Welcoming the Anxious Student to Youth Group


As youth ministers, we are no strangers to the mental health crisis facing the teenagers we serve. LifeWay Research recently highlighted a new study revealing a correlation between young people’s resilience in mental health and their sense of belonging in community. The study suggests that ministry leaders can help to prevent mental health struggles by helping teenagers to feel welcomed and known. In this series, we explore the different ways youth ministers can lean into Rooted’s pillar of relational discipleship to create a culture of belonging, welcoming teenagers as God has welcomed us in Christ.

A couple of months ago, I was invited to a four-year olds birthday party. I drove to an area of town where moms (admittedly) dress up to drop their children off at school. The majority of the population belongs to a country club. Upon seeing an acquaintance, I was greeted with Oh wow, you are brave to come to this.”

As a single, 38-year old, childless woman from a different area in the city, I was an outsider. I stood out amongst the moms and dads who mingled and attended to their celebrating children.

In my life, Ive been an outsider perhaps more often than Ive been an insider, so I have some familiarity with these situations. Although they evoke a little bit of anxiety, the blessing of being invited into community outweighs the discomfort for me. Ive had enough experiences of seeing the Lord show up and provide for me amidst the nerves to know: its worth it.

Our teenagers with anxiety often dont yet have the rolodex of memories that usher in the comforting reminder, its worth it” as they face new situations. And in addition to this, they are coming off of two pandemic years of diminished practice encountering new social situations. Tack on the now-normalized, connectivity-with-less-risk nature of smart phone and social media communication, and we have a generation of students who need our compassion and support in some pretty particular ways.

If Any Tenderness or Compassion

At the beginning of Philippians 2:1-8, Paul reminds us of the bountiful goodness were provided through union with Christ. If we have any encouragement, comfort, tenderness, or compassion from having the King of the Universe pursue us to the ends of the earth, then we get to seek unity in the body of Christ. We get to practice valuing others above ourselves and looking to their interests above ours. Were invited to take the humbled, lowered posture Jesus takes time and again in the Scriptures, meeting people where they are.

I cannot imagine a more important practice of unity than letting our hearts be moved by the suffering of our students. And anxiety can be a great source of suffering for them.

The beauty of following an incarnate God is that he entered into our suffering and allowed himself to be moved by it. He didnt merely snap his cosmic fingers and rain salvation onto his people (which he very well could have done). In his infinite wisdom, love, and creativity, he walked the dusty road of thorns and thistles himself, experiencing the sting of loss, wounds, rejection, and hatred. He let his heart be moved with compassion time and again as he approached people with the invitation to more.[1]

So when we see the nervous glances, shifting eyes, and restless twitches of anxiety as a student walks in, we start with empathy. We pause to remember when we, too, have been met with the tenderness and compassion of our loving Father. Then we pray for our next steps.

Lay of the Land

In the case of an anxious student whos brand new to youth group, its a good idea to welcome her in the same way youd welcome any student. No one wants to have attention drawn to something vulnerable about themselves when theyre already feeling vulnerable. So if youre a big, loud, HELLO, JANIECE!” kind of welcomer, stay congruent to your welcome. If youre a low-key, Oh hey, Tyler; cool youre here” type welcomer, stick with that. Teenagers have highly attuned phony-meters, and they need your true, Jesus-dependent self.

Next, it can be helpful to give a student the lay of the land. Teenagers with anxiety often find it helpful to know what to expect when theyre facing a new situation. So offer them a quick run-down of how the evening will look. “We’re going to play games and hang out for about 15 minutes, then well eat together, then well have a talk, and then well split into small groups.” Then follow up by asking, Do you have any questions about that?”

Some students will be at their max of one-on-one adult attention at this point, and theyll be ready to wander off to play a game, say hi to a friend, or do something else. But some will need a little help getting connected. The options are endless for this. Do you have a reliably warm, inviting student who you can introduce to the new student, knowing theyll be brought into a conversation or game? Is there a group game happening in which you can include the new student? Is there a football you can grab and invite a couple other students to throw? Depending on how your youth group looks, its nice to provide a new student with a couple options to choose from, to give him some agency and help him connect.

If the student isnt ready to get involved with the group or others yet, you may want to take them to a less chaotic space (which could be the corner of a room) where they can share some of their worries or fears. This is the place to vocalize your empathy (Ive been there; it can be really hard to be new!”) and to normalize the nervousness of doing something youre not used to (I feel tension in my stomach and even lose my breath a little when I step into something that makes me anxious”). If she is becoming more and more dysregulated in her anxiety (E.g. showing signs of increasing distress such as shortened breath, crying, developing hives, etc.), youll want to co-regulate with her. Hey, Im here with you, and Im not going anywhere. Were not in any rush, and its going to be okay. I want you to breathe with me.” Breathing is your best first tool, and you can ask the student to breathe in and out slowly while you breathe in and out with her. You can try inviting her to breathe in while you count out loud to five-one-thousand and then count back from five-one-thousand to one-one-thousand. Start over and repeat.

Were All in This Together

It isnt a wild thought to assume that the majority of our students are struggling with some type of anxiety these days. They are hungry for connection, they are terrified of rejection and failure, and each is worried he or she isthe only one.” They need us to share our stories of failing and seeing the Lord provide. They need us to share our stories of grieving the pain weve faced through rejections. They need us to take them to Jesus over and over again through our teaching, through praying, and through casual conversations about what the Lord is up to in our lives. They need a vision for the kingdom of God that is at work in, through, and beyond their anxiety. They need to know that their suffering is not wasted, and in fact, it is the very place their Good Shepherd sees, knows, and loves them.

Anxiety is not the enemy; it is an uncomfortable emotion that we all endure at different points in our lives. We need courage from the Spirit, compassionate friends, and embodied ways (like breathing and grounding skills) to deal with it. We need to understand that it doesnt mean there is something wrong with us; it may just be a signal that were feeling some other emotions that need paying-attention-to. It isnt something that needs fixing; it needs kind tending and stewarding. Lets teach our students to take their anxiety to God, as Jesus and the psalmists do, instead of avoiding it or running from it.

The anxious parts of us are the very parts the Lord welcomes and loves. And we get to offer this same welcome to our anxious students. Our primary hope is not that our students would stop having anxiety (although that is a good hope!), but that the glorious grace of Jesus and the beauty offered by his kingdom would become louder than the disruptive buzz of their anxiety. We pray they will come to know the One who experienced deep anguish and distress in his own body (Luke 22:44), just as they do—that they might find abundant life in him.

We want to keep on repeating, “We’re so glad you’re here.” This is the refrain of grace were continually offered, ourselves, in Christ. No amount of anxiety, distress, panic, or fear can keep him away. His love extends to every distant, tense, twitchy, hivey, short-breathed, avoidant part of us. His love grounds us in a reality far better than the one we can see—a reality that is breaking in every day. Thanks be to God.

** Sometimes our students experience anxiety to a degree that is more disruptive than situational nervousness. If their anxiety is so intense that it is interfering with everyday life and/or leading to panic attacks (intense surges of fear or terror that are accompanied by a racing heart, shaking, nausea or dizziness, tightness in their chest, and scary thoughts like Im about to die”), they need to be referred for professional help from someone like a psychologist, pediatrician, or mental health counselor.

[1] Luke 7:13; Matt. 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34, etc.

Liz Edrington serves as the Fellowship Groups and Young Adults Director at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN. She received her M.A. in Counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, and she has worked with students in one form or another since 2002. She is an emeritus member of the Rooted steering committee, and she's the author of a 31-day devotional for teenagers called Anxiety: Finding the Better Story (P&R Publishing, 2023). Pickled things delight her, as does her snuggle beast, Bella the Dog.

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