When teenagers experience feelings of despair and grief, it can often lead to outcomes like disconnecting relationally and shutting down emotionally. And yet, it’s in these moments that students need healthy relationships and emotional support the most. So what does it look like to support our students in times of despair and grief? Join us as we unpack what’s happening in a student’s brain in moments like these and talk about how we can help teens better process despair and grief going forward.


  • Common hard conversations youth ministry workers may have with students (2:25)
  • Some conversations youth ministry leaders can anticipate with middle school and high school students and how to respond (10:27)
  • The danger of not having a strategy in approaching hard conversations with students (22:05)
  • How to prepare for difficult conversations with students (24:57)
  • How to prepare for the journey of what’s to come following difficult conversations (34:57)
  • The win with having tough conversations with these students (39:38)

Episode Transcript

Hey everybody, welcome to this week’s episode of Rethinking Youth Ministry podcast, and we are so excited to be joined today by Ashley Johnson and Crystal, a regular with us.

– Hey there.

– And also, Will, it’s your first time here with us and Will is a next gen pastor in Florida, in West Palm, Florida, and he’s done a lot of work on teenagers and learning about how to handle grief and despair in the teenage brain and what we can do to help them and so while we’re so excited that you’re here, I’d love for you to share a little bit about what your experience has been in the past year and a half, what you’ve learned and what prompted you to move in this direction.

– Yeah, so I started a nonprofit because I was seeing this problem as many of us have and what do we do about it, and I had so many people in schools, I had parents, educators, that were really kind of scratching their heads, like, how do we help kids when they’re facing depression, anxiety, despair, or like, what do we do about it? And so a year and a half ago, I started working with a group of mental health counselors and started talking to people way smarter than me about trying to find some solutions, and so for the last year and a half, we’ve been doing school assemblies, we’ve been doing parent trainings, teacher trainings. That’s one of my favorites, and just trying to help bring some solutions to the problem that we’re facing.

– Yeah, that’s awesome, I love that. So tell me a little bit about what you found when talking to the mental health professionals. What is the, you know, statistically, what are we looking at with teenagers today versus teenagers 10, 15 years ago or even further back that makes this a bigger problem?

– I mean, we know this. I mean, we just stop and we look around, the behavior of teenagers has changed tremendously. I mean, even when we were in high school, we used to hang out with friends in physical places, right?

– Yeah.

– And then now, teenagers hanging out with their friends in virtual spaces like 40% of teenagers now, they don’t hang out daily with their friends. So that’s a–

– It’s a big difference.

– Big difference, yeah. And so, with that, it’s changed how we relate to one another. It’s is changed how we connect, and ultimately it’s caused a major issue and the issue that we see with this increased detachment and separation from human connection is that we’re seeing this rise in despair, we’re seeing this rise in depression and anxiety. And if you really slice it down, you ask question, well what caused this? It’s hard to say one thing specifically caused this rise in despair, but rather a variety of things, but I would say the one thing, the common thread is a lack of human connection.

– And we’re seeing that there’s a connection between that and the amount of time that teenagers, really any of us are spending on our phones.

– Yeah, there’s a lot of research that’s starting to come out that shows that there is a correlation between the time that we’re spending on our phones. I mean, what what you do in a virtual space, so playing video games or being on social media, you’re detaching from your reality of your world. And I don’t know if you guys have ever seen this, but I know I’ve watched with my kids, if they said, if they spend, let’s say, two hours on an iPad, their behavior changes. The way that they interact changes and I’ve seen that with teenagers as well like they, it’s almost like they have to come back to the real world, come back to reality. So when you have somebody who’s just in a virtual space all the time and they’re detached from people, their emotional processing really starts to break down. Empathy starts to break down and then they just feel numb, they feel stuck, they feel like there’s no way out. And I would say the number one problem that this is causing as every youth worker knows this is the suicide rate amongst teenagers. It’s doubled in the last 10 years. And specifically between the ages of 10 and 14, this study just came out like last month is that the ages between 10 and 14 has grown the most out of all demographics, and it’s increased 57% suicide rates in the last 10 years. So, as a youth worker, I’m looking at this, I’m like, we have to do something this.

– It’s an emergency.

– This is the fight for this generation because in the ’90s, it was all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, right? I mean, that’s what we were preaching, just say no, don’t do that risk behavior.

– Do all of it.

– Yeah, yeah.

– No to everything.

– Stay away, right? But now, they’re not, that’s all down, it’s not as much. Sexually active teens is actually down significantly since the early ’90s. And so, yes, those things still exist but the one thing that we’re seeing a lot of is a lot of despair. And so we have to do something about it.

– I love that you’re saying that, and then at the same time, there was something that you said that, I don’t know if it felt strange to me, but I think among my generation, we feel there’s a fence between virtual world and reality, and the reality and virtual reality are different places, but for the small group that I lead, for them, it’s just their world. And it’s all meshed together.

– That’s interesting.

– There’s a girl in our student ministry who I remember talking to her. Her first two boyfriends were in other states and they never met face-to-face, and it was, in her mind, that was a very real relationship, that wasn’t like a weird, like cyberworld relationship. That was just, it was just a boyfriend.

– Yeah.

– And so how do we navigate, when we understand that there’s a difference there but they don’t really feel that way. Is that part of the problem?

– Yeah, that is part of the problem. I think, it’s so interesting that you say that, by the way, because I have a former student who just got married this past year. And he had, very popular kid so he could have invited many people but he had to narrow his wedding down to about 100 people. And so, of the select people that he invited, he invited two friends that he only knew on Facebook or on Xbox Live rather so–

– Those relationships are very real.

– Very real and he invites these two guys, the first time they meet face-to-face is actually at his wedding. But he had such a deep friendship with them. He’s like, “I want you guys to be at my wedding.”

– But that feels, to us, that feels like, that a different world, that’s a virtual world, that’s not real.

– That feels foreign to us but I think for our students who, they don’t remember a time before social media and they don’t remember a time before internet. I don’t know that that feels as foreign to them or that they even see the borders drawn the way that we see them.

– Right, yeah.

– Which makes me ask the question, I’ve often thought about this question. Can intimate, deep relationships be formed in the virtual space?

– I think, that’s the question.

– Right.

– That is the question. For us, I think, it’s not possible because we have been wired a certain way to understand relationships and the dynamics a certain way. But think about kids who are eight, 10 years old right now, they don’t know a time without FaceTime.

– That’s weird.

– They can’t think of a moment in life where they didn’t have the ability to see somebody through a virtual space.

– But what about physical touch at that point?

– Right, so now physical touch is lost, which, and I think that’s part of the problem is that we don’t understand how certain things are affecting our mental health and physical touch, as you mentioned, that’s a really big–

– It’s a big deal.

– Big piece especially when you start going through a hard time. When you’re facing despair, it’s not enough to have somebody in the other side of screen, you have to have somebody empathize with you and help you to feel felt, to help you to to connect with the emotion, and perhaps that can be done in the virtual space but if it’s only being done in the virtual space, I think, we’re missing a major piece that actually promotes healing in the brain.

– It’s interesting, I think, our audience probably doesn’t know this for all of us at the table know that you spoke in our staff meeting this morning, which was awesome.

– Phenomenal, yes.

– And one of the things you were talking about was the importance of eye contact and I couldn’t help but think the number of significant conversations I’ve had with the girls that I lead over FaceTime and how eye contact is not a real thing, even on such a sophisticated technology. I’m looking down and they’re looking up and there’s never real, there’s never a moment when there’s an actual eye contact moment.

– So true, because oftentimes, when you’re on FaceTime too, you’re kind of more looking at yourself.

– I was just saying the same thing.

– I want to say it.

– True confession,

– Yeah, just call it out, that’s true.

– And even when you’re not just looking at yourself or looking at the other person, very rarely are you looking in the actual camera, which would be eye contact. So you’re right, you don’t really do the eye contact with that.

– Okay, so I have a question. So about a month ago, you and I saw each other at the National Youth Workers Convention which was so much fun. And we spent a lot of time talking to a lot of different youth workers and it seemed like the dominant conversation around the country was, what do I do about depression and anxiety? And every kid it seems like is facing it and some of it’s clinical and medical and honestly beyond the scope of what we can handle as youth workers, but there’s this whole other group of kids who are just facing it because that’s part of being a teenager now. What do we do about it when it’s not clinical, medical, and beyond our pay grade?

– Yeah, well I think, one, there’s, just to plug one more time ’cause you can’t harp it enough is, that you definitely need to get help especially when it is clinical and medical in paper, but I also want to take the pressure off for youth workers, like you don’t have to diagnose kids. You don’t have to figure that out, because depression isn’t the sole cause of suicide. When we look at the problem, okay, the suicide rates are rising. And we think that, well, that’s because of the depression. Well, that’s not necessarily true. In fact, there are a lot of mental health contributors to suicide, depression isn’t the only one. The common thread, though, that every single person who’s ever attempted or completed suicide feels is despair. Despair is the issue. Well, here’s the good news and the bad news. Everyone faces despair. So when we look at despair and we realize that despair is the thing that we have to lean into and help kids to heal from, then it makes it where we’re more empowered again. We’re empowered because we can do something to help heal despair. There’s actual tools that God’s given us to help kids heal from despair, like the brain can be reshaped, it can be rewired, and there are ways to bring despair down. Let me explain it this way. So, if you look at the psychology, your brain is made up of two parts. Well, your brain is made up of a lot of parts, but two in specific that we’re going to look at, you have the right side of your brain which is where your emotional processing takes place, and you have your left side of your brain where your logical processing predominantly takes place. What happens in despair, when psychologists explained it this way is it’s like it’s a disc pairing, that the two sides separate, you have this emotional detachment, and the right side becomes overactivated, okay, constant drip of cortisol, which is a stress hormone, over time creates this detachment, and the right side of the brain becomes overactivated. Your fight or flight mechanisms skyrocket and logical processing decreases. So, this is why anytime you’ve talked to a kid who’s facing despair and you’ve asked them the question, “How are you feeling?” Oftentimes, the response is, “I don’t know”, right?

– Because they’re having the emotions but they can’t connect to the part that logically processes the emotions?

– Right, because you need logical processing in order to put things into words. Your word formation happens in the logical side of your brain. So, they might say, “I feel numb”, right? They don’t even know what they’re feeling. So what you have is you have all this emotional energy built up and they need an ability and a way to exhaust that emotion. They need a way to exhale. And what, this is the coolest part, you’re ready? So here’s what we can do as youth workers. We can help kids heal from despair by helping them to feel felt, that when somebody feels felt, when they feel that somebody understands what they’re experiencing through empathy, through love, despair decreases and the two sides begin to come back together.

– Okay.

– Well I had a question because, even, as it pertains to grief, and when you have like a really specific situation that’s happened, and talking about this disc pairing and then trying to help it through human connection but a teen or student is just trying to process loss or something like that and they use words like, I would try to ask like, “Well, how do you feel, “like you are seeing in color anymore?” And they’re like, “Everything’s just gray”, or “Maybe I will see in color again but it’s dull now”, or I guess, when we talk about meeting with connection, what tools do you have when you say, “Okay, this event just happened in your life. “And it’s not just something that’s internal “or just the way you’re seeing the world “but it’s like something massive, “life-changing happened to you, “and still trying to find connection through–

– Without short circuiting the process.

– Exactly.

– And kind of, yeah.

– Yeah, that’s good. Grief, in specific, specifically grief, is unique because you have a high amount of despair, which means you’re going to 100% have a detachment between logical processing. There’s a lot of emotions, they’re going to be there and it’s going to be, it’s going to take time to exhale that. The way that you respond, I think the best way to help someone in that response is to help them to feel felt by using emotional words. So for instance, you might say, “I hate that you’re going through what you’re going through “because I imagine right now you feel lonely”, or “I imagine right now you feel–

– That’s good, yeah.

– “Scared. “Would you say that you feel exhausted right now?” And as you use those words and pitch like, “Hey, do you feel this, you feel this, you feel this?” Eventually, they might say, “Yeah, I do.” And the best response is, “Tell me more, tell me about it.” And just allowing them the process and talk, what that does is it allows somebody to feel felt and it really identifies and communicates, “I matter, this moment matters, and what I feel matters, “and I don’t have somebody telling me, “‘Well, you know what, God just needed another angel.'”

– Oh gosh.

– Oh.

– Oh, that’s the worst.

– Right, I know.

– We had feelings about that phrase.

– Yes.

– But then there’s the other side of that when they don’t want to talk. And what I found is, they just want to talk about something may not be, is that a helpful tool as well just, “Well, talk to me about your crush then”, or “Talk to me about the sports that you like.”

– Yeah, there is an element of where they might be avoiding feelings, which doesn’t mean that they’re healing. That’s the one caveat. However, timing is everything. And don’t underestimate the power of presence. so just being present is huge, appropriate physical touch, words of affirmation, and eye contact can help somebody to feel loved and to feel felt, even in the midst of their despair.

– I feel like I’m learning so much in this conversation because I’ve been leading small groups for a long time. And I don’t know if teenage boys do this. You can tell me. Teenage girls, when they’re spinning out emotionally, I feel like they hand me a knot of problems that are all interrelated and they are all, and they just, “My mom and this boy in school and ah”, and my temptation as the leader is to always pull one string at a time and logically deal with each of them and they’re not in a logical place at all.

– No.

– And so just hearing like, “Oh, you should deal with the emotion “before you deal with the logical behavior”, that is really, really helpful.

– You have to notice what’s happening. So, if a student is right brain activated, so emotionally responsive–

– Which is like me a lot of the time.

– Yeah, right, exactly.

– So when you are emotionally activated, it would be good for someone who’s interacting with you to first meet the emotion with emotion. So, see the emotion, meet the emotion. So let me give you an example. Let’s say that you have a student come in to youth group and they’re just, they’re frustrated and they’re like, “I can’t believe it, I failed this test, “and my teacher is such a jerk and blah blah blah”, and they’re distraught, right, maybe they’re angry, maybe they’re sad, and maybe it’s a senior who’s afraid that this is going to affect their college outcome. And she’s crying and she’s just really upset. As a small group leader, what you might want to do is you might want to say, “Well, you did say that you haven’t been studying”, right? You go into logical processing or, “Well, what do you think you can do differently “to make this different ’cause, obviously, “you’re in control”, right, you go logical process. The problem is, is that when we meet right brain with left brain, we completely miss ’em, like we fly over, and then, they just hear, “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah”, and meanwhile, they conclude, “You don’t really care about me”, right? “And you don’t care about the situation.” But when we stop and we say, “Hey, I understand that must suck. “I am so sorry that you failed that test “and you must feel really disappointed right now.” “Yeah, I do feel disappointed.” “Well, tell me about it”, right? And just allowing to exhale emotion first, then you’ll have the opportunity to come back around in the back end, and say, “Hey, what do you think you can do differently?”

– Well, and it almost seems that when they are allowed to process it out loud, they may be able to draw their own conclusions without us doing it for them, and I think in doing that, they begin to build their own sense of resilience on their own which would become a tool for fighting despair when it circles back around. So it’s helping them process out loud that is enabling them to be healthy long-term, I would think, even though it feels counterintuitive, to acknowledge their emotions, feels like you would be condoning what they’ve done or dwelling on something that feels negative when it’s actually the opposite.

– My only question to that is, a lot of times when students are processing negative or despair, it comes out in negative emotions. So when you say meet emotions with emotion, it’s like, what in me as a student leader needs to calm down first because all I’m seeing is anger, all I’m seeing is apathy or all I’m seeing is this negative response, and what mind frame do I need to be in to even initiate this conversation?

– That’s a great question because oftentimes, other people’s emotional responses can trigger our own issues.

– It’s good to be aware of.

– And then all of a sudden maybe we feel offended on God’s behalf.

– That’s really real.

– Right. And then we’re like, oh, you know, and we feel the need to defend faith or keep them on the straight and narrow. And we have to take a deep breath in those moments and recognize, “Okay, they’re angry and they’re saying a lot “but if I just sit in this moment with them long enough “and allow them to exhaust all this, “there’s going to be a moment “where we’re going to be able to turn back.” And sometimes you just let it be and it’s the next day. But if you have that heightened emotional energy. I mean, we know this–

– Just escalates.

– It’s hard to get through anyways so you have to meet emotion with emotion at the very least you’re communicating, “I care, it sucks that you’re in the situation, “it sucks that you feel this way, this hurts me.” Here’s a tool that that I like to use is an IFAB tool which is, “I feel about because.” So using this sentence format with a teenager can help you express your emotions, which then also validates theirs. So, for instance, “I feel sad about your situation”, whatever the situation is, “that you failed your test, “because I can see how it’s making you want to give up.”

– That’s good, yeah.

– Right? And so you’re expressing your emotion, and that’s showing empathy really. You’re meeting emotion with emotion. The problem is is when we communicate belief statements, and the belief statements, they just discard the emotion.

– What do you mean by belief statements?

– Like a belief statement like, “You’re better than this.” You know?

– Oh yeah.

– Or you shouldn’t feel this way. You have so much to be grateful for, why don’t you just grateful? What if you just focus on being grateful? Well, you know what I mean? Communicating, those are good things, but it’s a belief statement, it’s logical processing and we’re not meeting the emotion with emotion. It’s no different than when somebody faces grief and we all kind of, we’re like, “Oh, we can’t say that.” It’s no different though when we’re creating these belief statements in a moment of emotional heightency that we have to first say, “No, no, no, I see this. “let’s be real about what this is.” But as that decreases, that despair decreases, you’re going to be able to take them on that journey of health and wholeness.

– Okay, and then you talked about journey. So, a little insight, so I just lost my dad to Parkinson’s about six months ago, and what I’ve learned about grief is that, you know, have their stages, there’s the, I don’t know, the denial, the anger, the acceptance, and so when you’re talking about, when you’re leading students though, sometimes I feel like as ministry leaders, we want to resolve something so fast and we treat the stages as truth but as like a graduation of like, “Oh you’re in the anger stage, “so I’m going to give you all the resources, “or best friend just moved “or you just went to a new school “so this is what you can do”, and then we expect them to move on to the next stage of however they’re processing despair, but just a little bit more patience that, yeah, you might have had a really great breakthrough conversation with someone and felt that empathy, but that same emotion of anger or whatever may come back in the next day or two. And that patience is okay, especially in the first year of experiencing something dramatic.

– That the grief isn’t necessarily linear. It can be cyclical, back around to this.

– Like a revolving door almost.

– I bet you can think of a circumstance in the last six months where somebody’s projected on you where they believe you should be.

– Oh, absolutely.

– And how is that made you feel?

– We don’t want to talk about my feelings yet. Yeah, I mean, and I can’t imagine at 32, experiencing trauma at 17 to this degree or just or a middle schooler trying to navigate hormones, let alone, this mountain of pain, and then being able to explain that, and then the pressure of feeling like, “Well, my friends just want me to be normal again. “They just want me to play and be who I was “and I’m just not yet.”

– Yeah.

– Yeah.

– It feels like that, maybe our tendency to want to go logical is just how uncomfortable we can be with despair and anybody in ourselves or in somebody else and just not wanting to acknowledge or experience what is just uncomfortable because it doesn’t, it doesn’t feel good to sit there and stay there, even though that, like you were saying, don’t underestimate the power of presence, that being willing to sit there can actually be the most helpful thing that we can do. It’s really good.

– Yeah, and I would say, I’m not, by, if you take my Myers-Briggs or my personality traits, I’m not like, let’s just sit around and talk about our feelings. Really, I’m not.

– Yeah, yeah.

– But what I’ve learned is that one, the more that I actually identify my own feelings, the more I’m actually able to connect with people and connect with people on a real level. And I’m actually able to help people in a very tangible way by first identifying where I’m at and then using that and asking the question, how would I feel if I was in their shoes, right, empathy. And then saying, “No, I get it.”

– I want to stay there a little bit because I think that’s important that we can’t expect to guide students somewhere that we’re not necessarily going to go ourselves. So what can we do as leaders to work on becoming emotionally healthy individuals and leaders to help students, then begin to navigate those same emotions.

– That’s a great question and there’s a lot of different angles that we can go with. I mean, how do we become emotionally healthy individuals ourselves? I think, one of the ways is making it a practice, asking yourself the question, how do I feel? And here’s what we do, by the way. We will say thinking words, but use the sentence, I feel.

– How interesting, yeah, okay.

– Like even what you’re describing with, some of the girls that you talk to, like, I feel like I’m in a dark place. Well, that that’s more descriptive and it is abstract but it’s really not a feeling word. It’s not identifying I feel this. So there’s a tool you can google it, called the feelings wheel, that’s helped me tremendously to actually put words–

– We’ll probably put that in the show notes if that’s helpful.

– Even better. You don’t have to Google it, you can just look at the show notes. Yeah, so that’s helped me to identify, okay, here’s what feelings are, and here’s how to put them into words. And, again, putting them into words matters because you’re bringing the two sides back together, you’re processing emotions, not just allowing them to stay there. And then, I’m a big proponent of silence and solitude, reflection. This, so we talked about all these like disciplines in the Christian faith, we talked about the importance of worship, we talked about the importance of giving, we talked about serving, we don’t talk about a whole lot, solitude. We don’t talk about silence.

– Which Jesus practiced.

– Exactly, yeah. So I think this is a lost art, a lost discipline, and it’s absolutely necessary for us to heal even ourselves and become whole that we understand the importance of silence in solitude. Okay, think about this, okay. This is my last analogy on this. The Apostle Paul should have had a counselor. Right?

– Somebody tweet that.

– Right, I mean think about that.

– That is the true statement.

– Think about it, if we went through what he went through, I’d be in therapy right now. Like that is intense, like talk about trauma after trauma, after trauma, and, I mean, he’s got a past like jacked up, all jacked up. Why didn’t he need counseling? And why don’t you really see that a whole lot in scripture? Okay, here’s my hypothesis, I can’t prove it, but I think when you look at the pace of their life, and then you looked at how they lived. They had natural reflection, and I would even make the assumption that they identify their feelings easier and quicker than we’re able to do. So Apostle Paul had to go over to the next town, which would we would typically drive in our car maybe 20 minutes, he had to walk there. What is he doing during that time? He’s not listening to his iPad. He’s not listening to whatever the latest ebook is, like–

– He’s not listening to this podcast.

– He’s not listening to this right now.

– But we tell him he needs a counselor.

– Yeah, yeah.

– He’s walking, he’s thinking, he’s reflecting, he’s processing, right? there’s just this natural rhythm, then on top of that, they already had, as the model of Jesus showed us, that they actually took intentional time to pray, to be separate, to walk away from the crowd, walk away from the family, walk away from the business, walk away from work, and just be still.

– So it seems like we’ve said that human connection is a significant part of the healing process. Is that always the case or are there going to be certain circumstances where that connection is maybe detrimental in some way?

– I was going to ask that too because talking about empathy, it’s easy to as a ministry leader to just say, “Okay, I’m going to pair you with this student “who experienced something traumatic “so you guys just be friends”, and there is a sense of comfort when you know that someone has experienced something similar to you. You don’t have to explain everything, you don’t have to ask permission to feel certain things, but can that be the grounds for a toxic relationship? Like this self-loathing thing, where it’s like, “Well, it’s me”, “No, it was me.” and you know?

– I’m glad you asked that ’cause I feel like in the classroom, I always saw the two kids who were closest to despair pairing up and talking about how difficult their life was and it was like this despair cyclone that has somehow made things worse.

– You don’t want a despair cycle.

– For each other.

– Not helpful, yeah.

– Fix that.

– Yeah, yeah. You’re absolutely right though. I mean, you can have it where they feel very comfortable. Like people who are in despair feel very comfortable around people who are in despair and unhealthy thought processes will generally attract unhealthy thought processes and that’s the problem though, what you’re doing is you’re having someone who’s just connecting with you on the right side of your brain but there’s no shifting it into a logical process. So, the problem is is that if you just have emotional processing. Sometimes, instead of exhausting it, you’re adding to it, right? So you have somebody like, “Yeah, I really feel alone” “I feel really alone too.” “Yeah, I feel alone because I am alone.” “Yeah, I feel that way too because I’m alone.”

– That’s an actual conversation I’ve heard.

– Yeah, that’s so teenagers, right? “Yeah, well, we’re just alone.” Right?

– Yup, that’s it.

– Great, well, what have we solved right now? We’ve added to our emotional pressure, right? The problem is, is we’re not actually dealing with it, we’re not shifting it over to the logical side of the brain, that has to happen in order for despair to decrease. You have to think of despair as a disc pairing, like the two sides of the brain are disconnected, and the only way to heal despair is to bring the two sides back together, but you can’t do that just by going logical first. You have to first start emotional, then bring it logical–

– That’s good.

– so it’s not always best to put all the broken kids together. Everyone’s broken, by the way, but you get my point. To take all these like, “Oh yeah, “this kid’s been through something, “that kid’s been through something, “let’s put them together and let them talk about it.” Yes, with guidance, right? Because at some point, you want to lead them out of that, you want to say, “Tell me more.” “I feel alone.” “Why do you feel alone?”

– Right, so it’s the disc pairing is the focus on one half of the brain, either half, whether it’s staying stuck in the emotional side or leading with the logical side. It’s you’ve got to start with the emotional and then eventually lead into the logical.

– So if you have a disc pairing of your brain, and you just have all this emotional energy, then you’re in despair. If you have a disc pairing of the brain and you have all this illogical processing and you’re just ignoring the emotions, then you have a jerk, right? You have emotional detachment. And so, neither one are good. Healthy processing is being able to say, “This is how I feel, and this is why I feel this way, “and here’s now what I believe about that”, right? Oftentimes though, our emotions shape our beliefs, and students are very quick, by the way, to say, “Oh well I feel this way, therefore I, “this is what I believe.” I’ll give you an example. So, my nine-year-old isn’t quite teenager but preteen-ish. And he was getting in trouble for something. I said, “Go to your room and I started to close the door”, and for whatever reason, just the heightency of this moment, he starts freaking out, like grabs my leg, starts acting like a toddler really, like, “Don’t close the door”, and like heightened emotional response. What I wanted to do was just shrug off and say, “Okay, he’s just being over the top, “he’s trying to manipulate me, blah, blah, blah.” But the more I tried to push against this, the more he became even more emotionally heightened. I finally stopped and I got down on the floor where he was holding onto my leg for dear life, and he said, “What is going on?” By the way, anytime you have something going on with a teenager and you start thinking, “What is going on?”, you’re dealing with something that’s not fully present, but you’re dealing with something deeper–

– That’s true.

– An underlying issue.

– You’re dealing with an underlying issue. And so, here I was looking at my nine-year-old, and I’m like, “Okay, what is going on?” And I stopped and looked him in the eye and I said, “How do you feel right now? “What are you feeling?”, and he said, “I feel scared.” “Why do you feel scared?” Now, I’m mad, so I had to deal with my my anger first, right? And be like, “I don’t want to do this?”, but I know it’s right. “Why do you feel scared?” And he starts to break down his emotion and he starts to express. “I feel scared because when you close the door, “I’m afraid you’re going to send me off to another family.” His core root issue is an abandonment issue. Where did that belief come from? How is it shaped? I don’t know but for whatever reason that circumstance triggered him to a heightened emotional response, and then I was able to say, “That would never happen”, right, I was able to logically, now he’s, he’s exhausted the emotion, then I was able to say, “That will never happen.” I was able to reinforce a better belief, which is, “You will always be a part of this family “and just because you’re in trouble right now, “doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a part of this family.” And then we were able to reroute the discipline to something that was more helpful and constructive for him, which was, I want you to write a letter ’cause he was being disrespectful to somebody. And so we were able to shift that, but that would have never happened if I would have just stuck to my guns at the principal. That would never happen if I didn’t notice the emotion and help him to exhaust the emotion first. And by the way, if you’re listening this podcast and you think I’m a messed up parent, it’s because–

– We are all-

– We’re all messed up parents, and you’re going to screw up your kids somehow just choose your way, I’m just kidding. But we’re going to be imperfect, and we’re going to be imperfect youth leaders, we’re going to be imperfect youth pastors, so this isn’t about being perfect, this isn’t about the formula, this is about simply seeing people right where they are and helping them to navigate through tools that we know help brain to heal. Coincidentally, it’s love, it’s empathy.

– Yeah, that’s good.

– No wonder, the Bible talks so much about it.

– Wow, so one thing, I mean, if I could summarize what I hear you saying, two sides of the brain, emotional side, logical side. When the emotional side is heightened, we have to engage kids on the emotional side so that that emotion can drain out and we can engage them on the logical side. I’m with you, that all sounds, and I think you might agree with this, that sounds like it’s true for neurotypical kids. I can’t help to think about a young lady who was at our church who had a traumatic brain injury that left, the left side of her brain not working, so all she had was the ones I know, if you know much about brain science, which obviously you do, parts of the brain will then begin to engage and become neurological side that weren’t before which is fascinating. God is weird in that way and I love it. But I would think as leaders, we have to caution ourselves that not every kid is going to respond in this neurotypical way. And so getting to know parents and getting to understand their academic situation. Even when we can being engaged in their special education programs might be helpful.

– Yeah, I think the tools and the approach definitely changes based off of the circumstances in the individual, especially when you’re facing pretty big obstacles like that that are not typical. The one thing that I think is the common thread though, that I think we all would agree, is that love and human connection still matters, right?

– Yeah, for sure.

– That then if we honestly, if we stop and we look at an individual for who they are, and we just listen long enough, I bet, you are going to find some solutions to just help that individual. And again, it won’t be, whoop, we check their box right, we fix the problem. If we think we’re going to fix the problems, we’re kind of missing, right? It’s like, this is an exhausting career for the people who feel like they need to fix it all because it never happens quite the way that we want it to. But that doesn’t mean that God can’t be bigger than the mess, right? We see that, we see amazing things that take place in the heart of the souls that God allows us and entrusts us to care for. And it doesn’t always make sense, but all I know at the end of the day is that love and empathy matter, and it’s the quickest way to connect with any kid, any parent, any human being, no matter who they are. And there are a lot of obstacles to your point, and the tools will definitely change and we have to be wise to know when they change.

– This is one of the reasons, I think, you are a great leader, ’cause when I think about my early years in ministry, my temptation was to always say, well, just preach the gospel and the gospel will fix everything. And you’re not saying don’t, you’re saying there are some steps along the way to get a kid to a place where they can’t even hear it. That is so powerful, that’s so good.

– I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I would agree early on in my ministry career, it was, “I’m going to preach the gospel. “I’m just going to tell them the truth. “That was what the book says, I’m man of the book.” I just want to, like, this is truth, “this is what we’re going to do. And I think over time, I started to realize like we’re missing it, Like I’m missing it, specific, I’m missing it. I would say the problem of despair has also caused me to go deeper into this subject, and really figure out, “Okay, how are we wired? “How has God wired?” ‘Cause I, how has God wired us because I don’t believe he just left us here to just, well, good luck. I think we together are the solution, like we are the body of Christ that the solution is within us, and it’s together. And there’s something about collective togetherness that heals, that heals us, like our connection, yes, with our Heavenly Father is very important, but we often feel that connection through others, right?

– Yeah, well, I really couldn’t agree with you more. I feel like we are the body and I keep asking myself, what does patience actually look like? What does love and empathy really look like when we just want to see our students grow, we just want to see them do well. We put all this pressure on ourselves to solve their problems. But this is inspired, this is inspiring me because we’re in it for the long haul. And it’s the continual process of being there, showing up for them with empathy, allowing them to process, maybe even the same emotions over and over, and us being willing to say, “Okay well, I’m going to help you meet your emotion, “and then help you with Scripture or however else “process that left side of the brain that disc pairing. “We’re going to repair.”

– Like that, that’s good. Guys, I’m so grateful for this conversation and Will, thank you for bringing what you’ve learned this past year and a half to share this. I think, it’ll help us a lot here, on just moving forward in our thinking and our strategy and I think it’ll be really helpful for a lot of youth leaders listening in their experiences as well. And if you want to learn more about Will’s organization, we’ll have links in our show notes or head to willhutch.com. Thanks for listening and watching and we’ll see you next time.

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