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Parent conversations: How can we help today’s overwhelmed teens?

Being a teen has always involved struggle and angst. The difference today is that a teen’s struggles can be broadcast immediately to an entire world of virtual “friends.” Plus, social media has created a constant need to “perform” that doesn’t go away when a teen steps into his bedroom. A teen’s bedroom has historically been a safe haven. That illusion is shattered when a smartphone keeps flashing notifications, begging a teen to engage, perhaps even reminding him of the mistake from which he’s trying to recover or the people he’s trying to avoid. Dan Nommensen, a Christian counselor who has experience with today’s teens, introduces us to Aimee, an overwhelmed teen who needs help. You may find yourself nodding and realizing that the answer for Aimee’s problems is the same as the answer for your problems and those of the teens you know.

— Nicole Balza


DEC PC question

AIMEE KNEW HER life was far from perfect. But she did not want anyone else to know that. She worked at looking good—wearing the right clothes, taking the right classes, hanging with the right friends, posting all the right things. But the pressure to maintain that perfect image took its toll, and depression began to take hold. She lived in fear that people would discover the real Aimee and she would disappoint others—and herself.

Statistics reveal the growing mental health crisis for teens. Depression, anxiety, uncertainty, and other factors are leading to an increase in significant symptoms of distress. Suicide and self-harming behaviors are increasing among our youth, and parents and adults must watch for the warning signs and take action to maintain safety.

Some of us older, more experienced adults know that struggles can be blessings and opportunities to grow closer to God. Unfortunately, any well-intentioned attempt to characterize a teen’s current stress as a blessing will likely be met with, “You just don’t understand!” or worse—complete shutdown. If we do not connect with our teens or if we provide trite advice that makes them feel like their faith isn’t strong enough, we may unintentionally compound the problem.

Our teens’ anxieties around performance expectations can be an opportunity if we wrap our arms around our teens, listen to them, and help them understand they are not alone. If we are honest with ourselves, we all feel an innate pressure to perform. It’s natural. And it started after the fall into sin with the very first human beings who walked the earth.

The root cause of performance pressure

By nature we human beings know we are not perfect, so we turn to a natural law way of thinking (I should, I must). The problem is as old as the first sin. Adam and Eve knew they were not perfect. “They realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Genesis 3:7). Social media is a modern-day fig leaf many teens use, stitching together a protective covering of perfection. Then they find themselves lost in the impossibility of reaching that perfection. Some may begin to realize there is no way they can keep up with all this, and they give up.

The challenges and feelings our teens are wrestling with are actually opportunities to discuss how God’s children respond—or better yet, how God responds on our behalf.

In the case of Adam and Eve, God approached them, asked questions, listened to them, held them accountable, and loved them enough to send them a Savior who would cover their sin and be perfect for them. As God dealt with more of his children in the days, decades, and centuries to come, he used circumstances to point to his solution—Christ. Many of God’s people—from Moses to Hannah to the apostle Paul—wrestled with feelings of inadequacy and were gently led to see or be reminded of God’s grace and his solution in Christ.

Not every adult feels equipped to walk a teen through this process of getting to the root cause of anxiety like Aimee’s. This is where a pastor or Christian counselor can be of assistance. Do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation when performance anxiety begins to turn into depression and crippling anxiety. As part of his loving care for his dear children, God provides spiritual and mental health professionals to help. Psalm 138:7 reminds us, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.”

Counseling in light of God’s Word

Aimee met with a Christian counselor. In the course of opening up about her feelings, she began to understand that her efforts were leading her nowhere. She was reminded of her identity as a redeemed child of God and how grace fills any void in her life. As 2 Corinthians 12:9 notes, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” Aimee does not need to be perfect. Neither do you. It is okay to have weaknesses. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to have a bad day.

Aimee learned that her attempts to hide her failures behind social media did not bring the relief she so desperately desired. The fig leaf of social media will never be enough to hide who we truly are. It has the potential to entrap people young and old in a ceaseless effort of performing away our guilt and imperfections, hiding them from view, or pointing out the imperfections in everyone else. It causes us to abandon the recognition of the sin that lives inside of us.

Aimee began to see and appreciate the freedom she has in Christ—a freedom from that law-focused thinking that had gripped her with a need for perfect performance in her life. For Aimee it was a relief to hear the Word of God, to see it pointing to Christ and all he did for her. She was free to be Aimee. Aimee is sinful and does stupid things sometimes, but she is also a forgiven, precious, loved, redeemed child of God. She is a follower of the One who lived that perfect life for her and gave his life as a perfect substitute for her. Aimee now sees herself through the lens of Christ’s perfection—a saint who now lives no longer to perform but to show thanks to God for removing that pressure and guilt that brought her to the depths of despair. And she now has a toolbox of skills to practice whenever she feels tempted to grab a fig leaf.

What helped Aimee through this time? The Word of God shared by someone who took the time to listen, express understanding, and get down into those depths with her as they explored how life can look when we realize our freedom in Christ.

Although the world will offer its solutions—some of them good and helpful—only the Word of God can give us the knowledge that we do not measure up to the perfection that we crave. Only the Word of God can then bring us the good news that we have a Savior who lived that perfect life for us and paid that price for all our sins of the past, present, and future.

Parents, educators, pastors: During this challenging time for teens, remember that this is their opportunity to face disappointment and struggle. Let’s wrap them in love and point them to Christ. We also have a responsibility to watch for symptoms of distress in teens and connect them to resources for help. We will be blessed to see how the Lord leads our teens toward a greater appreciation of their freedom in Christ.

Learn more at christianfamilysolutions.org, including articles for parents and educators and options for seeking professional help when necessary.

Author: Multiple authors
Volume 108, Number 12
Issue: December 2021

Nicole Balza
Dan Nommensen

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