Loving through crisis: Divorce

Family conflict

You know what would be great?  If we never had to worry about divorce.  But guess what: we do.

Nationally, divorce happens in the homes of over half of kids under the age of 18.  That’s alot of brokenness.  Places like our own little Dburg are worse than the national average.  We’ve come a little ways, as we’re no longer the divorce capital of the country, but that’s hardly anything to brag about.

The sad truth is that you, being a youth volunteer, either mentor students whose parents have been divorced or at some point will.  And at some time, a student will come to you for help.  They’ll tell you they’re sad.  They’ll tell you they’re confused.  Your heart will break.

But what do you do?

Below are some things to keep in mind, as well as some do’s and don’ts (donts, don’t’s dont’s, donts’, donuts?) to help you help them through it.

They’ll be confused.  Even if the warning signs were there.  Even if they say it’s for the best.  Even if they appear to have it all together.  Because it’s a confusing time.  How did it go bad?  Do all relationships end?  What part did I play in it?  What happens now?  Where will I live?  What’s life going to look like?  These and so many other questions will be running through their minds.  Do reassure them that you’ll be there for them through it.  Hold them while they cry and contact them often.  Let your words and actions show them that they have someone to walk beside them.  Don’t make promises or speak on behalf of the parents.  Make sure you only speak for yourself.

They’ll blame themselves.  It’s much harder to admit that someone you loved has hurt you or done wrong than to carry the burden yourself.  They’ll put themselves under a microscope and analyze every action and conversation.  This blame can lead to anger and sometimes even turn them into a doormat.  They may find themselves doing every little thing they can to try to make amends for their imaginary wrongs.  Do remind them the decision wasn’t theirs.  Help them see that maintaining a relationship is the responsibility of the two individuals and no one else.  Don’t assign blame to one party (unless an incredibly outrageous grievance was committed and is already known).  It’s not your place to turn any child against any parent.  Your job is to love them through a difficult time, not be a judge and jury.  Besides, there’s always more to a story than we could possibly know.  Be as biased as possible while showing them that the fault is not their own.

The divorce can stunt their development.  Research shows that between 75 and 80% of the time, children from divorced parents eventually recover and become mature, responsible adults with no long term affect.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that in the moment and in the short term, it will almost definitely affect them.  Maturity is the process of a child becoming internally equipped and empowered to leave the safety of their parents and their home.  They learn who they are apart from them and learn who they want to become.  That process of slowly pulling away is hindered when they perceive a parent to be the one pulling away from them.  The process is almost reversed.  During a divorce, parents often become a little self-absorbed, while they’re figuring out how to make things work financially, dealing with the wounds they experienced, etc and that leads to spending less time with the kids.  The result is often children feeling insecure, or even anxious, about their relationships with their parents.  Do encourage them to have open and honest conversations with both parents.  Maybe even offer to be in the room with them for support, if you’ve prayerfully decided that would help.  Do everything you can to build that relationship.  Do continue to have high expectations for them.  If their attitude, grades, etc slip, call them on it.  Don’t make excuses for them because they’re going through a difficult time.  Let them know that being hurt isn’t a good reason to hurt others or damage their future.

They’ll be forced to grow up more quickly.  One home turning into two means less financial stability.  The cost of another home could keep them from being able to pursue extra-curriculurs or keep them from having certain privileges.  An extra home means more responsibilities.  More chores, less parental oversight, you see where this is going.  Sometimes a parent will even use their kid as a confidant and pull them into the drama more than they ever needed to be.  All this can cause them to become frustrated, angry and even calloused.  Do give them space to air their frustrations.  Let them know it’s safe to be honest.  Also give them a place to be a kid, free of responsibility.  They need to be goofy sometimes.  Don’t put more pressure on them to perform.  Telling them to take care of mom or dad isn’t fair.  And just saying it will most likely cost you your voice in their life.

On and on we could go.  If you want more info, I can provide that for you.  Overall, remember that your focus is them.  You offer support, encouragement, love, a safe space, and a judge free zone.  If you feel you’re in over your head, reach out to a trusted pastor or counselor.  Even if you don’t feel over your head, it’s good to reach out to someone to get new perspectives.  If you feel like they need to talk to a professional, seek out a good Christian counselor.  Don’t wait.  Don’t question your gut.  Help them make it happen.

And don’t ever feel like you have to have all the answers.  Walk it with them.  Be loving and be real.  Keep an eye out for alarming behavior, but keep in mind that it will get easier as time goes by.  Typically the first two years are the hardest.

Stick with them.  They need your constant love.

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Building Relationships with Students

karate

We love students!  It’s why we do what we do!  Why do we love them?  Lets count the ways:

  • They’re so full of life
  • They don’t take themselves so seriously
  • They’re funny as all get out
  • They’ve got all the energy we wish we had
  • They’re so full of untapped potential
  • They’re world changers
  • They’re yet-to-be-tainted versions of us
  • They just wanna have a good time
  • They’re hungry for something real
  • They haven’t yet perfected the art of lying and deception
  • They start prank wars
  • They love our own children like family
  • They’re ready to get after life
  • They’re relentlessly optimistic
  • They greet you in public like a puppy greets you at home
  • They know all the great videos on youtube
  • They keep us young
  • They remind you that life is a joy

On and  on I could go.  And I know you’ve even got a couple in mind right now to add to the list.  Students are just great!  But you know that already.  It’s why you’re reading this.  It’s why God’s called you to minister to them.  You lucky person, you.

So God’s called you to them.  You’re there.  In front of them.  With them.  They’re surrounding you.  Now what?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it happen, whether in church or school or anywhere.  Person X feels led to work with students.  We’ll call Person X Malachi.  Malachi is what I wanted to name Owen, but Megan said it sounded too Amish.  But that’s neither here or there.  But ‘chi wants to work with students.  And he’s all hyped up to do it.  ‘Chi even read a book about it before starting.  And he walks into the room full of students and life does one of those super-fast-tunnel-vision-zoom-ins right up to his face and he’s terrified.  I had a volunteer one time tell me that their first Wednesday night was like going back to high school itself.  Like they were the new kid in school standing in the lunch room not knowing where to go.  So what does Malachi do?  I mean, he’s read a book on mentoring, so he knows how to share wisdom, but that’s for down the road.  How does he build a relationship with them at all?

Well since I made up the guy and I made up the situation, I’m pleased to tell you that I’ve got the answer.  I’m even going to share it with you.  Malachi needs to be the guy God created him to be.  That sounds too simple.  Lets dig a little.

Malachi needs to walk right up to some guys in the room and be the most him he can possibly be.  Because rule number 1 with students is always be real.  They’ve got a nose for b.s. and they can smell it a mile away.  Acting like you’re someone you’re not?  They’ve got you picked already.  Pretending to be into something you don’t care about?  They already noticed.  Students are surrounded by lies all day every day.  They know real when they see it because they’ve been trained since infancy to doubt everything and everyone.  They’ve grown up in a super cynical world.  That’s why you’d be hard pressed to find a young Trump supporter (sorry it just got political, but it was low hanging fruit).  Because of that, authenticity jumps off the page.  There are so few genuine things in their world, when they see it, it stands out.

Maybe this first group of guys clicks with him.  Great!  If not, this isn’t the end of the world.  Too often, it’s at this point that bubbles are burst and hopes sink as swiftly as Jack & Rose and their beautiful Titanic in the icy Atlantic waters.  This is not a deal breaker.  I don’t develop deep relationships with every single person I meet.  You won’t either.  This is why your first several weeks in youth ministry should look a bit like speed dating.  Jump around, hang out a bit, laugh, be the you you’re comfortable being, move to another group, and do it all over again.  Sooner rather than later, you’re going to find a group of students you genuinely enjoy.  When you find your crew, settle in to a nice, comfy spot.

Now it’s time to invest.  Start just in conversation.  Ask them about themselves.  Show them you’re interested in them.  Make them the focus.  And when they talk, listen.  Make mental notes of things worth remembering: family, birthdays, hobbies, interests, extra-cucciculur activities, etc.  When you see them next time, follow up on a previous conversation.  This tells them that you care enough to remember them.  Unfortunately, not enough people do.  Especially adults!  When they ask about you, give them you.  Be real.  Don’t try to be perfect or have every answer.  Just be you.

Maybe one night for church you bring your group drinks from Sonic or DQ.  Give them a little something to tell them you care and you’re willing to do a little something extra for them because you value them. Or maybe you’ve always got gum you give away.  Think of silly little ways to bring them in.

Hang out with them outside of church.  While you’re at church, they’ll see themselves as your ministry.  Outside church, they’ll see themselves as part of your life.  This is where the relationship gets real.  Because until you show them that you truly care for them, they’re going to keep you an arm’s length away.  They even will a little after.  But it’s when you go to their games or plays or have them over to your house that they start seeing themselves differently.  Suddenly it’s not just about church.  You care about them.  And when this relationship is fostered, you’re finally able to really pour into them.  You’ve earned the right to speak into their situation.  You’ve earned the respect.  They know the truth you speak is in love.

The funny thing is that none of that is groundbreaking at all.  That’s just relationships.  The problem is, we realize how vital a mentor can be in a student’s life.  So we make it all serious and programmed.  And when we do that, we stop building genuine relationships because we’re no longer being genuine.  We think that we need to memorize the Bible so we can quote it to them.  Or we have to walk perfectly in our own lives so we’re not being hypocrites.  And we make the joy that is youth ministry something much more difficult than it really is.  Sure, you need to have wisdom to help them along.  Sure, you need to live out your faith the best you can.  But when life gets hard, they’re not going to the most scholarly person they know.  They’re going to the ones who have best show them love.

And isn’t that why we do it?  Life is tough.  It’s a long, difficult road to manage.  We just want to help them like we needed help.  And this is such a great place to take a moment and ask a very important question: what type of adult did you need at their age?  Maybe you had that adult in your life, maybe you didn’t.  But what did you need?  Be that for them!  Be that person who loves them well.  Be that person who lets them in.  Be that person who is truly concerned.  Be that person who isn’t afraid to speak truth.  Be that person who genuinely enjoys their company.  But I want you to stop reading for a moment and actually give that some thought.  That has the potential to be a game-changer.  So don’t just read on, take a moment.  What type of adult did you need growing up?


 

Students don’t need a babysitter.  They don’t need someone who is always pointing out their faults.  They don’t need someone reminding them of how they got it wrong.  They just need someone to walk beside them.  They’ll give you opportunities to speak truth and they’ll give you moments to help them grow.  That will come with the relationship.  But they’re not going to seek that type of relationship out.  That’s what God’s called you to do.  That’s why you’re involved.

So who are your people?  What students form your squad?  What can you do to bring them closer?  How do you get to know them better?  How do you let them see you?

Or maybe you don’t have a crew yet.  Keep meandering and talking.  Keep working the room.  Pray that God would show you.  Then do what you can to build on what He gives you.

Building relationships isn’t easy.  But it’s one of the few things in life that will just happen.  If you commit to just being there, you’ve taken the most important step.  So be a person who’s there.  You just being the you that God’s made you so far could have more impact than you could possibly imagine.  God has made you, equipped you, and led you to be exactly what a specific student needs to help conquer life as a teenager.  Are you in?

 

The one about the weirdness of growing up…

awkwardteenager

You ever traveled?  I’m not talking hit the beach or visit the lake.  I’m talking traveled.  Have you ever packed your bags, jumped on a plane, and gone somewhere completely foreign to you?

Take yourself somewhere.

Right now.

Lets try out Paris.  I’ve always wanted to go.  Well, kinda.  In my mind, France has always had this duality of wicked awesome and utterly pretentious.  Like I can sip coffee on the sidewalk of a two hundred year old cafe, but I’ll have to put up with the angry Parisian chain smoker next to me, blowing intentionally in my face and uttering french expletives because every fiber of my being screams “MURICA!”.

Anyway…

Picture it.  You step off the plane and are greeted by signs you can’t read.  You exchange your dollars for euros, which are entirely too colorful to be real, and step out in the street.  Everyone walks like they know where they’re going, except you.  You stop in the middle of the street to get your bearings and create a roadblock that leads to lots of bumps, sideways glances, and not so quiet mutters.  You realize for the first time just how out of place you are and note just how alone you feel.  You line up for a cab and finally one arrives.  You step up to get in and are elbowed by a dozen other people wanting the same seat.  Having no way to protest, you just step aside bewildered.  After an extended time of holding your heavy luggage, having your toes trampled, and a close call with a street sweeper, you get a ride.  You clamber in the backseat and try to tell the driver where you want to go.  After more dirty looks and breathy mutterings, you’re finally on the same page.  You’re watching dreamily out the window, passing shops, cafes, monuments and for a moment, you’re euphoric; a brave traveler in a whole new world – until you start getting further and further from town.  You thought you booked a hotel in the heart of the city, only to find you’ve got your own room at Le’ Craphole hotel, tucked behind an alley with flashing neon lights and loitering drunks.  You somehow manage to get your key, after more than a little struggle.  You make it to your room, go to charge your phone, and realize the plug doesn’t fit.  You mutter your own expletives, all in English, and decide you need a bite to eat.  The first thing you pass is a small bakery.  What’s more French than a croissant?  You go in, order your food, and sit at a small table in the center of the room.  You look to your left and your heart stops.  You’ve spotted the most attractive frenchy France has ever seen.  Your eyes meet before you can look away.  You want to chat, but you’re so dumbfounded and nervous, you just spend the rest of the wait staring at your lap.  You’re finally freed from your navel gazing by an angry little frenchwoman who brings you something totally not what you ordered.  Now you’re arguing with the shopkeeper, who keeps throwing sharp little french words over your shoulder to the ever growing crowd around you, explaining to them that the stupid American doesn’t know what he’s doing… at least you think.  Once again, you’re alone, confused, embarrassed, the focus of undesired attention, and agitating the masses.

Are you uncomfortable yet?

Now think back to middle school and tell me the difference.

Through childhood, we parent a child to function in the world we create for them.  We tell them our rules, we give them our best practices, we teach them our language, we begin their basic education, and we allow them to practice them all in the safety of our little circles and under our watchful eyes.  We try to build their skills and their confidence and tell them they’re doing a good job if they can navigate our world.

Then middle school hits.  They’re no longer in the world we created for them.  And they’re told that if they want to survive this new world, they’ll need new rules, new best practices, even a whole new language.

But they’re starting to look grown.  They can hold a conversation with us.  They’re becoming much more physically able.  And so we start treating them like adults, completely ignoring the fact they they’re essentially babies, learning to navigate all over again.

And God love them, they try.  They try to find where they fit and where they thrive.  They try to learn what they think and what they believe.  They even try to make an impact and a name for themselves.  Sadly, it usually goes something like this…

Is that not the epitome of life in middle school?

My point in all this babble is this: you did a great job helping your kid navigate your world.  But your preteen is no longer in your world.  You need to have the same patience, compassion, and composure leading them now as you did way back then.  And regardless what they say and how they act, they want your help.  You were so gentle and encouraging when your little baby was learning to walk – wobbling through your living room with shaky legs and wide eyes.  You were always there with a kind word and a kiss to heal the boo-boo’s.  Keep it up.  Because they’re not just another year older.  They’re not just one grade higher.  They’re learning to walk all over again.  And they still very much need you.  Don’t give up on you.  Don’t give up on them.  Your love, grace, discipline, and persistence brought them this far.  Keep it up and it will take them further than you can imagine.