Pastoral conversations with teens require less skills than you might think. Listening really is the biggest skill you need.
But at some point you may feel it’s appropriate to say something, share some advice, or offer an encouragement. When you do, make sure what you say is helpful. While some empty clichés may not do too much harm, others can damage the trust and relationship.
Here’s the top 5 of things not to say to a hurting teen:
5. Don’t you think you’re overreacting a little?
No matter how you word this message, the effect will be the same. You may think that a simple fight with parents is not worthy of the drama performance your student just gave, but who are you to judge? Teen’s emotions are all over the place first of all. They can go from jubilant to depressed in a matter of minutes. Or as famous German poet Goethe said so succinctly: ‘Himmelhoch jauchzend, zum Tode betrübt’ (heavenly joy, deadly sorrow).
Secondly, there may be elements at play you don’t know about. I’ve known teens who never said a word about what happened at home, even though I knew things weren’t pretty. In those cases, a simple fight with a friend may be the catalyst for a lot of other sorrow to come out.
But the most important reason to not say anything along these lines is this: teens want to feel heard and seen, acknowledged. Diminishing their feelings not only hurts the relationship between you and the student, but also their emotional stability.
4. You’re better off without him/her
We’ve all been in these conversations with students, where they share their heartbreak over a break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend. The clichés come so easy here, like ‘there’s plenty of fish in the sea’ or ‘God has the perfect partner picked out for you’ or the above ‘you’re better off’. The problem is that you don’t know this.
Sure, if you’d met the boyfriend and knew he was a player, saying she’s better off is an easy judgment. But what will you do when they get back together, because despite everything you say they just might? I remember when two students in my ministry broke up after a long relationship. Their parents and siblings shared some opinions that became embarrassing and plain painful when these two decided to get back together.
The same is true for stating that God has someone else picked up. The reality is that that may not be the case. Some people do stay single. Be careful here and don’t make promises that aren’t yours to keep.
3. I know exactly how you feel
Chances are, you don’t. Even if you’ve been through something similar, the circumstances are always different. Plus people are different. What may be heartbreaking to one person, may not even be a blip on the radar of another. Saying something like this shuts down the conversation because you make it about you. Instead, say something like ‘I can only imagine how you must feel’.
2. It will get better
This is a deadly one, because let’s face it: you don’t know this. Things may get worse or be bad for a long time. You don’t know the future, nor can you control it. People who say this mean well, but these words are empty at best and a lie at worst.
1. Just pray/trust/have faith
Yes, prayer is always good and so is having faith and trusting God. But really, how helpful is it to say this?
I remember when my husband was very ill shortly after we got married. We received many cards from friends and acquaintances. Quite a few of these had verses on them like 1 Thess 5:18 (give thanks under all circumstances), 1 Peter 5:7 (cast all your anxieties on Him) and my ‘favorite’ Matthew 11:30 (my yoke is easy). Of course I knew these verses to be true and I also knew people meant well, but they didn’t help at all. Quite frankly, they made me angry because here I was, deadly afraid of becoming a widow at 23 and all I got were verses. I didn’t want to give thanks; I wanted God to heal my husband!
Don’t get me wrong: I realize the deep truth of these verses. But communicating that truth can only happen in the setting of a pastoral relationship where you’ve moved on from ‘first aid’ to a longer term assistance. You can’t just throw a few verses at teens and expect them to apply them.
Instead, pray for them and with them. Say that you have faith God will do His will and use this situation for the best. Say that you trust God to take care of the student. Lead by example, not by words.
I’ve listed 5 things not to say to hurting teens. Can you think of anything else?
p.s. If you’re wondering what you should say, check out this post on what to say to struggling teens.