Helping Teenagers Navigate Life Transitions and Unwanted Change

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Written by BCC Counselor Sheri Ho

The last two posts from Dr. Tim Allchin have discussed “How the Bible Addresses Trials, Transitions, and Dealing with Unwanted Change”. In this post, we’ll delve deeper into this experience for teenagers so we can better understand and support them biblically.

I’ve encountered various first-generation immigrant families. The parents, having recently arrived in the Chicago area from different parts of Asia, face the challenge of their high school-aged children refusing to attend school and staying home instead. These parents are deeply troubled by this situation. Additionally, I’ve observed a growing number of teenagers exhibiting self-harm or suicidal tendencies, leaving parents feeling ill-equipped to handle and support them.

Unique Challenges for Teenagers

Transitions can be particularly difficult for teenagers. Even without additional life transitions and unwanted changes, they are already in a transitional phase from childhood to adulthood, undergoing significant physical, relational, social, and spiritual changes.

Physical: During this stage, their emotions are easily swayed by hormonal fluctuations, and some become more sensitive about their self-image.

Relational and Social: They increasingly value the opinions of their peers and crave acceptance. They are also more susceptible to peer influence, often spending excessive time on social media, and feeling lost in their identity and self-perception.

Spiritual: They gradually transition from the influence of family and parents in their faith, beginning to think independently and seek their own beliefs.

Adults have a difficult time adapting to challenges like divorce, changes in child-rearing arrangements, loss of loved ones, family restructuring, relocation, and so on. For teenagers, these transitions can be even more overwhelming.

Underestimated Impact on Teenagers

Parents often underestimate the impact of transitions or unwanted change on their children. They tend to react to the pressures faced by their children rather than proactively helping them navigate life or family changes. Not many parents can fully grasp the internal struggles and turmoil experienced by their teenagers. When both parents and children undergo these changes, parents are more likely to overlook or lack the time to support their vulnerable teenagers as they are also grappling with their own adjustments and challenges.

Many teenagers turn to internalization or seek guidance from social media or close friends. These primary channels often fail to provide the help they need. Some social media influencers’ advice can exacerbate their issues or lead them to adopt more extreme coping mechanisms. Parents are often unaware of the information their children are exposed to on social media.

Life transitions and unwanted change can increase vulnerabilities in teenagers, potentially leading them to experience deeper depression, anxiety, tantrums, isolation, rebellion, or even self-harm.

True Impact on Teenagers

The impact on teenagers can vary greatly, even for the same transition or unwanted change. Dramatic or traumatic transitions can be a painful uprooting experience for teenagers. Think of this gardening analogy. Regardless of how careful you are, transplanting a plant can induce a period of physiological stress known as transplant shock.

The complex emotions triggered by life transitions or unwanted changes can manifest differently for each teenager. Here are some common examples:

Sense of Loss and Grieving

Teenagers facing relocation often experience distress as they leave behind familiar surroundings, school, teachers, and friends. They may not know how to handle these feelings of loss and grief. They may feel inexplicably sad or downcast and gradually become less chatty, more withdrawn, or easily irritable. They lack opportunities and avenues to express their longing for what they’ve lost. When they feel this change is solely their parents’ desire, not their own, seeds of rebellion can be sown in their hearts.

Feel Disconnected and Lonely

After losing their familiar environment and friends, they may feel like outsiders in both the old and new worlds before settling into the new environment. For some of them, their sources of confidence seem to vanish, and they find no meaning or purpose in the new place. Discouragement sets in easily, and escapism through gaming and social media becomes a readily available coping mechanism.

Anxiety and Fear

Some children are naturally more anxious in new environments. Some children care deeply about how others perceive them. They may fear being bullied or ostracized at school, feeling like no one cares about them. In the face of new challenges, they are more likely to feel helpless and overwhelmed. Anxiety and fear can also lead them to withdraw from reality, become more emotionally volatile, ask excessive questions, or lack self-confidence.

Guilt or Self-Denial

Children may wonder if their parents’ decisions are a reflection of their own shortcomings. They may feel inadequate or unlovable, especially when they encounter parental disputes, divorce, or loss of a parent. When they don’t understand external or parental decisions, they tend to blame themselves, leading to negative self-perceptions. Teenagers often carry various forms of guilt unknowingly.

Growth Opportunities for Teenagers

Unwanted change and transition can shake up the very foundations of our identity, image, and relationships, making them fertile ground for the Gospel to take root. Transition or unwanted changes reveal the needs and hearts of teenagers. Biblical truth, wise care, and guidance can help teenagers become even more deeply rooted in Christ.

Here are some ways we can effectively minister to teenagers facing unwanted change.

Encourage them to build a close relationship with God.

When they are emotionally vulnerable and sensitive, we can encourage them to earnestly pray and seek God’s peace. It is a good time to encourage them to express their emotions through journaling, poetry, or prayer. I once slowly read Psalm 26 with a 16-year-old and asked her to use different drawings to depict the poet’s description of our relationship with God. She said she had never delved into a psalm so deeply before.

Help them understand their identities in Christ more deeply.

Just like a recently repotted plant needs more water, teenagers facing challenges need a steady stream of God’s word. For instance, Ephesians 2:10 reminds us that we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Specific Scripture verses like this can be very helpful and encouraging, especially when they are concerned by how others perceive them. To ease feelings of inadequacy, we can guide them in understanding the distinction between God’s sovereignty, our role in responding to Him, and what lies outside our control.

Help them understand their emotions and hearts better.

The Bible offers rich teachings on how our hearts, which encompass our desires, intentions, and motivations, influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Proverbs 4:23 is a good example: “For it is from the heart that the springs of life flow.” To help teenagers explore this connection, we can get creative! We can use various activities to help them openly express their feelings, understand their emotions and the impact of emotions on the body, and so on.

Practical Tips for Helping Teenagers

Parents, youth groups, and churches can actively engage and encourage teens facing transition or unwanted changes with wisdom and gentleness.

Communicate upcoming changes early.

For parents, talk to your children about any upcoming changes in the next few months. Jesus repeatedly prophesied His death and resurrection to prepare His disciples’ hearts. Adults can mirror Jesus’ actions by talking openly with their children about challenging times and keeping the lines of communication open. More importantly, come together in prayer and seek God’s guidance as a family.

Enter their worlds.

Walk side by side with them on this journey. “Love is not efficient”, author Paul Miller once said. “Love is not a one-shot sortie into someone else’s need. It gets involved; it doesn’t stay clean and separate.” Seek to understand their struggles. Don’t rush to give advice, or your discussion may remain superficial.

Be creative in engaging with them.

We are all created differently. God has gifted us with various ways to express the depths of our hearts. We have Legos in our DuPage counseling office. One teenager used them to express her relationships and the challenges she faced. Some girls use drawing to express their complicated thoughts. For more introverted or sensitive teenagers, using a third-person perspective can help them feel less personal and more comfortable expressing their emotions. I was having a conversation with a high school boy in church, and he was very quiet. When I said, “If a younger boy than you were facing the same problem, how would you help him?” his thinking became more active.

The struggles teenagers face during life transitions or unwanted changes present opportunities for us to serve them. Just as Jesus the Good Shepherd pursues the lost or hurt sheep, we are called to do the same.

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