Your Kids Are Not Projects or Burdens. They Are Gifts.

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A sweet friend said she enjoyed watching my wife and me smile and wave and delight on the Sundays when our 5-year-old daughter sings in the children’s choir. Indeed, there is a deep joy—a gleeful celebration—in watching our little angel sing praises to the Lord, complete with hand motions.

But there is both beauty and sorrow behind our elation.

You see, my wife and I didn’t expect our children to live past three years and 55 days. As I recount in my recently released book, Therefore I Have Hope: 12 Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy, our first child, Cameron, died unexpectedly at this point in his life. In our grief-stricken minds, we feared our second and third child were nearing the end of their lives when they approached this age, despite the fact that our son’s death wasn’t congenital. When they crossed the 3-year-and-55-day threshold, we viewed the remainder of their lives as an unexpected bonus.

None of these thoughts exists at the rational level, of course; they are the sad, post-traumatic remnants of losing a child. The tremors of grief in your heart continue to have a powerful presence, even years later.

Two Wrong Ways to View Kids

There are many ways we can view our kids.

At times we see them as a project. We believe (largely because the culture tells us so) that we’re called to manage our kids as a lifelong project. We need to develop them into producers in the market economy. Start building that resume by hiring cheerleading trainers and batting coaches at age 6. Book the tutor before the school year, when we don’t even know if our child will struggle in a class. Skip family Thanksgiving to get to the showcase soccer tournament. God has given us this child to cultivate into a winner, by darn, and we’ll over-program this little human to ensure success.

We should see our children as a gift, not to be taken for granted.

At other times, we see our children as a burden. We long for the day when they’ll go to kindergarten or get their license or go to college. We wish for the days when we’ll get more sleep, have more free time, encounter fewer arguments, or have a richer checking account. Let’s be honest: Kids rock your world. They exhaust us, frustrate us, challenge us, and gobble up our free time, money, and hobbies. I still view my children this way far too often.

How does our view of parenthood change, though, when we view our children neither as projects nor burdens, but as gifts?

Children as a Gift

Losing a child has given this perspective to my wife and me. We don’t take our children for granted as much as we did before Cameron died. We approach our kids with this attitude: “We’re just so grateful you’re here. We’re grateful you’re alive.” For us these sentiments are hard-won, but they represent a biblical perspective we all should espouse.

Thankfully, you don’t have to lose a child to view your children as a gift. The Word of God portrays children this way:

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them! (Ps. 127:3–5)

The psalmist paints children as a grace from God that generates happiness and well-being.

When we see our children as a gift, our need to control and micromanage subsides. Certainly, we take responsibility for the gift, but nobody clutches and chokes a present to make it perfect. We hold it loosely with gratitude.

Further, when we receive something as a gift, we understand it’s for our pleasure and enjoyment. Many people, when they know (or at least think) they’ve had their final baby, say they’re making a point to enjoy this baby. They savor the final stroller rides, infant clothes, and bedtime readings of Good Night Moon.

When we view our children as a gift, we give ourselves permission to enjoy them more. We don’t constantly have to be coaching, correcting, and managing. While we’ll always train our kids, we’re free to take pleasure in who God made them to be and in the limited time we have together.

Hard Gift

It’s worth noting that God often gives us hard gifts. We look back at a challenge or disappointment from the past as a gift not because it was easy, but because it shaped our character. Sometimes kids are like that. God brings us to our knees as we parent a child who routinely pushes our buttons or breaks our hearts. He teaches us to pray more, to practice compassion, to repent from idols.

We all know we’ll never perfectly maintain this view of our kids. However, in those times when we are frustrated, tired, pressured, or afraid in our parenting, it may be worthwhile to look at our child and privately remember, “You are a gift from God. A hard gift, yes, but a precious one nonetheless.”

What Motivates Teenagers on Social Media

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Often parents feel like kids are tethered to their phones, constantly glancing or full-on staring into a screen. It’s unnerving.

But before we judge kids or insist they “put that thing down,” we need to understand what motivates them to check social media so frequently. At the Fuller Youth Institute, we’re fans of the adage, “There’s a belief behind every behavior.” By identifying our kids’ motivations, we can empathize before we seek solutions. Without this empathy, our conversations about boundaries, rules, and good decisions get lost in translation.

Teenagers often seem hypersocial to adults because they are in a stage of life when they begin to form their own identities. The question “Who am I?” plays like background music on a continuous loop throughout adolescence. Teenagers largely work on the answer to this question through relationships. And with lots of experimentation.

So why do teenagers constantly check social media? Why do they care so much about the likes, shares, and posts from their friends? We’ve found it helpful to think about social media as today’s version of the school lunchroom.

School cafeterias have always been a kind of petri dish within which young people experiment—a social laboratory. To parents and educators, the noon break is about eating lunch. But for teens, it can be the defining moment of the entire day. Every lunch is a kid’s opportunity to try out an identity, observe, tweak the formula a bit, and get ready to test out a new version of themselves tomorrow.

Parents often underappreciate how a quick scroll through social media can be a lot like scanning the lunchroom. Young people have very sophisticated ways of conveying social cues with digital media that we may struggle to see. Many of these cues are non-verbal, the equivalent of a thousand words in one image. That’s why phenomena like emoji and photo sharing catch on like wildfire (and keep evolving). It’s also why monitoring all the likes, shares, votes, and views is so important for our kids. And the irony of the lunchroom analogy is that often today’s teenagers are also using social media in their actuallunchrooms, navigating all these layers at once.

It turns out teenagers’ drive to connect today is the motivated by the same social drive that helped us to form our identities decades ago, with new technologies layered in. And just like you used to talk to your friends on a home phone—probably one attached to a wall, maybe with a long curly cord—the basic need to connect remains.

In other words, our kids are a lot like us after all. The more we understand that reality, the more we can help our kids discover their identity through relationships—whether or not those bonds are forged digitally. They’re just navigating the journey in the only world they’ve ever known, and it’s a digitally connected one.

Blending Families During the Holidays

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It was our first Christmas Eve, the dishes were piled in the kitchen after a traditional New Mexican meal of Posole and fresh-made tamales. The tree was glistening and Christmas music filled the house.  Fresh baked cookies and homemade candies overflowed tins to the delight every sweet tooth in the house. Every detail was perfect… but every heart, was a little on edge.  See, it was our first Christmas together as a newly blended family. Even as I write these words, a lump forms in my throat thinking about all the emotions associated with those first few holidays as a new “blending” family.

Blending families is a sensitive and tender undertaking. It takes patience, grace and an overwhelming amount of love and emotional health. Every new “first” seems to bring with it the weight of all of the bundled up emotion that we try to keep pushed down, but lie just under the surface. And if there was ever a season that elevates these emotions, it’s the holidays. Parents are excited to share traditions, start new ones and have some “happy holiday” moments. We can do this to the point, as a newly blended family, that we can put on rose-tinted glasses and ignore the realities that are happening within our kids.

Our kids are navigating unmarked territory.  They love both of their parents, and they want to be loyal to both of their parents, and depending on what phase your children are in and how you’ve helped them through divorce and blending, their reactions and responses during the holidays may vary.  Where once they loved every part of the holidays and were all-in for all of the traditions, treats and treasures, they might now seem aloof and distant or cranky and out-of-control.  Even their favorite “thing” might seem we’ve asked them to step on hot lava. Or you might have the child who wears themselves out, hopping from one thing to another, from one house to another trying to keep both sets of parents “happy”.  And all the while as parents, our hearts are a little bit (or a lot bit) broken because at our very core, this isn’t what we wanted for our kiddos.  We never thought we’d be divorced, we never thought that we’d be navigating these kind of waters, but God is good and God redeems our broken pieces and God restores.  And in all that there is a process that comes with restoration.

This might sound bleak and you are probably thinking, “Is this ever going to be easy?” On the lighter side, I don’t think the holidays are ever “easy,” but I do know that there will be a moment when you realize that you’re not manufacturing energy around the holidays anymore, and there is an ease to it again. Take heart, because by employing some intentionality, you can create holiday moments that will be remembered with warmth, security, and deep love. Here are some thoughts and ideas for your holiday blueprint:

1. The Golden Rule

Treat others the way you want to be treated, with respect, honor, dignity, and love. This might seem obvious, but so many times there is a battle for significance between your family and the “other” family, even between you and your spouse. Put the needs of others ahead of your needs. This might mean that the kids go to their other house for a last minute scheduling change on an evening when you had planned something at home. Consider what is best for the child. I’m not suggesting that we completely acquiesce at every request, but there is something to the saying, “What goes around, comes around.” 

2. Rules of Engagement

Don’t play dirty. ONLY speak kindly and respectfully of your child’s other parent(s). You should be your child’s greatest advocate, which means to be the advocate and cheerleader for every person of influence in their lives.  This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their lifestyle, parenting style, or methods, but it does mean that you are a champion for them because they are an important part of your child’s life. This requires a great deal of spiritual and emotional maturity. Remember, kids are keen observers of their worlds, but horrible interpreters. They will interpret your every word and action one way or another. Teach them by example that we can love people without completely understanding them or agreeing with them.

3. Focus on the Celebration, Not the Day

In blending families, holidays, birthday, and other significant days have to be shared. This means that most special days are going to be doubled-up (aka; your child now gets two special days). Make the most of the moment you actually celebrate and less on the “day” you’re supposed to celebrate. This is actually true for families that aren’t blending too. If a parent has to work on a holiday or birthday, family is coming after the fact, etc . . . we still celebrate, but on a different day. The point is, the parent who is celebrating on an off-day because it’s not their year, can still make the most of the moment, and celebrate in a meaningful way.

4. Keep the Main Thing, the Main Thing

In preparation to write this post, I talked to our daughter about what she experienced while I was single and after we blended families. One thing she said that stuck out to her, and filled my momma’s heart, was although it seemed that the magic of Christmas had suddenly evaporated at 11 years old, she loved that at Mom’s house, Christmas was simple. It was about what Christmas meant, and how we lived that out. It wasn’t flashy, extravagant or over-the-top. Her advice, as a now young mom and wife, is to keep the main thing the main thing. As parents, we carry a lot of guilt for the struggle and complexity divorce and re-marriage can add to a child’s life. Sometimes we can fall into the rut of “buying” our kids with lots of gifts or trips. More than “things,” your kids just want you, and they want to know that you are there, you hear them, you see them, and you will take TIME to be with them.  Do that.

As much as four simple points might seem obvious, it’s hard. It’s hard to not let our emotions and past history dictate what we will do today. It takes an extreme amount of intentionality. One of the axioms we say around here regarding parenting is, parent with the end in mind. This means that we spend some time considering who and what we want our children to be as adults. That vision of our grown-up kids informs how we parent today. As a couple, my husband and I needed to decide early on that we were going to be champions of “our” kids. If you’re blending, those are YOUR kids, not his, not hers, but yours.

The hardest part for me has been managing my own sadness and loneliness around the holidays. I love people, I love a full house, and I love having my chicks (and now grand-chicks) around. I love the crazy chaos that comes with a house-full of people. It was hard when John and I were alone on the holidays, because our kids with their other parents. These were the times that I spent in quiet, grateful reflection. I prayed for them, for their other parents, for us and for their futures. Now that our kids are all grown and in their 30’s, one of the things I’m learning is that because we helped them navigate this well when they were young, we actually helped them created healthy holiday expectations now that their grown. They’ve learned that they can have healthy boundaries, they spend some holidays at their own homes, some with us and some with their other parents.  We love seeing how being intentional early on, has influenced their families in healthy ways. We’re counting it all joy.


What’s On Your Christmas List?

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You probably have lots of vivid memories that come to mind when you remember celebrating Christmas as a kid.

● Bundling up in the car to look at the neighbors’ lights.
● Decorating the tree while listening to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.
● Making Christmas sugar cookies with Grandma . . . and leaving enough icing so you can lick the bowl.
● Drinking hot cocoa (with marshmallows!) as you watch the snow fall.
● Singing “Silent Night” at church . . . while your candle dripped hot wax onto your fingers.
● Examining each wrapped gift to try to figure out who it was for . . . and what might be inside!

As kids, we waited for the big day to arrive . . . but our concerns were very practical. We couldn’t WAIT to see what gifts we would receive! We spent the month of December dreaming of toys, candy, and video games—and, yes, making lists of the things we wanted most. As parents, we now have the privilege of experiencing Christmas with our own kids. We also have the opportunity to help them connect the joy and excitement of the season with the great love God has shown to us.

After all, Christmas has always been about anticipation. Long ago, God’s people were waiting for the promised Savior. They rejoiced at the news of His birth. We give gifts today as a way to remember the greatest gift: Jesus. God’s only Son. Emmanuel. God with us. Of course your kids will be excited about what they can get for Christmas. But at the same time, don’t miss the chance to show them what it means to give.

In December, we’re discovering what it means to show compassion: Caring enough to do something about someone else’s need. We can respond to the love God showed us by loving the people He’s put around us.

So talk with your kids. As you listen to their wish lists, also help them think about ways to show compassion—to make others your mission. You could give your time, serving somewhere in your local community. You could donate food or winter jackets to those in need. You could choose an item from the Compassion Gift Catalog to make an impact for children in poverty.

Whatever you decide to do, get the whole family involved. Help your kids create some sweet memories about serving and loving others.

A Happier Thanksgiving

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It was one of those moments I was so thankful for and at the same time kind of wish never happened—someone explained to me what the key to happiness is.

Surprisingly, it’s not
making more money
having everything go according to plan
living with your every need provided for

You would think all of that would make us thankful, but it rarely does. Rather than engender gratitude, it tends to only provide some acknowledgment that what we hoped would happen did happen. And then we hope for a little better next time. Gratitude rarely enters the picture.

So what’s the key to finding gratitude?

Low expectations.

The lower your expectations are, the happier you are with whatever you get.

If you come home one afternoon and expect the house to be perfect, you can have a melt down over three dishes left in the sink (well, at least some of us can given our wiring). Conversely, if you come home expecting the kitchen to be a complete disaster but your kids have emptied the dishwasher and set the table, you might actually be grateful for what they did despite the fact that the counter looks like a warzone. It’s all about expectations.

On a trip to Guatemala a few years ago, I was astounded by how grateful the kids were for even the smallest things we would bring with us. Our team brought out a soccer ball one night. The kids were almost delirious with joy. We played for hours and they would go on to play for days, weeks and months with it.

Back home I had at least three soccer balls in my overfilled garage. I’m not sure one of them ever produced a genuine smile on anyone’s face.

The only difference? The expectations of those involved.

Low expectations foster gratitude because they help us see everything that comes our way as a gift.

High expectations tend to suck the gratitude from us, because even when they are met, we tend to see what’s come to us as an entitlement.

Entitled people (and entitled kids) are never grateful.

So what do you feel entitled to?
A ‘perfect picture’ holiday dinner?
Kids who do everything as told when they are told?
Three football games in a row?
A Black Friday shopping spree with a minimum budget of ______?

Hang on to those expectations and you’re pretty much guaranteed a disappointing Thanksgiving. Release them, and you might be surprised.

By the way, this also works for Christmas. And your job. And your marriage. And life.

It’s also what allowed Paul to be in prison and sing songs of joy.

Lower expectations really are a key to gratitude.

What expectations have you lowered? How has that helped you?

The Other Side of Comparison

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As parents, we know to teach our kids not to compare.

With social media it’s easy for teenagers to compare their lives against the lives of their friends. For elementary school kids it’s easy to compare their summer vacation to the summer vacation of a friend. For kindergarteners, it’s easy to compare their portion of the cookie to the one their sister got.

Comparison seems hardwired into us and as adults we can be just as guilty of it. But today, I’m not focusing on that type of comparison, the type where you feel worse about yourself. That type has been covered a thousand times. Today I want to talk about the other side of comparison.

Sometimes, in order to feel better about themselves, kids will compare themselves to other people who are less fortunate. (The first type of comparison is about finding people who are more fortunate.) Kids will say, “I did so much better on that test than Tim.” Or, “Our seats at the concert were better than Amy’s seats.” It’s an attempt to improve their lot in life by criticizing someone else’s. Doing this has a few bad effects:

It blinds kids to good things.

I don’t want my kids to need to compare against someone else to enjoy something. Your B+ in algebra is great regardless of if someone else didn’t get a C+. Someone doesn’t have to lose in order for you to feel like you won.

It kills empathy.

It’s almost impossible to have empathy for someone else when you get stuck in comparison. I want my kids to encourage the kid who did badly on a test, not feel better about themselves because of his grade. I want them to empathize not keep score.

It makes everything a competition.

Some things are competitions. Fifty people aren’t going to be valedictorian. I understand that and support that, but not everything is a competition. If you went Disney World on Spring Break, you haven’t “beaten” another family who stayed home for Spring Break. It wasn’t a contest, it was just vacation, but if you start comparing you lose sight of that.

I want the best for my kids. I want them to have big, full lives that are free of comparison.

That’s not always easy, but I do think part of my job is to discuss it, to explain it and to foster it.

It’s the only way you have a shot at ending up with adults who don’t compare.

One Parenting Tip Moms Should Try Every Day

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Sometimes the demands of motherhood overwhelm me. All in one month, I’ve taken care of two daughters as they recovered from minor surgeries, planned my first daughter’s wedding, home-schooled, carpooled kids to soccer, and kept the house running. Am I forgetting something? Probably. But, I’ve learned one parenting tip that has dramatically lifted my parenting stress.

Just so you know, I absolutely love my life and my to-do list. Because as challenging and demanding as my schedule can sometimes be, I get to do life—with all its ups and downs—with amazingly, fearfully, and wonderfully made people!

Moms, our kids desperately need us! Of course, we know this. We experience our kids’ clinging, whining, and asking, and asking again. We know they need us, but our kids know it, too—even when they act like they don’t.


Lately, I’ve learned that for you and me to succeed as moms, we’ve got to be desperate, too. Just like our children know they need their moms, we need to realize our need for our Heavenly Father! We can’t be the great mom we want to be without depending on God.

Be honest. Do you acknowledge your need for God? Do you depend on Him to meet your emotional, physical, and practical needs? Do you regularly seek and depend on His presence? If I’m honest, sometimes I miss the mark. But I pray that my heart and yours will be open to becoming the dependent, desperate mom Christ has called us to be.

John 15:5 teaches us that “apart from Him we can do nothing.” We need to know our great need for Him! Moms, there are days we all feel stressed out and overwhelmed. But when we rely on God’s strength, He will not only meet our needs but also give us His strength to be the mom our kids need.

A Surprising Place to Find Help for Single Mothers and Fathers

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I didn’t think I’d ever anonymously write an article about help for single mothers and fathers.

I mean, I had friends who were single parents, I knew of single parents, but the appreciation I have for single parents grew exponentially once I became one. It’s hard. And we need help. But it can be hard to find help for single mothers and fathers to meet the daily, sometimes relentless challenges: not being there for all of your child’s firsts, helping your child integrate healthily into different homes, not having a partner to share in parenting responsibilities and decisions. It’s hard to know if you’re doing it right as a single parent with integrity and consistency. One challenge is navigating single parenthood during the holidays and vacations. On a recent vacation, God taught me something, yet again, about parenthood.

I enjoy snow skiing and seeing God’s beauty on display in beautiful snow-covered mountains. This year, I decided to take my son skiing for the first time. He is 5, and I wasn’t sure if he’d like the cold, skiing, or going on a vacation that didn’t involve trains.

He walked into the ski school and said, “Mommy, will I be able to do this? I don’t know if I can do it.” I kneeled down to look in his little brown eyes and gave him the best mommy pep talk I could muster.

I stood at the fence as he was in line to take his first ski run down the kiddie hill. He looked at me through the fence nervously. I told him to be brave, have fun, and that he could do it. At the top, he put his skis into a “pizza” triangle, bent his knees, and gave it his best try. I found myself crying with joy (actually sobbing) watching him step into something scary and new. He looked at me after and said “Mommy, I did it!”

That experience made me think of being a single parent.

When I ask Jesus if I will be able to do something hard or something new, He shows me in different ways that I can. When I am mentally, physically, or emotionally drained (often at the same time), I remember to pause and ask for His truth, strength, courage, or whatever I need in the moment. And when the Lord sees me go to the top of the mountain, bend my knees, and bravely step into my role as a parent, I believe He is there beaming with joy.

Right there, on a ski slope, I found help for single mothers and fathers everywhere. God reminded me how very much He loves me. We are never in this alone if we lean on one another and into God, His strength, and His comfort. What a gift! And we can remember that He sees us. He loves us. And He’s proud of everything we do out of our love for Him—even when it’s scary.

If you’re navigating the path of being a single parent and find it challenging—I do too! My best piece of help for single mothers and fathers? Find your people. I can’t imagine doing it without Jesus and community. I am blessed to have followers of Jesus in my LifeGroup who can pray for me and give me parenting advice. Seriously, if you’re a single mom or dad, find a church community you can plug into and grow with. I get to speak the truth of Scripture over myself every morning, which I learned in church.

Because I am a follower of Jesus, I can seek His courage, strength, and wisdom every day. I get to take my imperfect human self and do the best I can every day to help a little boy grow and know how much Jesus loves him (and how much Mommy loves him, too). As I experience the challenges of being a single parent, I also recognize the amazing blessings.

God has placed help for single mothers and fathers in unexpected places everywhere. In the gift of His Holy Spirit encouraging, teaching, and comforting us—even on a ski slope. In the kind words and actions of our friends. And certainly in the love of the amazing children we get to raise.

Fortnite: I’ll Pass On the V-Bucks

The Saga

If you have any contact with a kid over age 8, I’m sure you have heard of Fortnite. If not, simply say that word around a kid and you will get a reaction. Especially boys. It is the latest and greatest in the App Store, Xbox, Switch, gaming craze. How do I know this? Well, I live with two boys and we have had our own personal Fortnite adventure over the past several months.

Last winter, my boys asked to get Fortnite on the Xbox because you know, “All my friends have it.” After working to earn the money for the game, I allowed them to download it. To say they liked it is an understatement. It seemed harmless enough. And hey, at least they were interacting with other people, right. A few times, they would earn a little extra money and ask if they could buy a “skin”. They’d give me the money, I’d load the amount on the Xbox and the gaming would continue. This went on for a few months. And, like every gaming fad, I was sure this one was almost over.

In April, I was sure my bank account had been hacked. But, as I talked to the lady at the bank she did not start in with her typical speech that was supposed to go something like this: “You’ve obviously been hacked. We will take care of it.” Instead she asked if I had a Microsoft account. I’m not going to lie that once I finally connected all the dots after finally tracking down all the charges, I was extremely grateful that my children were at school. I was so irate that it was best that they were far, far away from me. I finally sat down and really prayed. I asked God to give me wisdom to know what to do in order to punish them appropriately.

When the boys came home from the bus, I asked them calmly if I could talk them upstairs. (My kids tell me that calm mom is way more frightening that angry mom). I sat them down and explained that I was trying to pay our bills but I was so sad to find that I could not pay them because someone had stolen over $500 from my bank account. They look so surprised and genuinely upset and protective of their mom. I mean who would do this to us? Then, I continued, “Imagine my surprise when I found out it was my two boys who stole from me.” I recapped the story of my day tracking down the charges and no one said a word. One of them broke down in sobs and the other had quiet tears running down his face. (I’m not going to lie, there was a little relief in at least seeing the remorse.)

The boys tried to tell me they thought they’d found a hack. They’d purchased a few V-bucks (aka Fortnite dollars) at first, and it looked like it “wasn’t even really costing” anything. After a day of the little things, they started in with the bigger purchases. I mean, if they’d found a hack, why not “hack” the big bucks. Right? I don’t know if that is really what they believed or if they convinced themselves that was what was happening. But, the punishment was going to remain no matter what.

After our little talk, I calmly explained that the Xbox was gone for 6 months. In that time, they would have to do any and every job that anyone offered to earn money to pay back every penny they stole from me. In addition, when they finished paying the money back, they could start saving up to purchase the Xbox from me. It would cost them $350, because that is what it costs in the stores.

For the next 4 months they worked for me, for my mom, for my dad, for my neighbor, for our church. They did any job they could find. They did finally pay back what they owed, plus earned enough to buy the Xbox back. But, it was hard work.

What I Learned From the Saga:

1. Parents, be aware of what your kids are doing online.

I have every software check, balance, safety system in place . . . and yet this happened. I didn’t realize my debit card info had been stored in the system after one of my small, approved purchases. That was the open door to mindless charging. (Needless to say, my boys now have to earn money, buy an Xbox gift card and that is the only way they can purchase anything.)

2. Your kids are going to mess up.

I believe with all my heart they need to have appropriate consequences that are hard and fast, with a huge dose of love and grace. My kids needed to understand how serious this was. Not only did we talk about stealing things in cyber space (that sounds so futuristic) but, we also talked about the consequences of credit cards. They hated working for 6 months to pay for something that was long gone. I explained that is exactly how credit cards work. In our house, we have to live on what we have. Life is just simpler that way.

3. Parenting is hard.

Parenting is hard. It is so hard. We need each other. We need to share our stories and show our scars. I had to share this story with my friends and family so that they could help me and possibly learn from my mistakes. I was embarrassed that I’d let this happen. But, I’m so glad I told them. My friends and family jumped in to give the boys work when they needed it to pay off their debts and speak truth and love to them to make this a teachable moment.

Our counselor and friend, David Thomas, wrote a great article on Fortine that helped me. I hope it helps you too.

What I didn’t tell my boys . . . and I am saving this for their graduation or wedding rehearsal dinner . . . is that Microsoft refunded the money. (Shhhhhh!)

Helping Adolescents Work Through the Rising Tide of Anxiety

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Lately I’ve noticed a growing alarm about anxiety in our culture. It seems to be wreaking havoc in our lives. I’ve seen this trend in my counseling practice, in questions I get when I’m speaking at churches and organizations, and in what I hear in my day-to-day interactions with friends and neighbors.

Anxiety feels like a virus spreading quickly through our midst. We’re now anxious about getting anxious.

As much as we see this chatter offline, there is an even more deafening presence online, as social media interaction and article after article emphasize the impact of anxiety among the American population, and more specifically among high school and college-aged young adults. In the last several months alone, multiple publications have run stories on anxiety. The New York Times Magazine prominently featured a piece entitled, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?.” A few months earlier, the Times ran an article proclaiming that anxiety has become an “everyday argot”. The Atlantic published articles in July, August, and September looking at anxiety, connecting it to our use of smartphones and social media.

I could list many more, but you get the point. Anxiety is on the rise, and it’s having devastating effects, not only on the American population as a whole, but more specifically among younger Americans. One author writes, “Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But unlike depression, with which it routinely occurs, anxiety is often seen as a less serious problem.” 

Perhaps it’s time to pay more attention.

Anxiety in Context

It is important to gain perspective on how anxiety may impact the work you are doing in your context, whether that’s as a parent, teacher, pastor, mentor, or friend of a teenager. For example, if you are a teacher in middle school or high school and you look out at your classroom of 25 students, statistically speaking, somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 students are suffering from an anxiety disorder. If you are a youth pastor and you look out at your youth group of 50 high schoolers in a Wednesday night gathering, somewhere around 17 students are struggling with an anxiety disorder.

And what about college students? One story in Inside Higher Ed sums up anxiety’s growing impact on collegiates, “More than half of the college students who visited their campus counseling centers during the 2015-2016 academic year reported symptoms of anxiety, … This marks the seventh year in a row that anxiety has been the top complaint among students seeking mental health services.”

The average age of onset for anxiety is 11 years old, which matches my own debilitating struggle with anxiety. In 1981, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and by the time she passed away in 1986, my anxiety ballooned into full effect. I began stuttering after the trauma of her death. Two weeks after she passed away, I went back to fifth grade and discovered I could no longer read out loud in class. Instead, when I was called upon I froze in an anxious panic. This continued all the way through high school and into college. It was only then that I decided to face my anxiety, and later in my thirties, through the help of a couple of therapists, I really began not only to understand my anxiety, but also to make serious progress with it.

I know from personal experience how frightening anxiety can be, and that’s why it’s a topic we must all learn to understand better in order to offer help to those who struggle.

Practical Strategies to Help Young People Face Anxiety

Through my work with anxiety both personally and as a therapist, I have found some specific responses to be helpful, so I want to pass these suggestions on to you. You have a vital role in helping teenagers who are struggling. As a first word of caution, however, there are circumstances where anxiety is so severe that someone must be hospitalized or put on medication. What I’m going to share with you here are ways to help those who are anxious but not in need of immediate medical care. As you work through this guide, hopefully the exercises will help give you the confidence to discern when you can help and when you need outside assistance.

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1. Create space and give permission to talk about anxiety

When it comes to adolescents and anxiety, you may be a first responder on the front lines. How you handle anxiety when it arises may set the trajectory for how that adolescent works through anxiety, or if they choose to do so. For most teenagers, talking about their anxiety is a very scary thing, and depending on how they are being raised and the culture they inhabit, there might be all kinds of barriers to talking openly.

Here are some specific ways you can create space and give permission to adolescents experiencing anxiety:

  • Start with: Begin by communicating that it’s okay to have anxiety. I encourage you to literally say to an adolescent, “I am creating a safe space for you, and giving you permission to talk about your anxiety.” This kind of permission can be a key to unlocking a lot of the negative assumptions and fears teenagers hold around anxiety.
  • Advanced tactics: Normalize anxiety by sharing your own struggles or inviting others in the community to share stories about their anxiety. If you have a hard time finding someone to share, I recommend bringing in someone from outside your ministry like a local therapist to help break the silence.

2. Help identify the roots of anxiety

My mentor, marriage and family therapy pioneer and Fuller professor Dr. Terry Hargrave, helped me understand very clearly that anxiety is typically a response to a deeper underlying feeling. Anxiety is less of a feeling, and more about how we cope with feelings that we are often unclear about, or too afraid to confront.

Distinguishing anxiety as a coping behavior rather than a feeling is critical. Don’t get stuck focusing on the symptom (anxiety), but help the adolescent explore the underlying issues that may be perpetuating anxiety. It’s when you identify the root issues that true healing can begin to take place.

Here are some specific ways you can help an adolescent with anxiety identify the underlying root issues that cause them to respond with anxiety:

  • Start with: Sometimes teenagers need help finding the right words to articulate what they are experiencing. Use a handout of feeling words that you can give an adolescent to look through and see if they can name more clearly what they feel. This identification helps them understand themselves better, as well as helping you understand their experience, which increases a sense of safety and trust in the relationship.
  • Advanced tactics: Take a stack of 3×5 cards and write down one feeling word on each card. You will want about 20-30 cards. Lay the cards down on the ground, spread out from each other at a good distance (ideally a foot or more). Invite the adolescent to walk around and through the cards and pick up which ones they resonate with the most (i.e., which ones create the feeling of anxiety in them as they look at or walk by the word). Then use those words to help open up a conversation. The physical movement and tactile nature of this exercise can be very helpful.

3. Provide tools to help manage the anxiety

Normalizing and identifying anxiety are important first steps, but adolescents also need tools to assist them in managing anxiety. And though tools are vital, I often have found that adolescents (especially younger ones) have a hard time using tools on their own, especially if they are too complex.

Self-care is an important tool in the management of anxiety. For example, when an adolescent is doing something physically, it helps release positive chemicals in the brain, offsetting some of the more negative ones. When an adolescent is emotionally connected, they tend to feel less isolated and alone, and there is less of a chance they will have to deal with anxiety by themselves. When an adolescent finds something positive to mentally engage, this can be helpful in finding purpose and in switching focus from the negative messages of anxiety. And when an adolescent takes care of themselves spiritually, they are often able to place themselves in a larger narrative than their own, which is key to keep from being swallowed up by the focus on self that anxiety often perpetuates.

Here are some specific and easily-accessible tools you can recommend to or use with adolescents experiencing anxiety:

  • Start with: Breathing exercises are probably the most underrated of all anxiety tools, and might be the most important. The Latin root for anxiety implies a “choking off,” or a “closing/shutting in,” so with anxiety it can actually feel like the person can’t breathe (i.e., a panic attack), or that their world is falling apart around them (i.e., existential crisis). So, restoring a calm breathing pattern is essential. You can help a teenager start by practicing a technique such as “box breathing.”I also highly recommend the app Headspace and its “Anxiety Pack.”
  • Advanced tactics: Sit down with an adolescent and perform a self-care assessment by drawing four columns on a piece of paper. Label them from left to right: Physical, Emotional, Mental, Spiritual. One column at a time, help the adolescent identify as many things they could be doing to foster each area of their life. Look at the list together and narrow it down to just one activity or practice in each column that they feel the most excitement or energy to focus on. Meet weekly to help keep them accountable and inspired to work on self-care and soul care.

4. Reframe anxiety as an opportunity to grow

Most teenagers I work with have been raised to believe that anxiety is a bad thing, something to be avoided at all costs. Many great thinkers on anxiety from Søren Kierkegaard to Rollo May have argued that though anxiety can have debilitating effects on our lives, ultimately it can also provide us with great insight and lead to transformative change. Kierkegaard has written that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” And what possibly produces more anxiety than being in adolescence and having to navigate all the freedom and choices new to a young person’s experience?

  • Start with: Take an adolescent through some of the stories in the Bible where the journey through anxiety (whether implicit or explicit) seems to be a major tool for shaping and growing people (e.g., wandering for 40 years in the wilderness; Jacob wrestling with God; Mary giving birth to Jesus; Jesus praying in the garden.) You might ask the adolescent, “What anxiety has God brought you through that has really shaped and helped you grow as a person?”
  • Advanced tactics: Try leading the young person in an exercise where they interview their anxiety. There is no “right” way to do this, but the act of depersonalizing anxiety away from themselves and asking questions of their anxiety like, “Why are you here?”, “What do you want from me?”, “What can I learn from you?” “Where is God in the midst of this anxiety?”, are super helpful in making it friendlier, and the process itself can sometimes lead to answers and next steps for the adolescent.

5. Practice working through the anxiety

I have come to realize more and more in my work as a therapist that insight alone is not enough. It’s not enough to simply know that we are anxious, or that a certain underlying feeling is the trigger for anxiety. We have to take that insight and put it into practice, and when we do that, I believe we will see the transformative change we are looking for. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance, describes the role “deliberate practice” plays in cultivating change. I have seen that when adolescents practice working with and through their anxiety, they experience more victory over it.

[Read more about Grit from FYI, and why it may matter more than grades.]

Here are some specific ways that a teenager can practice working out their anxiety:

  • Start with: Help an adolescent identify a specific area of life where they have anxiety. Then explore with them if there are some specific and tangible “baby steps” they can take to face the anxiety head on. Plan those steps out together, and encourage them to experiment with each one. For example, since anxiety can be socially isolating, I might encourage something like this: 1) Walk through a busy part of campus (hallway, cafeteria, etc.) and simply notice what they feel and think. Don’t do anything else for a couple of weeks. 2) Then I might encourage them to find just one person they know and strike up conversation with them. Try this over a few weeks. 3) Then as that friendship develops, I might encourage them to share just a little with that friend about what they are struggling with in terms of anxiety. You could go through a progression of steps like this with many topics, such as anxiety around giving a speech, or trying out for a team, or for feeling overwhelmed with homework. The more you know a teenager, the more you will be able to speak specifically into their experience. The key is to keep the teenager from isolating themselves and letting anxiety take over their day-to-day experience. Instead, look for small, achievable experiences that work in helping the adolescent face and work through their specific anxieties.
  • Advanced tactics: Teach the young person to walk through these steps when they feel anxious: a) Say what you feel: e.g., “I feel inadequate.” b) Say what you normally do: e.g., “I normally become anxious.” c) Say your truth: e.g., “The truth is that I’m capable and have what it takes.” d) Say what different action you will take: e.g., “I am choosing to face my fears and have this difficult conversation/apply to that school/end this relationship/try out for this team.” This practice brings awareness to the automatic processes in our brain and body, and by bringing attention to these processes, helps us emotionally regulate and position ourselves to make a different, healthy choice. (And again, I’m indebted to Terry Hargrave’s restoration therapy model for developing this process).

Rising above the tide

I have spent a majority of my life struggling with anxiety, and it is through these key approaches that I, and those who I counsel daily, have found freedom.

It’s not that I am no longer anxious, but rather I now see anxiety as a voice within that helps give me direction when I experience anxiety. Is this anxiety here to crush me? Should I avoid it? Or can it be a tool for growth? Is there something I need to pay attention to in my current patterns? Could this anxiety act as a helpful guide to me? For example, the anxiety may simply be an indicator of fear that is keeping a student from trying out for a part in the school play. Or perhaps it is keeping a student from making new friends in school. This is where anxiety might be saying, “We need to work through these fears in order to live in freedom.”

Sometimes we do sense that anxiety requires more than the practices described in this toolkit. For example, if you encounter a young person whose anxiety is so overwhelming that you fear it may endanger their life or the lives of others. Or perhaps the adolescent’s anxiety is impeding their ability to set healthy boundaries or make wise choices. This is where anxiety may be saying that it’s time to see a therapist, to see a psychiatrist about medication, or to look for inpatient options to help treat anxiety’s debilitating effects.

Kierkegaard declared that “anxiety is our best teacher.” And it has been through the loving care of those responders in my life—a thoughtful college chaplain, two insightful therapists, a helpful mentor, a loving wife, and a faithful God—that I have been able to see anxiety as a teacher in my life, and to use it as an agent of transformation.

I believe you too can be that caregiver who helps a young person transform their anxiety for good. You can be the guide who helps an adolescent best understand the role of anxiety in their lives, and discern what to do with it. Then instead of being overcome by the drowning waves of anxiety, teenagers in our lives can see the tide when it’s rising and step to higher ground.