This doesn’t happen very often, but I was only a chapter into Jessica Thompson’s latest book How to Help Your Anxious Teen when I knew I would call it a “must-read” for both parents and youth pastors. It’s that good.
I will confess up front that I am a fan of Jessica and of her work. She combines a deep love of Jesus with solid, boots-on-the ground theology, and the life experience of being a mother of three (two teens and one young adult). She’s also realistic, practical, and witty, which is what helps make this book about anxiety – which adult readers will likely come to with at least some anxiety of their own – so full of hope and reassurance in the gospel.
Thompson breaks down the external sources of teen anxiety into three primary sources: the culture, the church, and parents. In the chapters on culture, she examines the pressure to perform in sports, academics, and social activism. Her discussion of social activism is particularly insightful; this generation of teens has a beautiful heart to change the world for good, but when that desire is turned into yet another avenue to prove self-worth, social justice issues become a source of anxiety for overloaded teenagers. When these pressures come alongside the distorting effects of social media and our disdain for being simply “normal,” our kids develop unrealistic and unhealthy ideas about what their lives ought to look like.
In the second section of the book Thompson discusses what the church does to contribute to the anxiety of teens. In a nutshell, what she describes is a failure to teach kids the heart of the Gospel: Jesus came to save us because we cannot save ourselves. Somehow the message in many churches still remains: “do big things for God” and “be a good Christian.” Nothing could be more anxiety-producing than to ask teenagers (or any human beings) to do the impossible and then tell them their eternal future depended on it. This section does an excellent job of describing what a gospel-centered youth ministry would teach its students.
The third section of the book is a provocative yet grace-filled examination of how parents contribute to their kids’ anxiety. She challenges parents to trust God instead of helicoptering around their kids, to love our kids instead of using them to bolster our own self-image, and to stop trying to be BFFs with our sixteen-year-olds. At the same time, Thompson ministers to the anxious hearts of mom and dad, inviting them to savor their own belovedness, to relax and rest in Christ as they parent.
In a fourth and final section Thompson focuses on the internal issues that plague every anxious human heart: specifically, the ways we chase self-esteem and seek the approval of others, rather than finding our identity and worth in the loving gaze of Jesus. She shares snippets from a variety of devotionals that have helped her trust Christ, who is ultimately the only one who has an answer for our anxiety.
Thompson does what she sets out to do: give the reader “a good word to make your heart glad instead of just the reasons anxiety weighs down the heart…”(p. 132). At every turn, that “good word” comes straight from Scripture, as she teaches us to minster the gospel to the anxious teens we love.
Check out our review of Mom, Dad, What’s Sex, which Jessica wrote with her brother Joel Fitzpatrick, and our podcastabout the book here. You will also enjoy Jessica’s plenary from our San Diego conference and her podcast conversationwith Kristen Hatton and Cameron Cole.