about their friends when they aren't around.
My son Justin doesn't mind me checking out his friend's MySpace pages with him. Actually, he begs me to hear a song sometimes. I listen to his and his friends' favorite songs and I look at their newest pictures or design template. I try not to judge them. Instead, I try to live out: "What matters to you, matters to me." The benefit? It keeps me in tune with what's going on and I learn more about who my son hangs out with and their interests.
When my niece turned fifteen, she asked for one thing: a text messaging plan for her cell phone. Texting connects teens; it's the new phone call. Maybe you think, "Why don't you just call the person?" I understand. Communication has changed and will keep changing.
If you have a text plan, use it to benefit your relationship with your teen. Learn enough to send messages during the day. Type a quick note of encouragement before a test. Consider getting a personal ring tone for your son or daughter. Let them pick the song. This shows them they are special to you — in a "techy" sort of way.
Being intentional with our teens means showing interest in their hobbies. Sometimes that means letting our son or daughter enjoy things we could care less about.
Beth did this with her daughter's desire to learn to horseback ride. Beth hates the smell of manure and has less than stellar moments on horses, but for the sake of supporting her, she made it happen.
Justin loves playing Xbox games. I don't. Learning to type was challenging enough. I sat next to Justin as he played a war game. He looked intense with his headset on, his focus on the TV screen.
"Did you get any new jobs?" Justin asked.
I stared at the action in front of me.
"What?" I said.
"I asked you a question."
"You did? Oh, sorry. I thought you were talking to the person you were playing with."
I discovered Justin will engage with me about his life and mine — but in his territory. His comfort zone is shoulder to shoulder, not face to face like mine.
What is your teen's comfort zone?
I'm sure I've missed opportunities with Justin. But that doesn't mean I should keep on missing them. Ten minutes a day of sitting next to him during a game is over an hour a week.
Look for ways to express your joy for their talents. Scoti encouraged her son's craftsmanship and proudly displayed the wood clock and end table he made in wood shop. When her other son Kyle took jewelry design, she wore the gold ring he made her out of a gold chain he had melted down.
Make the most of your driving moments with your teens. Let them play their favorite CD or talk about a current movie. For a surprise, after a game or performance, let them choose the restaurant. Justin feels special when we occasionally have him decide what we are eating. He never knows when that might be, but he's always thankful.
The plates of parenting spin consistently. Our job is learning to balance them all. With lots of plates spinning, we can miss the most important ones: our teens.
Make your teen's plate a priority.
Teens spell boundaries: R-U-L-E-S.
They'd prefer to jump over them into adulthood. But that's not reality. Even today's reality TV shows have rules and restrictions.
The top-rated reality show, American Idol, provides wanna-be singing sensations an opportunity to pursue their dreams. However there are age limitations and rules. The contestants' reward: talent recognition and stardom.
Our teens need us to be their greatest fan through their best and worst auditions in life. Regardless of their performance, our sons and daughters need to know we love them — unconditionally. And loving them means establishing boundaries. Here are some thoughts on boundaries with teens.
We cannot just lock our teens in the house like Big Brother. That's too easy. Boundaries include saying yes and no, just as doors are made to be opened and closed. Teens need the life lessons of success and failure to mature. When we open the door to appropriate levels of freedom, we give our teens a chance to make their own decisions, and to learn from them. When your daughter messes up by getting a speeding ticket, support her. Why? Because you can comfort and guide her through her mistake.
If you feel like trust was broken, a lock down may be necessary. If the door has been wide open, it's okay to shut it, a little, a lot, or completely. You can reopen it later.
Oprah's Big Give changes the rules every episode. Each week contestants never know what their challenge would be. This show reminds us of our movable boundaries. Surprise teens with a big give. As they demonstrate responsibility, allow more freedom. Reward them for giving to others.
Be willing to change with them. What your thirteen-year-old does today will be different when she's eighteen. Consider moving their curfew from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Today's teens are extra busy. Sometimes trying to survive activities during the school year turns into The Contender. We're like boxers slugging it out. Rather than fighting over schedules to exhaustion, decide beforehand. Set a boundary up in advance. A spring and fall sport? Year round? No more than two activities during a semester? Knowing this limitation eliminates verbal boxing matches.
Want a hot, but touchy topic? Mention dating to teens. Teens that date often experience rejection. Be sensitive to their pain. Listen. Shows like The Bachelor promote lies, betrayal and pain — not the life-long commitment of marriage. Help teens establish personal boundaries by encouraging them to respect their values and their bodies. Discuss sexual temptation and ways to avoid it. Offer safer options like double dating in public.
The goal of The Amazing Race is to reach the destination and stay in the running. Boundaries help our teens during their race towards maturity. Boundaries help parents too.
We need to know ours and model them to our teenagers. If we lack personal boundaries, what can we expect of our sons and daughters?
What matters most to you? Do you live those things out with consistency? If not, how can adding boundaries help you?
Married parents, as often as possible, be united. Talk in private about acceptable limits. Be prepared to answer teens when your boundary is nonnegotiable. Know what Scripture says on the topic.
My husband and I agreed — no teen tattoos. Another mom's son asked for long hair and a piercing. She answered, "Choose one, not both." If your values aren't compromised — compromise.
With separated or divorced parents, know your boundaries and keep them, even when they differ from your ex's. One mom keeps a "no rated R movie" standard even if the rated R movie is borrowed from dad's.
Some teens argue about attending church. Dr. John Townsend wrote in his book, Boundaries with Teens, "Good parenting means letting your teen move away from you spiritually while at the same time keeping her pointed toward a connection with her Heavenly Father."
My friend allowed her teen the freedom to volunteer as a cameraman for the church service instead of attending youth group, which he didn't enjoy.
Show your teens you value faith through your lifestyle. Pray with them. I tell my son Justin to pray during his algebra tests. He looks at me like I'm silly, but I believe God hears our prayers and He cares about every detail — including high school math.
American Idol picks one winner after months of audition cuts and performances. Each week one or more contestants are sent home until the last two compete in the finale.
Unlike the singing talent show, we don't eliminate our sons or daughters. We stand beside them when they forget their lines. We remember their dreams, cheering their wins and comforting their losses. One day our teens will receive their reward by becoming the responsible adults that God has made them to be. And we can celebrate, knowing our boundaries and commitment played a part in their lifelong dream of independence. Until then, let's challenge them to take risks, work hard and dream big.
How do you spell the greatest boundary of all?
One word that describes teens is change. During these adventurous transitional years, they change constantly – especially their minds, bodies and hormones. They begin to question life, their future, their beliefs. Regardless of the changes, one thing must remain constant – our unconditional love for them.
We should love our sons and daughters through all their seasons of life. Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, said, "Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within the reach of every hand."
Here are some ways to love teens through the changing climate of their lives.
One of our greatest challenges is to love our teen during blizzard-like conditions, when their heart is cold. They need our love during an emotional whiteout more than ever. What are the signs of winter?
During an emotional blizzard, teens can't hear your advice because they are too deep in pain. Recruit a rescue team if their storm is addictive or life-threatening. Obtain a Christian counselor or inpatient treatment – sooner, rather than later. Or find a trusted mentor or tutor to help them. Educate yourself about your son or daughter's issues. Ask trusted loved ones for prayer. Join a support group for parents of troubled youth. Contact your church or google the topic for possible local groups.
Even when you disapprove of your teen's actions say "I love you" anyway. Let your actions show you care. Calmly express your pain, thoughts and emotions when appropriate. Pursue healthy communication at all times.
You can't afford to ignore abusive or self-destructive behavior. When one mom's son was arrested for the second time, she didn't rescue him. Her motto? Time for tough love. Be available to hear your teen out, even if you've said everything you know to say. Encourage your son or daughter until he or she experiences brighter days.
You'll know when spring has sprung in your teen's life. The signs? A blossoming friendship. A budding romance. A growing interest in a talent or new job.
Their optimistic and adventurous outlook makes loving them easier. Yet during this season they still need your counsel. Help them make wise decisions with dating or responding to a grumpy, demanding boss. If possible, financially support a new hobby. Remind them to live a balanced life, not to invest everything into one person or activity. Encourage them to focus on their education and not get lost in the fragrance of spring.
In your teens' summer season, they flower and mature. You feel comfortable relaxing and enjoying the healthy growth you see in your son or daughter. Their character blooms and thrives.
Loving during this season takes intentional effort. Stay actively engaged by nurturing your relationship. Resist the temptation to kick back, which could be detrimental. Plan activities that you know they enjoy or value. Go to that loud concert for a change. Connect face to face over a meal or shoulder to shoulder over a movie. Make those memories today. Because come fall, everything changes – right before your eyes.
Autumn is a time of change. Leaves that were once green fade into yellow, orange and red, eventually falling to the ground. Flowers die back and drop seeds for next year's new growth.
You will know when it's fall because your son or daughter transforms before your eyes. Your please-take-a-shower-it's-been-days middle schooler becomes your please-save-some-hot-water-for-me high schooler. Your son who once collected cards now collects CDs. Your daughter who once promised she'd always live with you now prepares for her first apartment. New words saturate your conversations like graduation, college admissions letters, or shopping trips for sheets and dishes.
As you witness changes in your teenager, be encouraging. Appreciate the transformation. Even if their direction disappoints you, support them. As hard as it is, be willing to say, "Go for it" to your son, who wants to spend his summer after his freshmen year learning to rock climb, when you'd rather him take tennis lessons – with his feet on the ground! Tell your daughter you admire her courage and determination when she chooses to go on a year-long missions trip instead of fulfilling your dream of her going straight to college.
The best way to love in autumn is learn to let them grow up. Don't try to confine them into something they no longer are. Let go of who they once were to welcome the new color you see in them. Challenge them to step out and be all God created them to be.
No matter which season your teens are passing through, rely on God to give you wisdom and strength to love them well through their winter, spring, summer, and fall.