Students today are struggling with more than ever before. The pressures of academic success, making it into college, participating in extracurricular activities, holding down a job, shifting political climates, threats of violence, struggling with their identity, and trying to live for Jesus in a world that is dynamically opposed to Him are just a few of the pressures our students are facing. And that is all before COVID-19 began to cause even more undue anxiety and fear in people’s lives.
Perhaps as you read that relatively short list, you began to feel overwhelmed or exhausted yourself. That is just a taste of what our students are facing, and what we are seeing as a result of all these pressures is an increase in anxiety and fear. Having moments of occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, but chronic and consistent anxiety is on the rise, and students are bearing the brunt of this.
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. The issue we must understand is that this definition is meant to highlight occasional moments of anxiety, and these symptoms for many students are prolonged and debilitating. The National Institute for Mental Health provides many helpful symptoms and identifying traits for those who may be struggling with prolonged anxiety stemming from a variety of disorders. Knowing the signs and symptoms will allow for us to better prepare to speak into the lives of our students and care for them in all circumstances.
Understanding that anxiety exists and is a part our students’ lives is the first step, but simply identifying a problem or issue is not enough. We must proactively engage and dialogue about these issues and look to help our students move through them.
So what can we do? I want to provide you with a few helpful tips to actively engage with your students and help them to live in the freedom the Gospel provides in a corrupt and broken world.
Engage in conversation.
I know at first glance this may seem simplistic because of course we communicate with one another. But students today don’t just want to communicate, they want to be heard and supported. Take time to actively engage with your students by asking questions and listening. When students respond, don’t simply look to generate a result or solution, but instead hear what they are saying, look to the heart issue, and walk with them. Open ended questions, like the ones listed below, are great at generating dialogue and insight.
- What was the best part of your day?
- What was difficult for you today?
- How did you support your friends today?
- How did you feel loved today?
- When did you feel the most anxious today?
- Share with me one high point and one low point from your day.
- How did you encourage someone today?
Encourage families to create margin.
We are busy people. Life is always going, we are always doing something. It is essential for families to create space to just be and engage in life together. Instead of doing more things together, it is helpful to allow for there to be a time and place to just breathe. Whether it is an unplugged night together playing games, a family dinner, or spending time together after church. Creating margin and a relaxed place will allow for openness and easier communication.
Pray for and with your students.
When you are engaging in conversation with your students you will intrinsically pick up on ways to be praying for them. Students don’t always offer up requests of the heart, but in hearing them and walking with them you will find new ways to pray for them. This is also an awesome opportunity to model discipleship and soul care as you pray with them. Pray for them by name, lift up their requests, and follow up with them on what you prayer for.
Focus on the Gospel and speak truth.
Our world is broken and corrupt. Pain and fear run rampant. Our day to day is unknown. But we don’t serve this world and ultimately it has no power over us. I would encourage you that if and when your students come to you with fear or anxieties, speak openly about where our hope comes from, and how because of it we can live without fear. I would also say do not simply wait for your students to come to you to talk about this, but instead begin the conversations earlier. The sooner we practice and teach on this, the more beneficial it will be for our students. Here are some helpful Scripture passages to share with your students:
Be willing to bring others in.
There will be times when it is necessary to seek assistance in helping our students. When we may not have the answers, or do not know how to help, it is good to reach out for assistance. Having resources and contacts outside of the church is essential. Build a network of counselors, crisis intervention specialists, and emergency personnel you can reach out to in times of need. This is not implying you are ill-equipped, but instead recognizing that the strengths and skills of others will help you best care for your students.