One of the things I love most about being a leader in the youth group of my local church and at a youth center is relationship-building. I love meeting teens, listening to their stories and testimonies, discovering their personalities, understanding their families and friends, learning about their hobbies and dreams.
Often, our conversations are pleasant and light, and I learn to walk with young people as they share facts about their lives and ask their questions about the future, the world and faith. Sometimes, however, our conversations go much deeper, and drawing out challenges and vulnerabilities of young people in the group.
I am sure that many of those who work with adolescents can attest to this: young people are entrusting us with real challenges today – mental health problems, bullying experiences, eating disorders, substance abuse, pornography addiction, toxic dating relationships and social media pressures are just a few of them.
Recently, a youth pastor with whom I work shared with me that a youth from his church had told him that she had been sexually abused in her relationship. The previous week, the parents of another teenager in his community had called and informed him that they had discovered that their son was engaging in self-injurious behavior. My colleague expressed how devastated he was by these pieces of news, and realized how much today's young people are suffering.
There is evidence that the teenagers of our time experience higher rates of anxiety and depression than any other generation in modern history. The consensus is becoming clearer: young people today are in crisis. The expectations that young people face in the media, through their studies and in their socio-economic context partly explain the emotional, psycho-social and physical vulnerability of this generation.
It is partly because of this vulnerability that young people need to support leaders who are equipped with tools to ensure their protection, both in the organizations that these young people attend and in their daily lives. I cannot emphasize enough the impact Plan to Protect®’s principles have had in my experience working with young people who face hardships that I cannot always comprehend myself. Training and protection policies allow youth leaders to better understand the indicators of violence that adolescent victims of abuse demonstrate, the procedures to follow in the case of mental health issues, and so on.
In order to have positive impact on young people, it is important to know how to help protect them from the toxic people around them, strangers, the media and sometimes themselves. Protection includes recognizing unusual behaviors among young people, asking them non-leading questions, emphasizing the importance of asking for help when necessary, and equipping with the tools they need to feel safe and respected in their homes, interactions, relationships and their lives in general. We also need to understand when we have to hand over the job to health professionals.
Plan to Protect®’s training and principles offers this wisdom to leaders. Their support helps me and many other youth workers create safe environments where teenagers feel comfortable to share – both good and bad – and receive the support they need in order to flourish.