This past Saturday, as I was coaching Tristan’s soccer game, I noticed a change in behavior and performance in his play. His attitude was just different. In fact, he walked differently, was extremely quiet and pulled away from the group. I think it frustrated me more that when asked what was wrong, the comment was, “Nothing, Dad.” I remember giving those answers. There was always something. I found myself frustrated because the more I asked, the more he answered with “nothing.”'
It wasn’t until after the game that he came clean that he felt like I put him in a position that he would not excel or even be beneficial to the team. I explained, “if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, I can’t try to fix it.” JUST GREAT! The same words my mother and father said 30 years ago. I told myself I would be different. I told myself I would capitalize on those opportunities to counsel with my children and develop a strategy to change their opinions and attitudes, teaching them through the moment and leading them to a better life. JUST GREAT!
Often times I will notice a student’s behavior is a little out of whack. Maybe they’re not acting the way they normally do, or they are in a constant state of acting out (also known as being a 7th grader). While that can be extremely frustrating at times, especially if it affects the rest of the group, we have to remember that the behavior is usually indicative of a bigger problem. For example, you may have experienced sleeping problems at some time in your life. While there are definitely some things that ONLY affect sleep, usually sleep problems are a symptom of stress or another issue. You can treat your insomnia with sleeping pills, which might fix the problem for now, but it’s just a temporary fix to a long-term problem.
We don’t want to treat the symptom, we want to treat the problem. The same thing applies in youth ministry. When I see a student not acting himself, I know that there is probably something bigger happening in his life at that moment. Maybe the behavior change is masking the problem, and many times the student doesn’t even know he’s doing it. I had a student in a past ministry that would become the disruptive “class clown” any time another student in the group would start talking about home issues. It suddenly dawned on me that it was his way of changing the subject because he didn’t want to talk about home issues or dad issues because it brought negative feelings about the subject. When I talked to him, he didn’t even realize he was doing this, but we were able to address the underlying issue.
On the opposite side of the coin, there are times when I’ve noticed a typically happy, upbeat student acting a little off, not as happy as he normally is, or just generally not himself. When I ask him about it during small group, he can shrug it off as just “being tired” or “nothing’s wrong.” Even though he’s not admitting to it, there’s definitely something going on. This is my alarm to push a little more and dig a little deeper individually. Sometimes students need the extra push to get things going, and once they do, it starts a pain chain. Once the floodgates are open, feelings just start pouring out.
As parents and grandparents, you can see when you child begins this change in attitude, behavior or even their emotional stability. This is your indicator that something is wrong. In the lives of teenagers, small things can really affect performance. It is much like an engine. A small packet of sugar can destroy the entire engine of an automobile. Much the same, a broken relationship, a failed homework assignment, or even a remark from a friend can destroy a child’s stability. Of course, it will appear in their behavior.
Don’t get frustrated when you see a behavior issue. Instead, ask God to help you recognize what the underlying problem may be. It might not be the best time to address it. It seems these events always come along a busy schedule or rushed time in the day or week. A couple of thoughts to help in this process from the Center for Parents and Youth Understanding:
Don’t talk about it in front of the entire family. Take the child aside and work through it individually. I was the youngest and didn’t want to “spill the beans” in front of my siblings or grandmother. (Plus, if the issue was something that would fire up my grandmother, Hell hath no Fury…). Take the child somewhere special or just somewhere they will feel comfortable. Stay open, don’t let your feelings take over.
No matter the issue, don’t try to fix it with one sentence. Ask your child to pray with you that God will give you wisdom. Sometimes, we know the answer, and that is because we have experience with so many problems in our own lives, but give God the opportunity to be the authority. This will show that you trust on God more than your own wisdom.
No matter the information given, end the conversation with an embrace. God embraces us with His Grace in our darkest of moments, as we should our children.
Follow Up! Some of the best relationships fall apart because there is no follow up to the conversations. Put a note in their book bag or in their car. Let them start their day with encouragement from you and find that encouragement through their day. In a time with so many negative forces surrounding our teenagers, the smallest positive encouragement may give enough strength to make it through the day.