COLUMBIA—Stress and anxiety are an inevitable part of life, but teens are dealing with an ever-increasing burden and any adult who works with them must be able to help them through a crisis.
The presenter was Roy Petitfils, a Louisiana-based counselor, author and speaker who works internationally to help adults connect better with today’s teenagers and deal with issues ranging from stress and anxiety to self-harm.
While the role of youth leader is mainly to help kids and teens grow in their faith, they can find themselves having to help young people facing serious problems.
For instance, what happens if a girl approaches her youth leader and asks for help in telling her parents she is pregnant? Or if members of the youth group must suddenly deal with the death of a peer who committed suicide?
“You need to have a crisis plan in place to be able to deal with these issues,” Petitfils said. “If we aren’t thinking about how we would respond, that can cause a lot of problems. You, as youth leaders, have a role as caretakers for these young people.”
Petitfils said teens are facing a huge rise in stress, anxiety and depression fueled by over-scheduled lives, disconnected families, and a rise in stress and bullying largely fueled by technology and social media.
They deal with these problems in a variety of destructive ways, including substance abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm such as the practice of “cutting”, which has increased in recent years.
As cultural norms have changed, more teens are also experiencing issues of same-sex attraction and gender identity. Petitfils encourages youth leaders to respond to anyone who comes to them with a serious problem with love and compassion. If a young person reports abuse or is threatening suicide or other self-harm, it is important to act quickly. Alert parents and help the youth find aid immediately.
In other cases, such as a teen struggling with same-sex attraction, he encourages people to listen and find out the main concerns.
The key, he said, is to remember Church teaching on the subject, while simultaneously treating the youth with respect.
“Many teens want immediate answers, but our place is to love them and open the dialogue,” he said. He encourages leaders to develop a list of trusted local counselors and psychologists for teens that need referrals for serious issues.
He also offers guidelines on how to speak to parents, who often react with shock, surprise and even anger when told that their child is going through a crisis or threatening selfharm, Petitfils said. It is important not to be patronizing or condescending, but to show compassion and listen to their concerns.
“Remember that parents are dealing with their own issues,” he said. “Many are dealing with busy lives … and they sometimes feel like they are a failure if they have to ask for help for their child. The important thing is to treat them and their child with empathy.”
He said youth leaders should ideally follow up with parents twice to see if the troubled teen has started therapy or counseling. After that, there may be nothing more one can do, but it is important to at least try to bring the situation to light.
As more and more youth turn to their peers for help with their problems, this adds to the stress they may face, as they struggle to deal with their own concerns and those of their friends. Petitfils said it is important for teens to learn to set boundaries so they don’t become overwhelmed by their friend’s problems, and also to know when they must go to an adult to report if their friend is being abused or threatening to harm themselves.
“We need teens to learn how to tell their friends ‘I love you and I want you to get help,’ “ he said.
Photo, Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss: Roy Petitfils and Elizabeth Ziegler, from Precious Blood of Christ Church on Pawleys Island, act out a scene during a pastoral care conference held Oct. 3 at St. Joseph Church in Columbia.