Making disciples

Kids in Crisis and the Church

A trauma-informed approach to the next generation.

March 10, 2022

“I don’t know, I guess I’m a girl?” 

Those were the words Caitlyn*, a beautiful and gifted seventh grader in our youth ministry, answered to my question, “Tell me the truest thing about you.” 

Caitlyn’s mom set up our meeting because Caitlyn had become depressed, withdrawn and disconnected. Her inflection at the end of that statement caught my attention. It wasn’t that she was experiencing gender dysphoria, but rather an identity crisis: she didn’t know who she was or what to do about it. The result was an increasing anxiety that spoiled much of life. 

Caitlyn isn’t unusual. Since 2007 (coincidently the year the first iPhone was introduced) instances of mental health disorder, self-harm and suicide attempts and completions have risen drastically. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, between 2007 and 2016, self-harm increased 329%, all mental health disorders rose 60% and substance use disorder rose 159%. 

One recent New York Times article points out that the age of distress is creeping lower with kids as young as eight exhibiting despair.

[Trauma] affects the body, brain, mind, activities of daily living and especially relationships.

Experts have offered a variety of explanations for the drastic increase, from social media and societal stress to diet and genetics and the pandemic has only exacerbated the mental health epidemic. 

The kids aren’t alright

According to the AAP and CDC, between January and October 2020 alone, mental-health-related ER visits were up 24-31% among children ages 5-17. 

“In 2021, a national emergency for children’s mental health was declared by several pediatric health organizations, and the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory on mental health among youths.”

The stats are easy to find and they are all alarming. Fear of infection, grief from lost loved ones, economic hardships, isolation, disruptions to daily living, increased screen-time and the perpetual flow of controversial news and commentary have traumatized a generation of young people. 

Trauma is the result of an adverse event or experience that an individual lacks the internal resources and external relationships to manage. It affects the body, brain, mind, activities of daily living and especially relationships. 

While trauma is typically understood as tragic events like car accidents, natural disasters, physical or sexual assault or witnessing a violent crime (these could all be categorized as acute traumas), experts today recognize a broader understanding. Neglect, abandonment, verbal abuse, loss, divorce and frequent relocation (categorized as chronic trauma) all have a lasting impact on the brain, changing a child’s ability to process these adverse experiences properly and putting them at a measurable disadvantage throughout life.  

Long effects of childhood wounds

All these types of trauma lead to toxic stress. 

In 1998, Kaiser Permanente published its landmark ACEs study conducted in cooperation with the CDC. The study identified ten adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their long-term impact. They concluded:  

“Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect such things as attention, decision-making, learning and response to stress. Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. They may also have unstable work histories as adults and struggle with finances, jobs and depression throughout life. These effects can also be passed on to their own children.”

ACEs are not the only cause of toxic stress in the lives of young people today. The always-on nature of social media and the inescapable pressure to fit in but stand out, make a statement but not make waves, be a leader but follow the latest trends has become a chronic, toxic stressor that few adults can handle, let alone kids. 

In his book, Parenting Generation Screen, Jonathan McKee says, “The smartphone has become a real-time, portable barometer of self-esteem.” According to a recently published study, the correlation between social media and poor mental health is strong, especially among girls.

How much more does this next generation need practices to face the vast adverse experiences levied against them today?

Young people were not made to bear the weight of the complex world they are inheriting. Adolescents have not become weaker; the weight has become greater. While psychology has plenty to teach us about mental health, the various causes and healthy treatment of the crisis we’re now seeing, the church is uniquely positioned to address it. 

A toolbox for trauma

Within the church, young people should develop a toolbox of internal resources to manage trauma.  

Historically, the church has referred to these resources as spiritual disciplines. What the next generation needs (more than fun or entertainment) is a space to learn and practice disciplines of prayer, Scripture engagement, worship, solitude and silence, reflection, journaling, confession and more. They need to learn practices that will sustain them in the valleys. 

Spiritual disciplines strengthened Jesus during the 40 days of preparation for His encounter in the wilderness with the adversary (Matt 4:1-11). How much more does this next generation need practices to face the vast adverse experiences levied against them today? 

Three types of tools for the task 

Traditionally, the church has categorized spiritual disciplines in two ways: either as practices of engagement (Scripture reading, prayer, worship, service, etc.) or practices of abstinence (fasting, solitude, silence, generosity, etc.). 

However, it is also helpful to categorize them relationally. There are some tools that one uses privately. Some tools are used relationally with just one or two others at a time. And some tools are used corporately, within a larger community of faith. At my church, we strive to create a healthy balance of all three in our youth ministry to train young people in the way of Jesus. 

1. We are developing simple, usable tools to help young people encounter Jesus daily. These include our Bible PROMPT (a study and interpretation tool) and our Compass prayer tool. By using acronyms and visual images, we make these tools memorable and repeatable. While we promote these as personal tools, we practice them routinely in our youth ministry to help students better engage. 

2. We are encouraging relational tools to help young people encounter Jesus through one another each week. For instance, instead of asking each other “How are you?” or “What’s up?” we challenge them to ask, “What’s God up to?” (WGU2 for short). We want young people to remember that God is always up to something, and we can take part in it if we’re willing to keep our eyes open and join Him.

Another tool, called 3-2-1, reminds us to learn three names, have two significant conversations, and pray with one person each time we’re at church. This simple tool encourages connection, deepens sharing, and invites God into our conversations. It is always encouraging to see volunteers and students spontaneously praying together.  

Our Story tool helps us to weave the gospel into each of our stories as we share life. When I hear another person’s story (“their story”) and find a connection with “my story,”, I can connect it to “God’s story” and how He changed “my story,” finally bringing it back to “their story” for an intentional question about how God might fit in. This tool is perfect for relational evangelism but also serves to encourage one another within the church to invite God into our stories. 

3. We are creating corporate rhythms and spaces where we can encounter Jesus together throughout the calendar. Corporate tools include rhythms and spaces that foster engagement in liturgical seasons like Advent and Lent. In addition to these sacred seasons, we’ve punctuated the calendar with a rotation of serving and celebration. 

Each quarter in our student ministry calendar we dedicate a night to worship and prayer together. During a recent campaign and all-church study of Nehemiah, we build the twelve gates of Jerusalem around twelve spiritual disciplines and invited the students to travel around the gates and linger at whichever practice they needed most. The purpose of these offerings is to create sacred spaces where God might show up. 

We are currently launching a new ministry called Regroup, designed to be a safe space where young people can process life’s hurts and disappointments, anxieties and stressors. The "safe space" is more environmental than geographical—it is a combination of small group discussion, one-on-one mentoring and journaling through five tools for self-reflection and engagement with God and others. Students participate with a small group of caring peers and adult mentors where there is no judgment or pressure to conform. It reflects what we learn about God in Romans 2:4, God’s kindness leads to repentance. 

Within the family of faith, young people will encounter the hospitality of God...

The hope is that through these tools and rhythms young people might encounter Christ and develop the internal resources to stand firm in their faith. But internal resources must also be met with a strong community of external relationships and support. 

A faith family for support 

Within the church, young people should discover a rich community of external relationships that will lend them faith, identity, strength, belonging, purpose and enduring, meaningful, intergenerational connections that outlast the fleeting friendships of our social media age. Within the family of faith, young people will encounter the hospitality of God, discover the riches of our Father’s kingdom, experience the wonder of Christ-like acceptance, receive the comfort of His love, and celebrate the wonder of unity with diversity. 

These are the exact expressions of faith that accompanied the early church in Acts and led to exponential growth, health and strength that has endured for two millennia.

When broken young people show up, they receive a blessing.

For this reason, our student ministry strives to affirm and foster full participation in the life of the church. We include students in the men’s breakfast, girls’ night out, and even our annual meetings. We don’t want young people to feel like the junior varsity squad or the farm team. We don’t want them to wait to get engaged in the life of the church. They are filled with the same Holy Spirit and gifts as their big brothers and sisters in the faith and should be welcomed in similar ways.  

Similarly, our younger brothers and sisters in the family of God have a lot to teach us. If you have never read the Bible with a junior high boy, you are missing out!  Or have you ever prayed with a high school girl that had enough guts to believe God will answer?  They see life and Scripture in such wonderful ways. My own faith has been strengthened by participating in kingdom life with them. 

It isn’t hard to imagine these blessings unfolding when the family of God comes together as God intended. But what happens when broken students show up? 

The blessing of brokenness 

We know that God blesses the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, and those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness. (Matt 5:3-10). “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, he saves those who are crushed in spirit,” (Psal 34:18). He is the defender of the orphan and the widow and sets the lonely in families (Psal 68:5-6). 

When broken young people show up, they receive a blessing.  

The blessing they derive is independent of how they leverage internal resources or engage in external relationship – because God is faithful and blesses all who draw near to him.

If we want to experience the blessing of God and encounter the risen Christ, let us not neglect to draw near to this generation of broken people.

In 2 Samuel 6:11, after King David’s failed attempt to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem, he stashed it in the home of Obed-Edom and his entire household was blessed because the Ark of the Lord resided with him for just three months. 

Obed-Edom was a passive participant and yet God’s presence brought blessing. We are the Temple of God and the Holy Spirit dwells among us. There is a blessing to be found among us for all who draw near! 

Similarly, God blesses those who draw near to the brokenhearted – because He stands with them. He is the one we meet when we extend water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, hospitality to the lonely, consolation to the prisoner, care for the sick and compassion for the least of these (Matt 25:34-40). If we want to experience the blessing of God and encounter the risen Christ, let us not neglect to draw near to this generation of broken people. 

As I reflect on this present mental health crisis I’m forced to ask if perhaps, like Caitlyn, the church too has an identity crisis? Have we forgotten who we are? Have we forgotten what we have been called to do? 

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” –Galatians 6:9-10

Pete Sutton

Pete Sutton is the pastor of student ministry at The Compass Church in Naperville, IL. He and his wife Jocelyn (MSOT) have a house full of biological, adopted and foster children and also oversee the adoption and foster care ministry at The Compass Church. They have a passion for helping kids find health, healing and hope in Jesus. 

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