By / Nov 9

Anxiety is widespread among teenagers. If you lined up 100 teenagers between the ages of 13 to 18, you could expect approximately every third teenager (31%) to experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their teen years. And almost every 10th teenager (8.5%) would experience anxiety that causes severe impairment.[i] As the parent of an anxious teen, you may feel a sense of fear, uncertainty, or powerlessness. How can you help? What if you can’t help? How severe is your child’s anxiety? At what point should you consider counseling? 

Perhaps you even feel a sense of frustration. Wouldn’t your child feel less anxious if he would listen to you and and stay off his phone? Or maybe you have stepped into “fix-it mode,” searching for causes and next steps to take. You want your child to find relief, so your natural tendency may be to brainstorm solutions and offer suggestions of what you think will help. While suggestions can be helpful, oftentimes the best place to start is by having an open and ongoing conversation with your teen about their experience. Here are some questions to help you begin.

Questions to get the conversation started

What is anxiety like for you? Many teenagers don’t realize when they are anxious. Their back tension, racing thoughts, counting rituals, insomnia, nervous energy, or other anxiety symptoms feel normal because these experiences are the only thing they know. Teenagers often need help verbalizing their anxiety symptoms so they can begin to recognize when they are anxious. Ask specific questions to help them gain awareness. What does anxiety feel like for them? What thoughts race through their minds? Where do they notice anxiety symptoms in their bodies? 

What seems to trigger your anxiety? Teenagers also often need help connecting their anxiety to specific situations in their life. Is the tension in their shoulders related to homework? Do the racing thoughts occur when they spend too much time on the phone? Does the anxiety tend to happen at a certain time of day, in a specific location, or around particular people? Ask questions to help your child begin to make these connections. 

When is the first time you remember feeling anxious? You can also investigate when the anxiety first started and what was happening in your child’s life at the time. The onset of anxiety can often be traced back to distressing events such as a parent’s divorce, an experience of bullying, or the death of a family member. The impact of events such as these can linger for many years. Sometimes, present symptoms of anxiety can be resolved when teenagers have the chance to process past distressing experiences.   

How do you think your habit of _______ impacts your anxiety? Many teenagers have bad habits that make their anxiety worse. Don’t we all? Parents often recognize that their teenagers would feel better if they would go to bed at a more reasonable time, stay more active, spend less time on the phone, or stop other stress-inducing habits. But how can you help teenagers make important changes if they bristle the moment these topics are mentioned? While you may need to enforce rules surrounding certain problem areas, it’s often best to start by helping teenagers assess their habits for themselves. 

Teenagers need to begin taking ownership of how some habits such as isolating, talking to certain friends, overusing social media, or binge-watching TV impact their anxiety. Help them investigate areas such as these by framing your concerns as questions, instead of statements or lectures. For example, how does it affect them when they spend the afternoon on TikTok? If they notice that it negatively affects their anxiety, what do they want to do about this?

Are there any calming activities you would like to use as an alternative to habits you realize may be problematic? Small changes such as getting outside for regular walks, taking five minutes a day to breathe deeply, or taking breaks from homework can make a difference. Talk about some possible changes, but don’t send them off to implement these practices alone. Go with them. Go on that walk together. Breathe deeply together. Stay off social media together. Go out of your way to communicate that you are on their side and in this struggle with them.  

How does your relationship with God help you when you feel anxious? And if it doesn’t seem to help, how are you making sense of that? The way we frame conversations about anxiety and faith with teenagers is important. Teenagers are often black-and-white thinkers. They sometimes misinterpret our encouragements to “bring their anxiety to God” as pressure to simply pray harder and read their Bibles more. They can then feel guilty, confused, or angry when they do these things and still feel anxious. 

Instead of asking a teenager “are you praying?” or “are you reading your Bible?”, we need to make the connection between anxiety and faith more compelling. More invitational. More honest about the mysterious ways God does and doesn’t work through Scripture and prayer. Less focused on hints of legalism and more focused on the relationship we can experience with the Lord. 

God does not stand over us and demand that we pray more and read our Bibles more when we are afraid. Rather, we get to go to him for help. We get to be completely honest with him about our experience. How can you help your teenager grasp this comfort? This is an opportunity to share your own experience of how you go to the Lord when you feel afraid.  

Do you want to try counseling? Some teenagers fight the idea of counseling. Other teenagers want counseling but hesitate to ask for it because they have real or imagined fears about how a parent may respond. It’s worth initiating the conversation to see if counseling has crossed their mind. If they do desire counseling, always honor this request. 

Is there anything that I am doing or anything that is happening in our home that makes you feel more anxious? This is a difficult question to ask, but I encourage you to go here. You may or may not agree with what your teenager says, but either way you will gain valuable information. It’s important to assess how the atmosphere of your whole household affects your teenager’s anxiety. Children are like sponges, absorbing their parent’s energy and emotions. This is especially true of young children, but we can’t ignore how teenagers also soak up the emotions of adults. When a parent feels anxious, angry, stressed, or worried, a teenager picks up these feelings. When a parent feels calm, a teenager absorbs this sense of peace. 

So when you notice anxiety in your teenager, it’s always an invitation to consider your own inner life. If you find anxiety, fear, worry, or stress within yourself, it’s likely affecting your teenager as well. 

However, before you discuss with your teenager the questions listed above, consider answering them for yourself. Do you know when you are stressed or anxious? Are you using the habits you encourage your teenager to use? Sometimes helping your anxious teenager begins with addressing your own inner struggle. 

Exploring your own anxiety should not lead to discouragement or self-criticism, though. We all feel anxious at times. Rather, beginning with yourself may be a needed invitation. God has given you an opportunity to slow down and nurture your own anxious heart. As you do so, you will become more equipped to understand and help the anxious teenager in your care. 

[i] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder

By / Jul 6

Children today encounter an online world unlike anything experienced by prior generations. They are introduced to devices early and often, and families increasingly accept them as a normal fixture of everyday life.  Over 50% of American kids have their own smartphone by age 11, and on average, 13-year-olds now devote more than seven hours a day to non-school-related screen time.

This rapid and widespread adoption of personal devices has changed adolescent life in America in many ways, both positive and negative. While the benefits are widely acknowledged, such as convenience and communication among family members, many of the downsides are not yet fully appreciated, especially by parents. One of the most troubling trends associated with our ubiquitous devices is the increased exposure to inappropriate content and the rapid rise of sexting. Sexting is when people send sexually explicit or revealing pictures or texts.

The statistics on this trend are devastating. Two out of every 3 girls ages 12-18 have been asked to take and share a nude image. One study found that 14% of teens have sent a nude photo or video of themselves, and 24% of teens have admitted to receiving photos. Alarmingly, 1 in 8 teens has said that they have had their photos shared without their consent to others.  Given the growing prevalence of this phenomenon, parents need to address the uncomfortable topic of sexting.  As awkward as the conversation may be, it is preferable that children learn about this issue from their parents, rather than an anonymous stranger online or from their peers. Parents should help their children understand in an age-appropriate way that the power and freedom afforded by these devices must come with the responsibility to use them well. 

Conversations should ideally take place before your child receives his or her first phone in order to guard against the risk that they send a sext, and to prepare them for the possibility that they might receive one. But no matter the situation, parents should talk to their children early and often about such issues. But how do we begin such difficult conversations? 

Sean Clifford, CEO of Canopy, a parental control app that can deter sexting, answers questions below about this dangerous trend. He emphasizes the importance of making wise digital choices and provides advice for parents on how to address the topic of sexting with their children. 

Jill Waggoner: What are digital footprints, and why are they important? 

Sean Clifford: The choices we make online can follow us forever. They exist in the form of digital footprints, which are invisible trails of data that every internet-connected device leaves behind during normal use. Even when a photo, for example, is posted and later deleted, there is no guarantee that it is truly gone for good—some trace of it may be left somewhere. 

In addition, there are numerous ways other individuals can capture a digital image or video without permission, even if it’s only up for a moment. Some apps, like Snapchat, automatically delete content after a certain period of time, providing the false security that whatever is sent is fleeting and will soon disappear. However, even on such apps there are easy ways for others to save the content, such as taking a screenshot or recording the screen from another device.

JW: What are the potential consequences of sending a sext? 

SC: The consequences for sharing inappropriate photos can be significant. What may seem harmless, rebellious, or impermanent, often can result in painful, embarrassing, and unhealthy outcomes. Such consequences include: 

  • The message can be shared beyond the intended recipient. It sadly is not uncommon for such posts to go viral at a school or end up on websites that feature child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
  • Adults, including parents and teachers, could see it, resulting in suspensions, or in some instances, legal trouble. There are cases in which sexts have been prosecuted as the transmission of child pornography.
  • Sexting can damage real-life relationships and reputations, and the psychological harm that results when a sext goes public can be devastating.

JW: Sometimes children do not know where to draw the line when taking or posting pictures of themselves. How can parents guide their children in creating appropriate boundaries for their digital choices? 

SC: We know that digital is forever, so we encourage kids to ask if they would be comfortable sending the photo in question to their parent or teacher or having it posted in a public forum accessible to the whole school. It’s a simple but powerful question: if they aren’t comfortable with a parent seeing an image or video they intend to post or share, they probably shouldn’t send it at all. Most children would be rightfully horrified if their mom or dad saw an inappropriate picture of them. Asking a question like this makes them think twice about the pictures or messages they are willing to send and reinforces that what they do online far outlives the moment. This approach also opens the door for parents to help their kids understand what type of photos are acceptable when it comes to taking pictures of themselves. 

It also can be helpful to listen to the first-hand experiences of teenagers who have had personal images go viral. The stories are heartbreaking and can help illustrate the potential consequences as shared from someone in a similar stage of life. Kids will often respond to parental advice that ‘life is different’ and ‘parents just don’t understand’, and in some cases, they are right! Introducing voices of their peers can help make the case.

JW: As you mentioned, digital choices can affect the future. How should parents approach this in conversation with their children? 

SC: Parents should encourage them to think seriously about the following two questions:

  1. Who do you want to be?
  2. How do you want to be known? 

These questions place an emphasis on the future, rather than the present. As we discussed previously, digital choices stick with us forever, potentially even years after something was posted or sent. Help your child understand that sending or posting pictures might seem harmless now, but it can impact their future and their reputation. Regrettably, the cost of making a mistake today, if captured digitally, is simply higher than it used to be. As much as we may wish this weren’t the case, it is a reality of our new digital age. 

JW: How can parents prepare their children for situations where they are asked to send a sext? 

SC: First, help your children understand that it’s not only acceptable, but a good thing, to say no. Often, kids take part in sexting due to the fear of peer pressure, being judged, or made fun of for abstaining. Frame the request as a form of manipulation, which it is. As any parent of a teen can attest, they hate the idea of being manipulated to act against their own will.

This leads me to my second point, which is preparation. It is vital to proactively prepare your children and equip them with the reasons—and hopefully the confidence—say no when the moment arises. Give them some ideas for how to respond to a text that is asking for inappropriate photos and what they should do if they receive one on their device. For instance, they could respond with, “My parents put an app on my phone that will alert them if I send a photo like that.” Finally, it is important for them to know they should never apologize for not sending a sext. Saying no and standing up for oneself is a decision they can be proud of—now and in the years to come.

Conclusion 

Parenting in our digital age can be frightening. It has always been challenging to help our children protect their purity, but it seems almost impossible to guard their hearts and minds from technology’s pull toward the illicit. Yes, it is important to equip our kids with practical ways to avoid these temptations. But most importantly, as Christians, we must call them to the One who has the power to change their very desires. Jesus alone can give our children new hearts that want to walk in purity and find their satisfaction in him. And ultimately, as we seek to parent well in all the complexities of our society, we entrust them to the God who can lead them in paths of righteousness for the sake of his name (Ps. 23: 3).

By / Jun 13

In the year 1610, Galileo had a problem. On the one hand, he had done something amazing. Using two glass lenses, he had constructed a telescope that enabled him to see craters on the surface of our moon and four of the moons orbiting Jupiter. Yet, there was a big downside. These images, though magnified 30 times, were blurred and rimmed with a rainbow effect of colors. No one could study the images closely. Today astronomers call this distortion a chromatic aberration.  

Fast forward 150 years and enter the man who solved Galileo’s problem: English optician, John Dolland. With his discovery, even distant images snapped into focus, and the color halo vanished. Dolland’s solution? He added a third lens. Now Dolland and every other stargazer could see distant planets with a brand-new sharpness of sight.

Astronomers aren’t the only people who, when looking into the dark, desire greater clarity. Parenting can feel a lot like a search in the dark too. From the moment their children are born, many parents find themselves asking questions about the best path forward. What does my child need right now? How do I guide him or her toward wise choices? How can I help them navigate difficult or delicate decisions in life?

The complexity of raising a child can make the best parent long for simple answers: Should my response be yes or no? What’s the right or wrong decision? And how can I teach my children to make those right choices? God’s Word provides the answer, but it isn’t a rulebook, and it doesn’t always give binary options. God’s Word doesn’t tell you what movies are okay for what ages, what clothes are appropriate, or what invitations to parties or sleepovers should be accepted or rejected. The Bible does not offer a two-lens solution to these questions. It provides three.

Creation. Fall. Redemption.

Creation. Fall. Redemption. These three realities define the story of God’s world because they define the story of the God’s Word.

The Bible teaches us that everything in this world contains traces of good because God created it (Gen. 1:31; 1 Tim. 6:17). Still we know that nothing on planet Earth has escaped being contaminated to some degree by sin (Gen. 3:16-19; Rom. 8:20-23). Yet by his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ came to make all things new, partially in the present and perfectly in the future (2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5). Creation, fall, redemption—good, bad, new.

These are three foundational truths that we look at in Scripture, but they’re also three lenses of Scripture we must look through. So, when as parents, we need to make some judgment call about a difficult issue, let’s stop and consider, “What about this situation is good because it’s created? What about it is broken because of the fall? And how has Jesus transformed it?”

Good. Bad. New. 

For example, do your kids need to remember that their siblings are created in God’s image and, therefore, have value? (Good) Or do they need to realize mom and dad aren’t perfect, that they’re flawed and sinful people too? (Bad) Do they need to remember that as good and fun as sports or friends are, Jesus and his priorities are more important? (New)

Drop any of the three lenses, and you’ll get a distorted view on life. For biblical clarity, even on challenging issues, you need all three perspectives: good, bad, and new. This is why I wrote Radically Different: A Student’s Guide to Community. It’s a 13-week devotional study that 12- to 16-year-olds can do on their own or as part of a discussion group.

Here was my hope: I want us to teach middle schoolers and young teens to begin looking at all of life, and especially at relationships, through the lenses of creation, fall, and redemption. So, for each week of this study, we look at different relationships (with God, family, or friends) from these three aspects.

Good/Bad/New relationships

First, we examine what’s valuable about a certain relationship (such as friends, family, etc.) (good). Then, we take a look at relationships through the lens of the fall (bad). How has sin affected and complicated this relationship? Finally, how do we relate to others in light of Christ’s redemption (new)? 

There are, of course, dozens of biblical passages and observations that could be considered regarding any one of the relationships covered, but I don’t aim to be exhaustive or provide a topical dictionary of issues. The goal is more modest—helping students in middle school to start thinking biblically about life and relationships, even if this mindset is out of step with the currents of the day. 

I hope to help the next generation, my own children included, live more in harmony with the realities and relationships of God’s Word and world. May the Lord give us the grace we need to shepherd our children. And may the Lord lead their relationships to be radically biblical and radically different.

*****

This article was originally posted at the New Growth Press blog.

By / Mar 17

It was 2006, and my friends and I nervously passed around a cigarette behind our middle school.

We had heard the talking points before:

  • Smoking is terrible for your health, 
  • Smoking is addictive, and
  • Smoking can ruin your Christian reputation. 

But, there we were, away from the watchful eye of our parents, smoking. 

Not your grandfather’s cigarette 

As I enter my 10th year of serving as a student pastor, I’ve found that I couldn’t agree more with the famous statement by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” 

One of the most common conversations I have with parents in my ministry revolves around the underage use of e-cigarettes or, as it is more commonly referred to by teenagers, “vaping.” E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that are easy to hide and can look like flash drives. These devices mimic cigarettes by heating liquids with nicotine salts or THC oils (marijuana). E-cigarettes are not as detectable as traditional cigarettes because the user exhales a mist of vaporized particles instead of tobacco smoke.

The most recent National Youth Tobacco Study found that more than 2 million youth use e-cigarettes. That represents 11.3% of high school and 2.8% of middle school students nationally. It is no wonder why the conversation is so typical.

Shockingly, the NYTS found that almost 1 in 4 e-cigarette users smoke daily and concluded that “disturbingly high rates of frequent and daily e-cigarette usage suggests that many teens have a strong dependence on nicotine.” Another contributing factor to the rising dependence on nicotine may be the actual concentration in the e-cigarette itself. JUUL, one of the most popular brands of e-cigarettes, claims their 3% JUULpod (JUUL’s lowest strength pod) contains approximately 23 mg of total nicotine. The average pack of cigarettes contains 22 to 36 mg of nicotine. 

The study also found that 85% of the 2 million smokers preferred flavored e-cigarettes. In early 2020 the FDA began working on enforcements against flavored e-cigarettes that targeted kids. Seven firms received warning letters for marketing unauthorized e-liquids that imitate packaging for food products such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, Twinkies, and Cherry Coke, or feature cartoon characters that often appeal to youth (remember Joe Camel?).

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

So what do I say to my teenager about vaping? 

You could say that: 

  • Vaping is terrible for your health, 
  • Vaping is addictive, and 
  • Vaping can ruin your Christian reputation. 

You wouldn’t be wrong to say those things. You might not be convincing either. How often has someone in authority told you not to do something you wanted to do because it was “bad” for you? How many times did you listen? You get my point.  

If you haven’t read “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” by Scottish minister and professor of theology Thomas Chalmers, you should. He argues, “The love of the world cannot be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness. But may it not be supplanted by the love of that which is more worthy than itself?” 

You are going to need something more than a demonstration of the worthlessness of vaping, no matter how compelling it may be, to guard your child against the temptation to vape. 

James 1:14 says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” The Bible says your teenager will experience the temptation to vape because of their desire for their peers’ acceptance, a desire not to be made fun of for refusing, or their desire for the flavor and buzz that vaping gives them. 

The reality is if you want to protect your child from the temptation of vaping, the best option at your disposal is to ignite in them a stronger desire than acceptance, avoiding suffering, and temporary pleasure. 

Jesus said it plainly in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And this is precisely Chalmers’ point. A strong desire, or love, for Jesus is the best hope your child can have to expel their worldly desires and choose their Savior over their sin.

Will your child avoid all temptation? No. Will they make mistakes? Yes. 

Getting the conversation started

When it comes to dialogue with teenagers, asking questions can be more effective than making statements. Questions get them to talk more, you to talk less, and can reveal how they filter the world. 

So when it comes to talking to your teenager about vaping, try this. 

You could ask: 

  • Do you have any desire to try vaping? Why?
  • Would vaping make you more like Jesus?
  • What sin might you commit by choosing to vape in light of laws and household rules? 
  • Will vaping make it easier for you to follow Jesus?

Listen to what your child has to say. It may surprise you how quickly they confess and clarify the true desires of their heart. The work begins when your child reveals a desire other than following God’s best for their life.

Where do I go from here? 

If your teenager feels like today’s temptation to vape and its consequences seem small, help them see that tomorrow’s temptations are much larger and come with significant consequences. The result of those later temptations will be more than losing cell phone privileges and not being able to go to the game on Friday night with your friends. Show them that refusing to give in to the small temptations actually equips them to reject more considerable temptations in the future.

Instead of showing them how their desire is worthless, offer them a desire for something more worthy. In Matthew 16, Jesus instructs his followers, “If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself.” For the follower of Christ, self-denial is not a practice; it is a way of life. It is a choice to find life by emptying oneself of worldly desires. 

Let me remind you that you are not in this alone. There is heavenly wisdom in the gathering of the local church. God has given you a community of believers to encourage you and your student to choose faithfulness to God over the fleeting desires of our sinful hearts. To hold you up when you feel like you have blown it as a parent. To speak words of life to your teenager when nothing you say seems to make a difference. 

Remember the encouragement of Psalm 119:9, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your Word.” I am praying Ephesians 3:17-19 over you and your student, that Christ would make his home in your hearts as you trust him and that God’s love would make you strong enough to choose a life complete with all the fullness and power that comes from God, not the world.