Helping Young People Into Healthy Relationships

Helping Young People Into Healthy Relationships


Michael Cox is a Level 2 Certified Restoration Therapist. Together with his wife, Coloma, he conducts marriage seminars, coaches couples in preparation for marriage and walks with families seeking to live healthy lives. Additionally, Michael utilizes his 20+ years of working with young people to inform and drive his work with adolescent development and emotional regulation. He is a trainer in Mental Health First Aid for the National Council for Behavioral Health, and he lives in Texas with his wife and three children.

Q: What relational skills do you think are essential for adolescents to practice at home and beyond? How can churches and youth ministry be a part of their relational development? 01

First, authentic engagement. Both home and church should be safe places for young people to express themselves without judgment or fear.

If young people are unable to be real in the two places that are supposed to be safe—home and church—they’re going to find somewhere else. Unfortunately, that place may not be biblical or safe. They may just find someone to affirm or reinforce their thoughts, whether those thoughts are good or bad.

Second, listening without judgment. Teens need to feel listened to, and they need to learn to listen well. Part of good communication is learning how to hear with the right level of filtering. What’s important? What’s not? How can I tell? Who do I listen to, who do I not listen to?

Churches can create spaces where it’s safe to ask questions, to explore, to engage in different and difficult topics in order to gain understanding around those things—and not feel judged. We don’t have to affirm or confirm everyone’s viewpoint, but we do want them to know it’s safe to ask, to raise those questions, and have an authentic exchange.

The third thing is modeling. Young people are developing their viewpoint, their worldview, their faith. All those things are in a hyper mode of development and can really be shaped by engagement with adults who model authenticity and humility, who own their mistakes, communicate with grace and relate in healthy ways.

Q: What factors do you believe lie behind the uptick in anxiety and depression among teens and young adults? What are some ways that pastors and youth ministry workers can help young people navigate mental illness? 02

I think three main factors are at work. The first is access to information. Literally at their fingertips, young people have a way to find out more about what they’re experiencing. And that’s great, as long as they’re getting good information.

Second, general awareness and cultural conversation. We talk more about mental illness now than in the past. In addition to face-to-face conversations, teens are bombarded by YouTube, Snapchat, podcasts, all these things where mental illness is just a normal topic.

Third, and related to that, is that anxiety and depression are kind of trendy. Talking about it is another opportunity to relate and connect, everybody bands together around that issue. Doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate, but it’s easier for folks to grab onto because anxiety and depression are kind of the thing to do right now.

The acknowledgement that mental health problems are real is a huge, important place for church leaders to start. It can be damaging, both emotionally and spiritually, for someone to grow up in a space where experiencing mental illness is chalked up to a lack of faith.

The second way to help is for pastors and youth leaders to get informed. Whether it’s through education, through partnerships, through literature, through whatever—get informed about what mental health problems are and what the symptoms look like.

The last thing is for ministry workers to recognize when they’ve reached the limits of their training and abilities. If a young person comes to them with a problem, I think it’s healthy for a leader to say, “I don’t have the training to help you through this process. Let’s partner with someone who does. I can walk with you, I can pray with you, I can support you, but this is something beyond my know-how.”

Q: Pornography and sexual imagery have become ubiquitous in our culture. In your own counseling practice, how have you seen these affect teens and families? What can churches do to help young people develop healthy sexuality and Christian sexual ethics? 03

Exposure is happening earlier than in the past. Access, again. It’s at their fingertips. On top of that, I see a lot of ignorance or a lack of sensitivity about how porn will affect them over the long term. They see it as not that big of a deal, “everyone else is doing it,” or it’s just natural.

A lot of times, a true, authentic conversation with family members isn’t happening. Often parents aren’t sure what to say to their teen about what’s happening, so rather than talk about it they just put down hard-and-fast rules without talking about why the guidelines are so important.

The truth is, sometimes it’s not just a problem for young people. It’s a problem for adults, too. Their parents, their teachers, their pastors. So you have adults who are struggling in this area, and they’re like, “How can I lead that conversation? Because it’s my problem too.”

Church leadership and parents can start early to establish safe environments where young people can talk openly and ask honest questions about sex. Open the door, even if it’s painful and awkward, to an authentic conversation about what they’re experiencing. Don’t shame them for having desires. Instead, help them understand healthy and God-ordered ways to handle those desires.

Parents and youth pastors need to get more inquisitive than directive when it comes to young people. Get curious. Ask questions. Teens are developing who they are, their identity, and sometimes adults get so caught up in feeling responsible to give right answers to questions young people aren’t even asking. Instead, be more inquisitive about who they are becoming. Learn about them. Find out what their questions are.

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