Most people that I talk to find me exceptionally strange for this, but my favorite group of students to teach are middle schoolers. Something about their energy and life, coupled with their curious minds, fascinates me. This is the age when kids start to really own their personhood, allowing their personality to shine through. Yet, they are still willing to look up to those older than them for guidance and answers to life’s big questions.
All the fire, passion, hormonal shifting, and personality development during these years comes with it’s down-sides. More and more often, our society is finding that young people are in an all-out battle with anxiety and depression. Between academic pressures, social media comparisons, social standings, and compounding fears of world events, it’s no wonder that our middle-schoolers are hurting.
Just a few years ago, one of my students – 11 years old at the time – came into the classroom in obvious distress. I usually started my class with a check-in time, and thankfully, she was willing to share. It was a test. Not a big test, not a final, not a standardized test, not even a unit test. One small test. She was worried she would get less than an “A” on this test. When I inquired as to why she felt such anxiety over it, she replied, “because if I don’t get good grades, I won’t get into college.”
My heart broke for this poor girl. I couldn’t help but think back to when I was 11 years old. I was still that kid playing in piles of dirt in the backyard. And, though I can now see how riddled my thoughts were with anxiety, I never had the kind of pressures this young person was facing. If I could be so paralyzed in fear, how much more could it be possible for this innocent soul?
The more I share my story of healing with people, the more I have parents asking me how to help their kids with their obvious streaks of worry, self-doubt, fear of failure, and all-out anxiety. Now that I am a parent with my own daughter, who seems to carry some of my “perfectionism” gene that often leads to anxiety, I’ve been considering how I would talk to my 11-year-old self to help her break out of the crippling fear.
If I could go back, what would I say?
- Your worth is far more valuable than you realize. There is nothing in this world that you could do or say to make you more valuable. You are already more precious than words can describe. Because God made you unique, you are a treasure. You don’t need to earn this value. It is already yours! No amount of praise from your parents or others could make you more worthy. No award, achievement or title could add to you. No circumstance now, in the past, or in the future can change how precious you are.
- Your feelings are horrible guides. It may seem like all those emotions building up in you are your best life-directors right now, but they simply are not. Emotions and feelings change. Your heart can be so fickle. Even the weather can make you feel up or down, depending on how much sun is out that day. So, don’t let those feelings lead you. Running your life on feelings is like trying to run your cell phone on water, it might make some sparks, but it will destroy it in the end.
- Failures lead to the best things, not the worst. I know it seems right now that every failure is a crushing defeat. But, with maturity, you will realize that failures can propel you into the best things. Failures can teach you, grow you, and push you to new and better paths. Sometimes, the best blessings come out of a perceived failure. Instead of letting failure overwhelm you, try to cherish the lessons you are learning through them, and look hopefully at all the ways you are succeeding.
- What others have done to you or said about you does not define you. People will hurt you. This truth will only become more pronounced as you continue living on this earth. Instead of spending all your mental energy on attempting to please everyone, accept that you will never be able to satisfy everyone perfectly. Instead of protecting yourself from getting hurt, accept that we are all broken people that fail. When people do hurt you know that, most often, their actions come from a place of hurt as well.
- Your thoughts will be the basis of your day. If there was one action that could help predict how your day will go, it’s your thinking. Yes, some days are better than others. However, the more you spend your time worrying and mulling over the negative, the worse your day will become. This isn’t to say you should suppress your feelings or pretend like everything is good. Instead, it means that if you can find ways to think positively and be thankful – even in the messy days – your perspective and your attitude will change, allowing your day to be brighter.
- The best response to anxiety is to know the Truth. What anxiety and depression don’t do well at all is tell the truth. These physical and mental states have a nasty habit of exaggerating half-truths or all-out lies. The best way to combat a lie is with truth. Truth is found in God’s word. Know this truth, inside and out. Remind yourself of it day after day. Put it up around your room and read it before you go to bed. And no, the goal is not to have the perfect Bible study, the most verses memorized, or many “good tasks” in order to earn points with God. The goal is to have a relationship with the One who made you and desires to take care of you. The best way to know someone is to listen to what they say – that includes what they say about you.
My dear, young friends. If you are reading this, I am sure it is because you’re facing overwhelming struggles. The current surprising events in our world is enough to bring anyone to their knees. How I wish I could take you out to my favorite coffee shop downtown, hold your hands and listen while you have a good cry. But since I can’t, let me say this to you. Hold on. It will get better. Your circumstances might not get better, or new challenges may come your way, but you will grow. You can get through this with God on your side. He can use what you are going through as a tool to give you maturity, perseverance and a closeness with Him like none other. In the meantime, reach out to the older, wiser people around you. There are many that would love to be the shoulder you lean on. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, counseling, or a good conversation about your challenges. Then listen with an open heart and stand strong.