The first day of school is always challenging. With a new year, new people, new emotions, and new classes, it’s easy to see why students are anxious, be they a freshmen entering their first day of high school or a seasoned senior veteran. As a former school teacher, I am well acquainted with the palpable anxious energy of the first day of school.
Today, students have an added anxiety: school safety. In the four year span of 2018 to 2022, there have been more school shooting incidents than the previous 23 years combined. Students’ social media pages are flooded with first-person accounts or videos of schools going into lockdown procedures. These stories have dominated headlines, making it nearly impossible for students to be unaware of the reality of such horrific events.
It can be difficult to minister to youth struggling in this anxious climate. Difficult, but not impossible. By the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, we can offer our students a more hopeful story than the ones they see on their feeds. Here are three ways I’ve found parents, youth pastors, and teachers can minister to students struggling with back to school anxiety in an age of school shootings.
This may be obvious, but the first way to minister to students struggling with back to school anxiety is to talk with them. Specifically, ask them questions. It is encouraging for anxious students to have a space to voice their concerns. Avoid the temptation to shut down a student’s fears by telling them there’s “no way that could happen at your school!” Instead, simply give your student the space to be open and honest about what they are feeling. Engage with their hearts to discover why they might be feeling that way.
When someone is anxious, not having their fears taken seriously can make someone question their reality, so it is important to validate your students’ very real emotions. Allowing your students to voice their concerns will help them feel seen, known, and cared for. Listen to them, and listen to them with a gracious spirit.
Look to Jesus
Remind your students that their Savior knows what it’s like to experience anxiety. Jesus, God himself, took on flesh and became man. As a human, Jesus felt the full range of human emotions. Jesus experienced wonder (Matthew 8:10), Jesus experienced sadness (Matthew 26:38), and he experienced joy (Luke 15:5). Jesus also experienced anxiety! We get to tell our anxious students the good news that the Creator and Sustainer of the universe understands them and knows exactly what they are going through.
Not only does this mean our Savior gets it, but it also means that in Jesus, our students have a perfect example of how to take their anxiety to the Lord. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus experienced great anxiety and fear. In fact, he felt these things so intensely that he sweated blood (Luke 22:44).
Seeing how Jesus responded to these feelings can be instructive for our students when anxiety creeps into their hearts. When confronted with intense agony, Jesus remained in community with God and with others. Jesus did not bottle his anxiety up; he was open with his friends, confiding in them that “[his] soul [was] overwhelmed with sorrow” (Mark 14:32). Not only did Jesus open up to his friends, Jesus also went to the Father in prayer.
When our students are anxious, we can encourage them to stay connected to close friends and family, and to stay connected to the Lord in prayer. While anxiety wants to isolate them from community, we can remind our students that the Lord of the universe opened up to his friends and his Heavenly Father instead of collapsing within himself. When our students feel anxious for their safety upon walking into school, they can bring their fears before the Lord, their sympathetic Great High Priest, knowing that he perfectly understands them.
Long for Heaven
In an anxious age of school shootings, our students need a listening ear, the comfort of Jesus, and a hope for the future. Though there are different theologies, theories, and interpretations about how this world will ultimately end, one thing is abundantly clear: in the end, God triumphs. Good defeats evil. There is a throne of the universe and our God sits upon it (Revelation 4:2). One day, our great King will fully defeat all evil, sadness, and pain. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Yes, part of being on this side of glory means that both we and our students will experience anxiety. Good does not always seem to rule the day, so there are plenty of things to be anxious about in this fallen world.
Anxiety is dread over a future event. When our students are struggling with anxiety over school safety, they are worried about losing their future. In the face of this anxiety, we can remind our students that ultimately, God will right every wrong. Yes, our future here on Earth is uncertain, but we can point our students to the sure promise that their long term future is secure in Christ.
We get to tell our students that one day death itself will die. Not only that, but sadness, evil, and darkness will be no more. There is hope! One day, senseless acts of violence like school shootings will cease and God will wipe away every bit of anxiety. The promise of Heaven reminds us that our suffering is not to last forever.
Practically speaking, we can instruct our students to preach God’s promises to themselves instead of “doom scrolling” when they are feeling anxious. Doom scrolling is a common cycle that anxious students can fall into, constantly scrolling on their phone looking for and digesting content that is negative. It feeds anxiety and can often lead to despair. While they might be tempted to anxiously doom scroll, let us invite our students into the greater narrative of God’s redemptive story.
These ways of ministering to students provide them with hope and soothe their anxious minds. Listening well to your students reminds them they are cared for and loved. Pointing your students to Jesus will provide them with an example of what it looks like to cast all their burdens on the Lord. Cultivating a longing for Heaven will provide them with a hope that one day, all their anxieties will be relieved and they will experience joy forevermore. As they head back to school in an age of school shootings, may their eyes be fixed on Jesus and his promises for them.