I Doubt It

Allowing Space for Questions

Oct 03, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Photo by lauren rushing.

I (Brad) remember as a child in the ‘80s seeing vivid televised images of starving African kids. Grotesque, overwhelming images. 

I can actually recall sitting in my brother’s bedroom watching Ethiopian famine vaulted to a little television screen in central Kentucky, and feeling completely helpless to do anything about it. I also remember wondering why God didn’t just fix it. Why God didn’t pour out rain over Africa or make some kind of manna appear to end the famine. Why God couldn’t figure out how to make suffering stop.

Why, God?    

Those two words have punctuated the beginning of a faith crisis for more than a few believers through the ages. Especially when marked with big questions about the world or about personal circumstances for which easy answers simply don’t come.

Unfortunately, many of us have experienced periods of questioning that were met with silence, trite fix-it Bible quotations, or a well-meaning “Just have faith” from those around us. In short, our questions and doubts were pushed underground and either blocked out or left to grow like cancer until they overtook our faith.

Whether students in your ministry or kids in your home are disturbed by today’s wars and famines, or wondering about God’s goodness in the midst of fifth-period algebra, their questions and doubts are begging to be known.

The question before us is: Will we let them be known?

Doubt in the Research

Some of us may come from traditions or training that suggest that doubt is troubling or even sinful. But our Sticky Faith research findings show that doubt can help form our faith in stronger and perhaps more lasting ways. 1

1. Doubts happen

Seventy percent of the students in our study of youth group graduates reported that they had doubts in high school about what they believed about God and the Christian faith, and just as many felt like they wanted to talk with their youth leaders about their doubts. Yet less than half of those students actually talked with leaders. Likewise, less than half talked with their youth group peers about their doubts.

So if you do the math here (and at FYI we can’t resist), that means that seven of every ten students is struggling with doubts—but only one or two of those ten is likely to have had conversations about those doubts with anyone. In other words, a lot of kids are wrestling with tough questions alone and in silence.

When we asked our students in college to reflect back on the doubts they remembered having during high school, their responses tended to cluster around four central questions:

  1. Does God exist?
  2. Does God love me?
  3. Am I living the life God wants?
  4. Is Christianity true/the only way to God?

As we've shared these questions with leaders and parents across the country, one of the resounding responses has been that these are questions adults have, too. Perhaps when we're silent about our own faith questions, our kids don't know they can ask them out loud.  

2. Safety matters

Safety to express doubt seems to be connected with stronger faith. High school seniors who feel most free to express doubt and discuss their personal problems with adults show greater faith maturity in college. Further, among those who had doubts and did talk with leaders or peers about them, about half found these conversations helped them. This helpfulness was also linked to stronger faith.

It might be that simply creating safe spaces for young people to explore hard questions can deepen faith. 

3. Students’ view of God makes a difference

When young people feel safe to share doubts and struggles with peers and adults, they also feel more supported by God. Our study explored correlations between a scale measuring this concept of “God support”—the extent to which someone feels that God cares about their lives, feels close to God, and feels valued by God 2 —and a number of other factors. Safe environments for expressing doubts were positively correlated with God support in those analyses. Talking with adults about doubts is also linked to feeling supported by God. And feeling more supported by God is linked to stronger faith maturity as measured in other scales. So it seems as though there’s a connection between students’ perception of God, their perceived safety to express doubt, and their actual faith maturity.

4. Doubts aren’t necessarily the end of faith

Lest we be misunderstood, simply having doubts doesn’t transfer into more mature faith. 

For many students, struggling with faith can in fact lead to weakened faith, at least in the short term. One of the scales we incorporated in our third-year survey was the “Spiritual Struggles Scale.” 3 Students were asked to indicate the extent to which each item on a list of religious struggles (e.g., “Felt distant from God,” “Questioned my religious/spiritual beliefs,”) had described them in college. We found that the more frequent students’ experiences of struggling with belief, the less likely they were to show Sticky Faith. This left us to wonder whether these students received the support they needed in the midst of their struggle.  

On the other side of struggle, we asked students about various events and the extent to which they strengthened or weakened faith. 4  Interestingly, experiences of loneliness, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed seem to push students toward God. These feelings were reported as strengthening faith, and when we analyzed them alongside measures of faith, we found strong correlations.

The same was true of dialogue with other students. In fact, the stretching experiences most connected to Sticky Faith were interactions with other students; particularly with people of other faiths, and with students of other cultures/ethnicities. We often fear that the increased diversity of lifestyle and belief that many students encounter in college will weaken their faith; in our research, the opposite seems to be true.

Other research has found similar connections between college students’ faith and experiences. In fact, some studies have shown that faith can grow as we encounter the following sorts of significant struggles as well as engage with new people: 5

  1. Exposure to diverse ways of thinking, whether through other students, classes, or some other source.
  2. Multicultural exposure, through mission trips, living in another culture, befriending someone from another culture, or even reading about people from other cultures.
  3. Relationship, health, or emotional challenges like significant illness, conflict with parents, or other negative experiences.

In her classic study on crisis and faith, Margaret Hall discovered that those who showed the most spiritual depth after experiencing crises were those who had consciously reoriented their faith in order to overcome the crisis. In other words, they were attentive to the ways their faith must change so they could climb out of the pit of despair. 6

One student in our study described a similar experience:

Entering my sophomore year of college, I became very, I guess, disappointed with life. I had all these ideas about college and it wasn’t necessarily going how I wanted. I was feeling very far away from God and very dry spiritually, struggling to find a church and a church family where I could fit in at school. And as I went through that long struggle, basically spiritual darkness … when I came out of it I found God kind of waiting for me on the other side, and realized that he’d been with me through that struggle, through that time of question and doubt and searching.

Making Space for Doubt

Thankfully, we don’t need to leave young people doubting alone in our ministries or our homes. Below are some ideas for creating space in our relationships and programs with adolescents where their questions can be both heard and unpacked.

1. Creating Safe Zones

The perception that “good Christians don’t doubt” can easily (and sometimes unintentionally) be fostered in youth ministry. This understanding can be intensified by the letdowns that may follow retreat and camp highs and hype, haunting students who wake up the next week and don’t “feel God” as viscerally as before.

Our responsibility to the kids in our care includes creating safe places for questions that emerge along the faith journey. In the family, small group settings, mentoring relationships, and in the context of the broader youth ministry, how are doubts and struggles being voiced, and how are they being received?

One ministry we know is working to create space for struggles and doubts to be safely heard. They now close each session of their fifth-and-sixth-grade group with 56 seconds of silence where kids can write down any question on a note card. The hope is to make asking questions a normal part of faith development starting in early adolescence, even if those questions don’t all get answered right away.

Another church from one of our Sticky Faith Cohorts is working hard to create space for doubt in the midst of its Confirmation program. At the conclusion of the six-month process, most students write a statement of faith. Last year one student felt safe enough to write a “Statement of Doubt” instead. This allowed her to share openly with the community that her own journey of faith wasn’t yet at the place of trusting Christ. Several months later, she came to the point where she had wrestled through her doubts and decided to be baptized as an expression of her newfound trust. Alongside her were several adults who had supported her, prayed for her, and walked with her through her valley of doubt to the other side of faith.

2. Learning to Lament

While scripture doesn’t always give us answers to all our questions, the Bible does have a surprising place where doubts and struggles are freely expressed: the book of Psalms. While we tend to think of the psalms as a book of praises, the writers of the Hebrew songs and prayers that became their worship book were not afraid to ask God to show up in the midst of ugly situations. Out of the 150 psalms, over one-third are considered laments. 7

A lament can be defined simply as a cry out to God. It’s both an act of grief and of asking for help. In fact, lament is usually something we do in the dark places—often the darkest points of our life journeys. For example, Psalm 88 ends with the phrase, “darkness is my closest friend” (v. 18). 

One of the most frequently-asked questions in scripture is “How long, oh Lord?” It’s an important question because it calls God to do something to end our pain or the pain of others. Laments like this don’t answer all of our questions, but lamenting can be a helpful part of strengthening our faith by reminding us that answers aren’t everything. As the psalmists proclaim over and over, the unfailing love of God isn’t wiped out by anything: not our crises, not our doubts, and not even our sins. 

By weaving lament into our corporate worship and prayer life, we open up the possibility that kids might feel freer to share their own hard questions, and maybe even write or sing their own psalms of lament.

3. Preparing Seniors for Doubt and Dialogue

During our research, one youth pastor from Tennessee shared with us: “Every year in the fall I get phone calls—usually in the middle of the night—from students after they get a campus ministry visit where they’re asked if they ever doubt. If they say yes, they’re told they don’t have enough faith. They call me back confused, asking, ‘Is it okay to doubt or not?’”

Some students will leave our ministries or homes and face new questions and doubts in college that they haven’t wondered about before. Giving them a healthy heads-up about this before they leave home can help doubt become a building block for new, deeper faith.  

Alongside new doubts in college is often new dialogue. Students need to understand the basics of Christian faith in order to discuss their faith with others, and training in core beliefs (sometimes called apologetics) can be helpful. However, learning to argue about faith may not be the most helpful approach. Reflecting on her teenage years, author Alisa Harris writes about her own experience of being trained to give these kinds of responses: “I was taught that faith was so simple and easily grasped that I could argue someone into it, which ended up shaking my faith when I found that belief wasn't simple, and argumentation and evidence could only take me so far.” 8  As we prepare seniors for talking about faith after high school, we will do well to avoid oversimplifying belief into neat tenets that resolve every question with a proof-text answer. 9

In response to youth workers' requests and in partnership with youth pastor Jim Candy, we've recently released a curriculum for high school students called Can I Ask That? The small group discussion format is designed as a tool to help you engage dialogue around some of these tough questions while students are still with you in high school ministry (or it could be used by parents as well). Learn more.

Falling in the Light

One of the things we do in my (Brad’s) church is regularly remind ourselves to live out our core values. In affirming authenticity as one of those values, we state that as we struggle and stumble through our faith journeys, “…we encourage one another to ‘fall in the light’—to readily admit our mistakes, not to hide or try to cover them up.” 

Falling in the light. I like that image not only for thinking about mistakes, but also about our fall into questions and doubt. When students around us fall into seasons of uncertainty, let’s help them fall in the light of Christ and Christ’s people, ready to catch and hold them through doubt and back into faith.

Action Points

  • How do you tend to respond when a student asks a hard question about God? What do you think your first response does to open up space for more questioning or shut that space down?
  • Share this article with others in your ministry or with other parents. Then get together and share ideas for how you can collectively make it safe for kids to express their doubts and struggles.
  • Gather a group of students and ask them for their perception of whether it’s okay to share faith struggles in your ministry (or do this with your kids at home). Ask for their input on ways you can create a more supportive environment as well as actively seek answers to the questions that arise.


This article originally published in Fall 2011 on Adapted and updated March 2014.

  1. Portions of this article are adapted from Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford, Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). Also see for more details about the research, spanning six years and including nearly 500 students from across the U.S.
  2. W.E Fiala, J.P. Bjorck, & R. Gorsuch, “The Religious Support Scale: Construction, validation, and cross-validation,” American Journal of Community Psychology (2002: 30, 761-786).
  3. Adapted with permission from Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives. SanFrancisco: Jossey- Bass, in press. And Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S. , & Lindholm, J. A. “Assessing students’ spiritual and religious qualities.” Journal of College Student Development, in press.
  4. Adapted from the HERI 2007 College Students’ Beliefs and Values Follow-Up Survey, UCLA.
  5. For example, see Gay Holcomb and Arthur Nonneman, “Faithful Change: Exploring and assessing faith development in Christian liberal arts undergraduates,” in Dalton et al (eds), Assessing Character Outcomes in College (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, New Directions for Institutional Research No. 122, 93-103).
  6. Margaret Hall, “Crisis as Opportunity for Spiritual Growth,” Journal of Religion and Health (Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring 1986, 8-17).
  7. For a very helpful introduction to psalms of lament, see Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A theological commentary, (Augsburg Old Testament Studies; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).
  8. Alisa Harris, Raised Right: How A Young Culture Warrior Went from Belligerence to Burn-Out to Love, excerpted in YouthWorker Journal,
  9. Interestingly, Christian education doesn’t inoculate students from doubt either. In an opposite twist, one study of nearly 3,500 college students found that students at private Christian colleges were actually more likely to struggle spiritually than students at public universities or non-religious private schools. Alyssa N. Bryant and Helen S. Astin, “The Correlates of Spiritual Struggle During the College Years,” The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 79, No. 1 (January 2008).

The Jacket

2.5-Minute Video for Students

Sep 19, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Research suggests that around 45% of students from high school youth ministries toss their faith aside when they get to college.  At the Fuller Youth Institute we’ve begun to describe this kind of faith like a jacket: it’s easy to take on or off given the situation, as opposed to a faith that becomes integrated into every part of a student’s life.  And far too often for college students, once faith is tossed on the floor, it quickly gets shoved aside amid the competing priorities of college.

As you share this video with high school students, consider using the following questions to foster a discussion about faith and the transition to college (note: this could also be a great tool to use with college students to invite them to reflect on their own experiences, or with parents of high school students or other youth leaders as a window into the importance of faith integration). 

Questions for Discussion

  • What is your first response after watching this? What feelings or thoughts did it stir up?
  • If the jacket represents this student’s faith in Christ, how would you describe that faith?  What tends to happen to faith that can be taken on or off like a jacket? Why do you think that is?
  • What happened to the students’ friends as the video went on? How could isolation from supportive community be part of the problem for students who are tempted to toss faith aside?
  • One way people have described this kind of understanding of faith is that it’s mostly about behaviors—things we do or don’t do to act like a Christian.  What would you say in response to that? How is that different from saying God’s grace through Jesus Christ is at the core of faith? (Check out Ephesians 2:1-10 for Paul’s response to this).
  • What do you think a college student—or high school student—can do to keep their faith from becoming like a jacket? What would you say to people like the guy in the video who feel like they’ve blown it in some way and tossed their faith aside?



40+ Ways to Build Sticky Faith in Your Grandkids

Tips for Senior Adults

Sep 19, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

When I think of the movie Up, balloons come to mind.

I also think of that powerful two minute montage about dating, marriage, and the loss of a spouse in old age (pass a tissue please).

But on a deeper level, I think about the bond between young Russell and Mr. Fredrickson, a senior adult.  A bond which started shallow, but grew to have deep roots. 

One of the interesting themes in our Sticky Faith research and conversations has been grandparents.  As we have spoken at churches, met with families, and talked with leaders, we are struck by:

  • Grandparents’ deep care for their grandkids.
  • Grandparents’ desperate desire to build Sticky Faith in their grandkids, and how complicated this is if their kids have drifted from God.
  • The special tenderness between teenagers and senior adults.
  • The ways senior adults can be wonderful surrogate grandparents to teenagers. 

We decided to ask grandparents who are part of the Fuller community and walking this Sticky Faith journey to share their best ideas to build Sticky Faith in their grandkids.  Whether you and the grandparents you know live close or far away, hopefully these ideas will spur you to think about the powerful difference that senior adults can make in kids.  Like the relationship that developed between Russell and Mr. Fredrickson, any older adult can serve as a grandparent-figure in a kid’s life. So consider sharing these ideas broadly with senior adults you know.

On a personal note, I don’t remember the last writing assignment that has brought me to tears as many times as this article has.  Maybe it’s because my own grandparents were part of the village that raised me.  Perhaps it’s because Dave and I feel so blessed by the way our parents are investing in our three kids’ lives.  Or maybe it’s just because I have a soft spot for connecting kids and senior adults. 

Whatever the reason, we hope these ideas are a catalyst to help you live out the wise words of one grandfather we interviewed:  “The bottom line is TIME—our grandkids just want to spend time with us.”


Take a few hours to teach your grandchildren about being “mindful”.  As you eat together, talk about where the food comes from and who was involved with growing and transporting the items.  Take a walk in your neighborhood together, making an effort to be mindful of what you see, hear, and smell.  As you are struck by something beautiful, thank God for it.

Start a summer book club with your grandkids.  Have them keep a list of books that they’ve read (or that someone has read to them) and after they reach a certain goal, reward them with a small prize, activity, or special outing.  Or perhaps you and your grandchild agree to read the same book on your own, then get together to discuss it over a treat.

Invite your grandchildren for individual “sleepovers” at your house.  While they are over, do some of their favorite activities together. 

Pray with your grandkids.  As you pray, thank God for the special qualities he has given them. 

Create a drama of a Bible story with your grandkids.

Have a talent show together.  Adults and children can participate. No act is too small!

Teach your grandchild a new skill or one of your favorite hobbies, e.g. fishing, skiing, bicycling, jewelry making.

Let your grandchild teach you a new skill or share a hobby with you.

Take your grandchildren to a live butterfly exhibit and talk about the wonder of God’s creation, the life cycle of the butterfly, and if possible, let them see one emerge from a chrysalis.

Purchase or create a craft or science project that you can do with your grandchild.

Enter a race and run/swim/ride or walk it with your grandchild.

Talk with your grandchild about a family tradition that you enjoyed with your own grandparents and/or parents, and have passed along to your children. Then continue that tradition with your grandchild.  Examples could include seeing fireworks together or going to a parade, having campfires and roasting marshmallows on the beach, seeing the Nutcracker ballet or making tamales during the Christmas season, or riding bikes to a favorite ice cream place. 

Bring out photo albums and talk about when your grandchild was born, how you prayed for them even before they were born, how excited you were to first hold him or her, and how blessed you feel that they are now part of your family.

Serve together at a local ministry.

Feed folks who are homeless together.

Play games with your grandchildren.

Teach them to sing and enjoy singing with them.  In the car, play a singing game by having each person take a turn humming a tune of a song you all know. The one who guesses gets to hum the next song.

Plant a plant or tree with your grandchild.  Commemorate occasions (whether they be celebrations or challenging times) by planting special trees or plants.  Seeing those plants together in the future gives you a chance to share about God’s presence in the “highs” and “lows” of life.

Watch value-laden films together, ranging from Veggie Tales for younger children to movies geared for adolescents or young adults. Take time afterward to talk about them together.

Cook with your grandchildren.  Play loud music and sing and cook (and sometimes dance) together.

Build something with your grandchildren. 

Share times when you have blown it, or disobeyed what you sensed God was telling you to do.  Let them know how glad you are that Jesus is bigger than any mistakes. 


Choose a book series to read with your grandchildren.  Read to them using Skype, or as they get older and the books get longer, read them individually and then discuss the highlights of the book by phone. 

Write letters to your grandkids, telling them how much you love them, what you specifically love about them, and the gifts you see in them.  Tell them how thankful you are that God has made them so special (Psalm 139).

Have breakfast together once a week using Skype or FaceTime.

Start a collection of something with your grandchild, e.g. dolls from other countries, interesting stones, coins, colored glass, etc. and continue adding to the collection when you travel or when you are together.

Text them on an ordinary day and let them know you’re thinking about them.

Pray for your grandkids, and let them know the specific things you are asking God to do or show them.

Send packages! Especially at holidays and birthdays when you are apart, packages with even small inexpensive gifts or treats are really memorable to kids.  If they move away from home for college, be sure to send an occasional package to school with homemade cookies or a gift card to a coffee shop.

Call or send a letter when kids have special events or milestones at school or church.  For instance, while you may not be present for a baptism, calling your grandchild on that special day is still very memorable.  The same can be true of soccer tournaments, school plays, or after a church retreat weekend.

If financially possible, offer to pay for your grandchild to travel to stay with you for a long weekend or more, without siblings or parents.  See the below list for more ideas about what to do together during these times.


If possible plan a vacation for a weekend or more to all be together.

On extended family vacations, try to have morning or evening devotions that include questions that all family members can answer.  This way the children hear their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins share on a deeper level. 

Every morning on vacation, choose a particular fruit of the spirit to emphasize that day.  Share together at the end of the day how you saw other family members live out that fruit of the spirit. 

At the age of 12 or 13, take your grandson/granddaughter on a weekend away with the other significant males/females (of the same gender as your grandchild) in your family, e.g. dad, uncles, grandfather/mom, aunts, grandmother. Have a planned activity that you’ll do together (skiing, hiking, going to a Broadway show, camping, etc.). Include time to discuss what it means to be a Christian man/woman.  Give him/her something lasting that will remind him/her of things learned over the weekend and commitments that are made.

Have “Camp Grandparents” with your grandkids either at your house or another destination.  Do things together that they’d do at camp—crafts, sports, singing, cooking, treasure hunts, etc. This could last one day or several days. Or find a camp that hosts weeks for grandparents and grandkids to come together, letting the camp plan the programming and details.

Go on a mission trip with your grandchild, either locally or abroad.  Consider making this a rite of passage experience at a certain age with each grandchild.

If possible, pay for your grandchild to attend a church camp and have them share about it with you afterward. 


Spend time when you’re together as a family sharing how God has blessed you over the past year and include the grandkids.  Christmas morning after you open gifts is a great window to talk about blessings.

At Christmas time play Secret Santa.  At Thanksgiving everyone in the family who will share Christmas draws a name.  One gift is bought for that person and at the end of the Christmas gift sharing, each person has to guess who the gift is from.

On Christmas Eve, spend a few minutes sharing with each of your grandchildren what you hope for them during this next year.  Share some of your spiritual dreams for this next year, as well as ways you already see God at work in and through them.

At birthdays, have everyone gathered share what they really like (such as a characteristic or personality trait) about the birthday person.  Consider also having each person share something they have done with the birthday person in the last year that was special. 

Serve together at a shelter, food pantry, or gift drive during the Thanksgiving-Christmas season.  Make this part of your family holiday traditions.

For the holidays and birthdays you spend apart from your grandchildren, intentionally take time to pray for them and their families, and let them know you spent part of your holiday doing so. 

Action Points:

  1. If you’re a grandparent, which of these ideas inspires you in your own relationship with your grandkids?  If you’re a parent, which of these ideas might fit your extended family?
  1. If you’re a youth leader, how can you facilitate relationships between teenagers and the senior adults in your church?  Which senior adults could you meet with in the next few months to start brainstorming?
  1. If you’re a senior adult who doesn’t have grandkids, or whose grandkids live far away, which of these ideas could you implement with kids in your church or neighborhood as a grandparent-figure in their lives?

Sticky Faith Deployed

Helping Students Prepare Faith for Military Service

Sep 05, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Photo by Kelly West Mars.

Each year, parents and youth workers alike send off high school graduates to serve in the military. While much of our research at FYI has been focused on Sticky Faith in college and beyond, we have been well aware of the need to explore how faith can be nurtured for graduates who head off to service in one of the armed forces.

FYI Advisory Council member Mark Maines serves as a U.S. Naval Chaplain, currently assigned to the United States Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan.  We recently asked Mark to help us understand some of the unique issues facing military personnel and their families and how we can both prepare and support those who leave our homes and ministries with faith that sticks.

How would you describe the current spiritual landscape of military personnel, as you have experienced it?

I can only speak for what I have encountered here in Okinawa, and Okinawa is a bit unusual.  For instance, many of the Marines and Sailors I work with are here on their first tour straight out of boot camp. Immediately, many young men and women find themselves away from home, having to adjust to the military lifestyle, their new assignment, and a foreign culture.  This is often a hard adjustment.

There are many parallels between this adjustment and the transition one makes into a college setting.  It’s a time of great autonomy, it’s a time to explore values and behaviors, and it’s a time to be away from home.  At first glance, the Marine Corps can appear to be a fairly “godless” environment.  However, I have encountered numerous young Marines who are involved in Bible studies, committed to their faith, and committed to modeling a righteous kind of life while in the Corps. 

What does “Sticky Faith” look like for a new military member?  What are some of the common features you have seen among those whose faith seems to survive the transition well?

Connecting to a faith community is monumental in helping faith “stick” in this environment.  Marines are, well…Marines.  They are warriors.  They pride themselves on being the “first to fight” and they are the best in the world at it.  Generally speaking, Marines don’t do well “in garrison.”  They are trained to be at war, and so when Marines are in a location either waiting to be deployed, or waiting for war to occur, sometimes things can get a little out of hand.  This is what makes connecting to a community (even just 2-3) of like-minded people so important.  The service members whose faith seems to be thriving are also the individuals who have connected with other service members who are taking their faith seriously. 

I am reminded of the passage in Ecclesiastes 4, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

The Marine Corps understands “strength in numbers” as solid war-fighting doctrine; however, it is also spiritual wisdom when it comes to helping faith stick.

What else have you seen that helps faith stick for high school graduates entering the military? 

The presence of a mentor also makes a remarkable difference in service members’ lives.  In the particular regiment I serve, which supports about 1,300 Marines, there is a strong mentorship program that covers everything from core values, physical fitness, financial wellbeing, to marital wholeness and spiritual vitality.  A secondary effect of this mentoring effort is that it lowers negative behaviors across the regiment.  Simply stated, fewer Marines do fewer bad things when leadership engages a strong mentoring program.

What are some of the most common struggles you see among young service members? How do you see these struggles affecting their faith?

The military reflects society as a whole.  So any struggle that exists on the outside certainly exists on the inside.  Alcohol abuse, drug use, and sexual abuse 1 are all everyday issues.  It’s no secret that the military can be a harsh environment, and for many it is. 

Perhaps the most serious struggle currently facing service members is the tension between taking life and valuing their own.  According to a recent study conducted by the Center for Naval Analysis, “In the past 3 years, the Marine Corps, like the other Services, has experienced a rise in the number and rate of suicides. In 2008, the Marine Corps had its highest suicide rate since 1995—a total of 41 active-duty Marines (a rate of 19.5 in 100,000). In 2009, the number and rate were even higher: 52 active-duty Marines committed suicide (a rate of 24.9 in 100,000). 2

This is the highest suicide rate since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Although Marine Corps leadership is taking proactive action and focusing on the importance of leadership at all levels of the organization in addressing this issue, we still have yet to determine how to best reach out to Marines and Sailors who are thinking about harming themselves or what resources they really need after returning from a combat tour. 

For families with parents currently serving in the military who have teenagers in the home, what are some of the particular issues they need to be aware of related to their kids’ social and spiritual development?

Military families are not immune to the stresses of deployment. There is a growing body of research on the impact of prolonged deployment and trauma-related stress on military families, particularly spouses and children. 3   A recent White House publication reported that there are “approximately 700,000 military spouses and an additional 400,000 spouses of Reserve members. More than 700,000 children have experienced one or more parental deployment.  Currently, about 220,000 children have a parent deployed” 4     (italics mine). The cumulative impact of multiple deployments is associated with more emotional difficulties among military children and more mental health diagnoses among spouses.  A 2010 study reports an 11 percent increase in outpatient visits for behavioral health issues among a group of 3- to 8-year-old children of military parents and an increase of 18 percent in behavioral disorders and 19 percent in stress disorders when a parent was deployed. 5

We all need to recognize that these families and kids are under additional and unique stressors.  In addition to asking the normative developmental questions like, “Do I matter?  Where do I belong? Am I socially and relationally safe?” adolescents in the military are also asking “Is my parent safe?  When will I see them again?  What will they be like once they return?  These kinds of questions inevitably alter their social and spiritual development, and we need to become especially mindful of how to respond to them as they navigate this delicate terrain. 

How would you advise youth workers and parents whose kids are heading into military service? What can they do beforehand to help prepare them for what they might face spiritually? Similarly, what can we do during their service to support and encourage their faith journeys?

I would suggest both parties think through how they will stay connected, to have an intentional plan of correspondence and communication.  I would also suggest that the stateside community own the responsibility of staying connected.  In my opinion, it is more difficult for a service member to get in touch with you than it is for you to get in touch with them.  So own the task, and make it a priority.  It means the world to us when we receive an unexpected phone call, piece of mail, or message on Facebook.

In the same way our country commissions these young men and women for service to our nation, commission these young people as missionaries in the Kingdom of God.  For this is their highest calling and their most important mission.  Before they leave, determine the appropriate “sending out” ceremony where the service member is surrounded by the community and prayed over.

I would also encourage the service member or the family to get in touch with the nearest chaplain.  Once you receive orders, get in touch with the chaplain, and find out what services the Chapel offers or what kinds of churches exist in the area.  Chaplains are here to serve and they are a resource in getting you connected to a community of faith.

I also think an individual has to be very realistic about what it is they are going to go see and do.  Do not be afraid to discuss the hard questions of military life and service: How will you deal with authority? How will you handle your sexuality?  How will you process your loneliness and isolation in healthy ways?  If you are asked to kill for our country, how do you think that will affect you?  How will you process the potential death of your friends?  Who will you lean on for support and encouragement?  Having these kinds of conversations on the front-side of service can make a big difference.

When a service member returns home, what are some of the key issues to be aware of in ministry to them as parents or youth workers?

Depending on where this person was deployed, we have to acknowledge that the person now standing in front of us is not the same individual who left home.  Military service changes you.  Deployments change you.  War inevitably changes you.  However, we often do not know how or to what extent.  We need to create the kind of relational space where service members are allowed to be who they have become. 

I love what Henri Nouwen says: “Hospitality … means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” 6   We need to be willing to hear these young people’s stories.  We need to engage, to inquire, to listen without judgment, and to welcome them back to a truly “hospitable” home.  We may be proud of their service, but I think it is more important to truly understand how they served.  Returning service members need to tell their story, and we need to hear the stories they tell. 

There seems to be a lot of tenderness in the country toward troops, which is present in many churches. How would you love to see that tenderness put into tangible action in support of those troops?

If you have young men and women leaving your church to enter into military service, I would suggest developing some form of ministry to these individuals.  It can be as simple as appointing one person to track their lives and to stay in touch with them.  Do something to help re-connect them to your community, to communicate that you and the church haven’t forgotten about them, and that you are grateful for the sacrifices they make.  A few tangible suggestions might be:

Develop a theology that goes beyond patriotism. 

With the fairly recent announcement of Osama Ben Laden’s death, and with President Obama’s commitment to troop withdrawal, we now have the opportunity to revisit why we are “tender” towards our service members.  These monumental events also provide the opportunity to re-examine our theology of justice, war, loving our enemies, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the role of military power in global affairs.  I think it would help the Church if we looked to these recent current events as opportunities to go back and revisit both the scriptures and our previously-held assumptions. 

Support ministries that reach out to service members:

Perhaps you would consider how you might partner with one of these two organizations:

The Navigators were founded when Dawson Trautman shared his faith with a young Sailor in a US Navy shipyard.  To this day the Navigators train missionaries whose primary purpose is to disciple service members.  However, there are far too few of them. 

Cadence International is one of the few youth ministry organizations that possess contracts with the Department of Defense, allowing them to do youth ministry on military bases.  Here in Okinawa, there are 6 youth workers for approximately 35,000 military members and their families.

Utilize the USO

The USO does a lot more than just host celebrity concerts.  They will deliver messages.  They provide care packages to deploying service members.  Here in Okinawa, they will even deliver a large birthday cake to a specific service member for $25.  In return, you will get a picture of that service member with the cake…candles lit!

Send Mail:

Living overseas for almost a year now, I now have a new found appreciation for good “old-fashioned” mail.  As strange as it sounds, checking my mailbox everyday helps me feel normal.  For several short minutes I forget I am in the military.  I forget what the day held, and I long to hear from people I know.  Most times the mailbox is empty, which immediately reminds me how far from home I really am.  I would imagine I am not the only one who feels this way.  If some of your former students are now serving in the military, please take the time to write them.  Send them anything.  The simple gesture will remind them that you have not forgotten about them. 

Throw a Party for Returning Service Members

Perhaps you have seen a family member waiting in the airport lobby with balloons and flowers and a big sign that reads, “Welcome Home.”  Even if I am just passing by in the terminal, these kinds of reunions always warm my heart.  Is it possible for you to meet a returning service member at the airport terminal with cheers and hugs?  If being at the airport doesn’t work, perhaps plan a “Welcome Home” BBQ/Dinner at the church or at minimum, recognize the return of their presence with you in an upcoming worship service.

Consider becoming an Army, Air Force or Navy Chaplain:

Each branch of the Armed Forces is varied and unique in its approach to chaplaincy.  However, what all chaplains have in common is a strong desire to be present for their people and to do it in an exceptionally dynamic environment.  To learn more specifically about becoming a Naval Chaplain, see the US Navy Chaplain Corps site. 

  1. According to the report by David J. Strauss and Jennifer L. Purdon, Sexual Assault Prevention, Risk Mitigation, and Response: Applying Best Practices from the Civilian Population to the Marine Corps, 2009.
  2. Annemarie Randazzo-Matsel and David Strauss, Suicide and Suicide Prevention Literature Review and Applications to the Marine Corps. Lesser P, Peterson K, Reeves J, et al. “The long war and parental combat deployment: effects on military children and at-home spouses,” Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2010; 49(4):310-320),  and Mansfield, AJ, Kaufman, JS, Marshall, SW et al. “Deployment and the use of mental health services among U.S. Army wives,” New England Journal of Medicine (2010; 362:101-9).
  3. Flake EM, Davis BE, Johnson PL, Middleton LS. “The psychosocial effects of deployment on military children,” Journal of Developmental Behavior Pediatrics (2009; 30:271-278).
  4. “Strengthening Our Military Families:  Meeting America’s Commitment.”  White House Publication, January, 2011.
  5. Gregory H. Gorman, Matilda Eide, and Elizabeth Hisle-Gorman.  “Wartime Military Deployment and Increased Pediatric Mental and Behavioral Health Complaints Pediatrics,” Pediatrics, (2009; 2856 v1).
  6. Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1986), 71.

What Makes Faith Stick During College?

Research Release

Sep 05, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Findings from Sticky Faith research provide surprising insights into instilling lasting faith in young people.


Pasadena, California, Sept. 6, 2011—Parents and church youth leaders often see big changes in youth group graduates as they transition to college, but one change that can catch them off guard is a vastly diminished commitment to faith. To give parents, leaders, and churches the practical tools needed to instill long-term faith in young people, the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Seminary has just completed six years of what they call Sticky Faith research through the College Transition Project.

For many Christian church youth group graduates, the transition to college is rocky at best in terms of faith retention. Previous studies indicate that 40 percent to 50 percent of all youth group graduates fail to stick with their faith or connect with a faith community after high school.*

To unearth why that is and what can be done to help students develop a faith that doesn’t just survive but thrives over the long haul, FYI paired interviews of youth group graduates with a longitudinal study of approximately 500 youth group graduates during their first three years in college. Based on this research, FYI has unveiled three surprising and counterintuitive findings with enormous ramifications for the long-term faith development of teenagers and young adults in the United States:

1. While churches across the U.S. have tended to allocate financial and personnel resources toward building strong and dynamic youth groups, teenagers also need to rub shoulders and build relationships with adults of all ages.

Churches and families commonly assume that involving teenagers in various youth group and peer activities is the key to vibrant spirituality. Testing this premise, FYI assessed the relationship between teenagers’ faith maturity and their participation in a number of church and youth group activities, including small groups, short-term missions, and Sunday School. Contrary to what is widely assumed, more than any other participation variable measured in the Sticky Faith study, students’ participation in all-church worship during high school was consistently linked with developing a mature faith in both high school and college. 

Rather than only attending their own Sunday School classes, worship services, small groups, and service activities, young people appear to benefit from intergenerational activities and venues that remove the walls (whether literal or metaphorical) separating the generations. Churches and families wanting to instill deep faith in youth should help them build a web of relationships with committed and caring adults, some of whom may serve as intentional mentors.

2. Churches and families think youth group graduates are ready for the struggles ahead, despite the students themselves feeling unprepared and challenged by everything from loneliness to difficulty finding a new church.

Only one in seven high school seniors report feeling prepared to face the challenges of college life. Few students seem ready for the intensity of the college experience and the perfect storm of loneliness, the search for new friends, being completely on their own for the first time, and the sudden availability of a lot of partying. One pervasive struggle for college students is finding a new church, as evident by the 40 percent of college freshman who report difficulty doing so.  Young believers’ need for greater preparation is heightened by the powerful influence of their initial post-high school decisions. Young people retrospectively report that the first two weeks of their college freshman year set the trajectory for their remaining years in school. 

Given both the importance of those first days at college, as well as the widespread lack of preparation, parents and leaders should consider talking earlier and more frequently about college while students are still in high school. Comprehensive preparation should include helping new college students develop a plan for the first two weeks complete with church attendance, as well as an investigation of ministries and churches near the college setting that can offer a transitional lifeline.

3. While teaching young people the “dos” and “don’ts” of Christian living is important, an overemphasis on behaviors can sabotage their faith long-term. 

When asked what it means to be Christian, one-third of subjects as college juniors (all of whom were youth group graduates) failed to mention “Jesus” or “Christ” but rather emphasized behaviors. This and a few related findings suggest that students tend to view the gospel as a “do” and “don’t” list of behaviors instead of a faith that also transforms interior lives and beliefs. “Jesus Jacket” is the phrase the FYI team coined to describe how student respondents frequently view their faith. In other words, they hold the perception that faith hasn’t changed them internally but is more like a jacket they wear when they feel like practicing certain behaviors. One of the dangers of reducing Christianity to this sort of external behavior is that when college students fail to live up to the activities they think define Christianity, their feelings of guilt can make them quick to toss the jacket aside and abandon their faith altogether.

Parents and leaders eager to build Sticky Faith in youth need to exemplify and explain that while particular behaviors and practices are part of the faith, the focus is on trusting (not just obeying) Christ along with explaining how he leads, guides, and changes us from the inside. In particular, young people better navigate their faith journey when adults share the challenges of their own spiritual paths—complete with past and present ups, downs, and turning points.

Commentary on the Findings

Dr. Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, expressed both concern over the faith trajectories of youth group graduates as well as optimism about the potential of the research findings to transform youth, families, and churches. “As many churches and denominations experience decline, and as anxious parents wonder about their children’s futures, this Sticky Faith research has the power to spark a movement that not only changes youth, but also families and churches. Throughout the research, we’ve been sharing preliminary results and are impressed with the powerful changes families and churches have already been able to make by incorporating the findings,” Dr. Powell says.

Brand New Sticky Faith Resources

Expanded analyses of the groundbreaking Sticky Faith research and implications are fleshed out in two just-released books:  Sticky Faith by Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, and Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition by Kara E. Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford (both of which are published by Zondervan Publishing). A pipeline of additional information and resources is also available at the recently launched, or by following @stickyfaith on twitter.

More About the Research

Drs. Kara Powell and Chap Clark focused on two research projects: most recently the six-year-long College Transition Project, a series of groundbreaking studies conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute in collaboration with Dr. Cameron Lee, and the HURT Project.

The College Transition Project is comprised of four separate research initiatives: an initial quantitative pilot study involving 69 youth group graduates, two three-year longitudinal (primarily quantitative) studies of high school seniors during their first three years in college involving 162 and 227 students respectively, and additional qualitative interviews with 45 former youth group graduates currently in college. 

Thanks to a sizable research grant from the Lilly Endowment, central to the College Transition Project are two longitudinal studies of 384 youth group seniors during their first three years in college. The majority of the students surveyed took their first online questionnaire during the spring of their senior year in high school, and then one or two online questionnaires during their freshman, sophomore, and junior years in college. Each phase of data allowed researchers to peel away less significant layers of the transition and focus on what lay at the Sticky Faith core. The research was not designed to prove causation, rather to discover strong correlations between variables that might predict the relationships between those variables.

Students in the study represent a cross-section of Christian seniors transitioning to college. They come from different regions of the United States, having attended public, private, and Christian colleges and vocational schools. Fifty-nine percent are female and 40 percent are male. Of note, youth in the sample do tend to have higher high school grade point averages and are more likely to come from intact families than the typical student heading to college. The students in the study also tend to come from larger than average churches that employ full-time professional youth pastors.

The HURT Project is based on Dr. Clark’s qualitative research conducted from 2001 to 2010. It started with recording stories and coding observations collected during one year as a substitute teacher at a California public school campus with permission to be a “participant-observer.” It evolved to include ongoing observations, interviews, open-ended conversations, and deliberate focus groups with high school and college students across the US and Canada.

The Fuller Youth Institute ( is located in Pasadena, California and is part of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the world with more than 4,000 Master’s level and Doctoral students. The mission of the Fuller Youth Institute is to leverage research into resources that elevate leaders, youth, and families. To find out more about this and other research projects, as well as to sign up for a free FYI E-Journal, visit


Press Contact: Susan Arpin, Jane Rohman & Associates, 413-848-1407,


* Barna Update, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years.” The Barna Group, 2006, September 16, 2006; George H. Gallup, Jr., The Gallup Poll, 2006; and Christian Smith with Patricial Snell, Souls in Transition (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 105, 108, 109, and 116.


Out of the Nest

Tips for Successfully Launching Your Kids into College

Aug 14, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Photo by Sandi Gunnett.

In July I posted a question on Twitter and Facebook asking people what kinds of tips they had for parents sending their kids off to college for the first time.  So many great ideas were submitted that I began to wonder what it would look like if there were a contraption (almost like a wordle) that would allow me to input all of the ideas so that some of the themes would emerge in the process.  If that were possible, then these are some of the themes that you would see:

give space…

don’t be clingy…

let them fail…

clearly communicate expectations…

be both firm and loving…

don’t let them come home every weekend…

let your students handle their own problems and don’t call the school on your student’s behalf…

teach them financial responsibility…

don’t let them use credit cards…

send care packages…

let them wrestle with, process, and own their own faith…

the first holiday they come home—Thanksgiving—is a big deal…

oh, and by the way, be prepared to give lots of space and grace that Thanksgiving weekend…

most importantly, pray for them.

I was amazed at the wide variety of people who participated in giving input.  There were former college students, college admission counselors, college chaplains, college pastors, therapists and parents.  This was a great group of people to glean wisdom from.  I’ve also had the privilege of being involved in the lives of college students over the last 14 years in a variety of roles: college admission counselor, college pastor, and now therapist.  And in those roles I’ve also worked closely with the parents of these students. 

So I began to wonder myself: What kinds of advice would I give parents who are sending their kids off to college for the first time?

It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine why this is such an important topic.  I remember a scene from my first year of college 17 years ago so vividly, it’s almost as if it happened yesterday. 

On my first holiday home from college I walked in the front door of our family home at 5 a.m. and stood there wondering what my dad was doing sitting in the living room chair facing the front door.  What I found out in that moment is that my dad was sitting in that chair wondering what I was doing walking in the front door at 5 a.m.  You see, it was Christmas break and I had come home to stay after being away at college.  When I went out that night, I assumed I had no curfew since I didn’t have one at college.  Meanwhile, my dad assumed I still had a curfew just like when I had lived at home in high school.

This was a case of differing expectations between parent and student coupled with a lack of clear communication.  We were able to talk through those differing expectations that early morning before I went to bed, but it has always been a reminder of the tenuous nature of the parent-college student relationship during that first year.

Sending your kid off to college for the first time is both exciting and terrifying.  The transition from parenting a high school senior to parenting a college freshman is a unique one.  It’s an experience that is fraught with a wide array of first-time situations that can leave even the most seasoned parent with a fair amount of anxiety.

But as you read the below tips that I hope will be helpful in preparing you for the journey, keep two things in mind:

First, in reality, there are going to be some things that you have not prepared your incoming college freshman for.  That is just the nature of this transition, especially for parents navigating this stage of their kid’s life for the first time.  There will be some things that you did a great job talking with your kids about, and there will be some things that were neglected.  Don’t let your anxiety over what you didn’t talk to them about paralyze you for future conversations.

Second, you need to approach your kid’s transition into college as an opportunity for ongoing conversations that take place not only in college but throughout life.  This is not a one-time talk and then you’re done.  It’s never too late to create and take advantage of opportunities to talk with your kids as they too try to navigate this transition in their life.

Keeping these two things in my mind, there are at least four key areas that are important for parents to think through:

Key Area #1: Explore and Clarify Boundaries

A boundary simply lets someone know where they begin and end in relationship to another person.  As your kid ventures off to college for the first time, one of the key questions that they will be continually asking themselves is “What can I and can’t I do?”  They are out of the home seeking independence, yet more than likely they are very much dependent upon you for a variety of things (like emotional and financial support).

The college transition provides a good opportunity for parents to let their kids explore a variety of boundaries such as curfew, major/minor options, vocational choices, peer group, and traveling. Below are a few tips for navigating boundaries:

Tip: When you drop your kid off at college, don’t stick around.  Leave them so that they can begin the process of making connections with those students around them.  In fact, some colleges now have “parent bouncers” 1]] to force parents away from freshman orientation so that kids can be by themselves.

Tip: An observation that has been made in some college ministry circles is that both parents and college kids should monitor the frequency of visits home or to the college campus to visit one another. The question being raised is if a student is continually going home visiting parents/friends, or a parent is continually visiting the campus, can it inhibit a student from properly putting down roots and establishing healthy connections that will help them feel at home in college?

Tip: Clarify expectations about rules (i.e. curfew, chores) when your child is home for the weekend or holiday. 2   I recommend that parents have a conversation and mutually establish these expectations with their college kid prior to the first visit home.

Tip: By all means communicate with your kids via the phone, text messaging, and Facebook. But don’t let that communication become something that either of you become dependent upon.  College is a great place for your kid to begin the process of establishing healthy relationships with peers who can become a new support network. 3

Key Area #2: Encourage and Let Them Explore Their Own Faith

This is probably one of the toughest areas for Christian parents.  A parent who is able to self-soothe their own anxiety during this process provides a huge gift for their kid as they give them the freedom to explore their own faith and make their own choices.

It is crucial that an incoming freshman get connected to a church or campus ministry within the first month of school, otherwise they are unlikely to get involved until their junior or senior year, if at all. The FYI College Transition Project research found that decisions made about ministry involvement in the first two weeks set the trajectory for the next few years. The same was true of decisions about partying.  In my experience as a college pastor, college students who have healthy relationships and a faith that provides a strong sense of identity and hope show stronger signs of thriving and resilience during their college careers.

Tip: During high school, encourage your kid to check out college/church ministries when visiting college campuses.  Too many parents encourage their kids to only focus on areas like academics, Greek life, intramurals, social life and housing, while completely ignoring the spiritual aspect of this transition.

Tip: As students explore their faith, let them ask questions and express doubt without judgment.  Give your student the freedom to journey through their faith without the expectation that they have the answers to the questions that you want them to have. 

Tip: On occasion communicate to your kids (verbally and in written form) some of the unique gifts and strengths that God has given them.  Helping them identify and relate to some of these things can help them strengthen their connection with God.

Tip: Daily pray for your kid. Periodically ask your child how you can be praying for them.  This can be a powerful reminder to both of you that you are depending on God’s power—not your own or theirs—to sustain their faith across this transition.

Key Area #3: Finances, Budgets and Credit Cards

I was 18 years old when I first came across an American Express representative sitting at an information booth in our campus commons area.  I walked away with my first credit card that day, and began racking up the debt that would take me a long, long time to pay back. 

Even if you have been teaching your kid all along about being financially responsible, college life can often be very different as new temptations to spend money become more readily available.

Tip: Discuss and set clear expectations with your kid about what you (the parent) and they (the student) are responsible for paying.  Who is paying rent? Gas? Car insurance? Food? Entertainment? Clothes? Trips?

Tip: Have very frank and open discussions with your kids about the use of credit cards. 4   Do you want them to have a credit card?  What about just using a debit card?  Many students begin the process of piling up credit card debt in college that takes years to repay. Help them make wise choices early.

Tip: Be realistic as a family about what can be afforded in terms of college.  Sometimes going to the “best” school that costs $60,000 a year may not be the best option.  Explore other ideas like junior college, tech schools, or working during college to prevent incurring unmanageable amounts of student loan debt.

Tip: Help your student develop and implement a healthy working budget that will keep them financially accountable during college.

Key Area #4: Let Them Fail…and Succeed

At some point (multiple points actually) during your kid’s college career they are going to make mistakes and fail.  It will be these mistakes and failures that will provide rich opportunities for them to learn from and hopefully grow in the process. 

It is hard to watch your kid fail, but resist the urge to swoop in and rescue them in the process.

Tip: By all means, do not intervene on their behalf at school by calling a faculty member or school administrator about their grades or the trouble they may have gotten into.  And do not intervene in their social relationships, such as trying to problem-solve an argument between your son or daughter and their friends.

Tip: A bad grade or a failed class is not the end of the world.  Let it be an opportunity for them to suffer the consequences and take responsibility for it. Then talk together about what they may have learned for next time from the failure.

Tip: Remember that this is their life, not yours.  Therefore, give them the freedom to explore various academic and career options, even if that journey includes stumbling along the way.

College is a four-year (or maybe five- or six-year) journey that is going to be filled with plenty of ups and downs.  So it’s important that you remember that this is a process by which everyone (parents and kids) are being challenged, making mistakes, succeeding, celebrating…and hopefully all growing and being transformed in the process.

Action Points

  • Sit down with your college kid before he or she leaves for school and begin a conversation about evolving expectations especially in that first year.  For example, parents and kids can establish the amount of times they may connect on the phone or online during the week with one another.  Or you might talk about the first visit home for a student, or the first visit to the campus for the parents.  What kinds of expectations are there for that initial visit?
  • Offer your attendance and assistance to your kids during that initial parent weekend or move-in.  But let the kid determine how much or how little they want you to be involved, if at all, on those days.
  • Find some symbol or ritual to help you and your kids mark this transition into college.  For example, you could plan a family trip, write an encouraging letter/story to your kids talking about this transition, or could help celebrate the transition with a nice dinner or a large family barbecue.  Be creative!
  • Share this article with an adult friend who has already sent kids away to college, and ask them to meet with you over lunch to talk about what they learned along the way that might be helpful to you as you face this transition. Then ask them to pray for you through the coming months.

  1. “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.”  The Atlantic Magazine.  July/August 2011.
  2. University Parent.  Home for the Holidays: Surviving your College Student's Stay. July .25, 2011.
  3. I think a good book to start thinking through boundaries and expectations is Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book Boundaries.  It is a simple read that does a great job of helping the reader really understand what healthy boundaries may look like. Cloud, H. & Townsend, J. When To Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life.
  4. See The Secret Alliance: College and Credit Cards  10/20/2010. ] ]

Help for Stressed Out Families

Research Brief

Aug 10, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

When was the last day you experienced no stress?

Can you even remember one?

What about your kids?  When is the last day they experienced a stress-free day?

The answer might surprise you.  Your kids are probably more stressed than you might think, and here’s an even bigger wake-up call:  Part of that stress stems from your own stress.

After surveying over 2,000 U.S. adults and over 1,000 U.S. children ranging from 8 to 17 years old, the recently-released2010 Stress in America Report holds both bad news and good news for families.  First, the bad news: Our parental stress seeps into our kids.  But here’s the good news:  By making a few small changes in your family, your home can become a refuge from stress.

How is Parental Stress Affecting Kids?

According to the Stress in America study conducted by the American Psychological Association, no parent is an island.  Our own stress trickles, or in some cases, gushes, through our family.  Some of the most interesting (and may I say personally convicting) findings include: 1

  • One-third of children surveyed between ages 8-17 believe their parent has been “always” or “often” worried or stressed out about things during the past month.
  • Four in 10 children report feeling sad when their parent is stressed or worried.
  • One-third of children (34 percent) say they know their parent is worried or stressed out when they yell. Other signs of parental stress perceived by children are arguing with other people in the house, complaining or telling children about their problems and being too busy or not having enough time to spend with them.
  • Nearly a third of children surveyed between ages 8-17 reported that in the past month, they experienced physical health symptoms that are often associated with stress such as sleep problems, headaches, and an upset stomach.

As disconcerting as those findings are, something else bothers me more.  The study also found that parents are largely unaware of their kids’ stress levels.  According to the report, “One in five children worry a lot or a great deal about things in their lives but very few parents (8 percent) report that their child is experiencing a great deal of stress (8, 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10).”   2

All this stress often adds up to burnout.  According to other research, burned-out parents lead to burned-out kids.  Specifically, parents who feel burned out at work are more likely to have teenage kids who experience burnout at school.   3

How Do Kids Respond to Their Stress?

Whether the source of kids’ stress is their parents’ stress or another source, kids’ response to stress is somewhat Couch Potato-esque.  Both tweens (described in this study as kids ages 8-12) and teens (in this study, kids ages 13-17) tend to use sedentary behaviors to make themselves feel better when they are worried.

  • 36% of tweens and 66% of teens listen to music.
  • 56% of tweens and 41% of teens play video games.
  • 34% of tweens and 30% of teens watch TV.   2

Of course, there are worse ways to deal with stress, but given the rampant rates of obesity observed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (nearly one in five young people is obese), we need to offer our kids healthier stress-relieving tools. 5

How Can We Do a Better Job Helping our Kids with Their Stress?

In another good news/bad news dichotomy in this breaking research about stress, the good news is that the vast majority of tweens (86 percent) and teens (74 percent) surveyed said that they felt very or somewhat comfortable talking to their parents about the things that cause them stress.  Here’s the not-so-good news: Only half have talked to their parents about things they are worried or stressed about in the past month.   2  In other words, our kids are open to talking to us, but it’s not happening very often.

While we may or may not have control over the factors that contribute to our stress right now, we can change the ways we talk about stress in our homes. The following suggestions can help your family both discuss stress and become a refuge from it.

1. Explain what you are noticing in your kid. If your child seems distracted or distraught, or if they are withdrawing into media more than normal, let them know that you notice the change.  Try opening up a conversation with your kid by sharing something like, “I notice something seems to be on your mind.  Anything you want to talk about?”

2.    Ask questions. Sometimes a more direct approach is needed.  Without badgering your kid, ask them how it’s going with their friends, with their homework, and with their various activities.  Consider raising the question about stress directly by asking:  “If you were going to be stressed about something right now, what would it be?”

3.    Share your own experience with stress as a teenager. Think back to middle school and high school.  What caused you stress then?  How did you handle that stress?  If you tended to get stomach aches or headaches, and your child is experiencing the same, let them know that you can relate.

4.    Make feelings a regular part of your discussions. In our family, not a day goes by that I don’t ask one of my kids this question:  “How did that make you feel?”  Whether something exciting or distressing happens to my kids, I want them to learn to put words to all of their feelings, including stress and disappointment.

5.    Play the “What will happen next?” game. Often kids’ stress stems from a fear of the unknown, or projecting the worst case scenario.  To help kids realistically contemplate future consequences, try a great game that a friend of mine played with her kids as they were growing up called the “What will happen next?” game.  She gave various scenarios to her kids (whether real or hypothetical), often while they were driving from one hockey practice to the next, and asked them:  What will happen next?   By helping your child understand the logical consequences of their choices, you both give them more of a sense of control and help them identify wise choices ahead of time.

6.    See if the stressor can be removed. At times, we as parents can best aid our child by helping them remove the stressor.  If they are too busy, help them choose one activity to eliminate.  If their friends are toxic, help them identify a few other kids they might want to get to know.  Brainstorm with them what they can change to gain greater peace of mind and schedule.

7.    Get more support. For most of us, the more stressed we are, the less we connect with other people.  Yet one of the worst ways to tackle stress is to try to go it alone. Personally and as a family, tap into the power of community to support you during your high-stress times. Whether it’s scheduling a regular phone call or coffee meeting with a friend to be honest about life, or doing something fun together with another family, involve others in your pursuit of lowering your family stress.

Just yesterday I said to my husband, “I think about half of good parenting is having enough energy.”  I know I am my worst as a parent when I am stressed and tired.  So while beyond the scope of the research, perhaps one of the best ways you and I can help our kids is to reduce our own stress.

Maybe, just maybe, peace in the home starts with us.

Action Steps:

  1. Which finding of the Stress in America study is most surprising to you?
  2. On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being “highly stressed”), how stressed are you?
  3. Using the same scale, how stressed are your kids?  Reflecting upon the data indicating that parents are often unaware of their kids’ stress, would you like to revise your answer?
  4. Which of the suggestions made in this article would be most helpful in your family?
  5. What can you do to reduce your own stress this month? How could you create more space for family “downtime”?

Recommended Resources

The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family: A Leadership Fable About Restoring Sanity To The Most Important Organization In Your Life, Patrick Lencioni

Adrenaline and Stress, Archibald Hart

Silence and Solitude (Fuller Youth Institute)

Activating and Resting (Fuller Youth Institute)


This article was originally published at in January 2011.

  1. American Psychological Association, “2010 Stress in America Report”,
  2. American Psychological Association, “2010 Stress in America Report”
  3. As reported by Tara Parker-Pope, “Burned out? So Are Your Kids,” NY Times January 27, 2010.  Burnout in this study is defined as “feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by work and school demands, feelings of cynicism about job and school work or feeling inadequate and powerless.”
  4. American Psychological Association, “2010 Stress in America Report”
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Childhood Overweight and Obesity,”
  6. American Psychological Association, “2010 Stress in America Report”


Helping Students Make Sense of their Experiences

Aug 11, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

For the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 1 John 4:4b (NRSV)

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world! John 16:33b (NRSV)

For many followers of Jesus, these Scripture verses are in the “Hall of Fame.” They are go-to verses in worship, discipleship, and times of trouble. We love these verses.

Specifically, we love these verses because of the new perspective – the new meaning – they offer to our present circumstances. Interpreted properly in context, they can help us understand our lives in wise, comforting, appropriate ways, when we might have otherwise ended up confused or hopeless. In other words, these verses can help us to make better meaning.

Proper meaning-making is profoundly important, because it affects just about everything: the ways we work, sleep, dress, spend our time and money, view ourselves/others/the world/God... the list goes on. Fuller’s Hugh DePree Professor of Leadership Scott Cormode explains in Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters that our primary job as leaders is to provide “an interpretive framework for people who want to live faithful lives.” 1  For Cormode, leaders both in the Christian and secular spheres too often tend to be either authoritarian managers of hierarchy, or egalitarian enablers who support those they empower. Instead, Cormode suggests that “the best leaders give people the tools to think for themselves.”

Among the most powerful, effective tools a leader can offer to others – especially to students – is the ability to view their lives from God’s perspective. In other words, we have the opportunity to help students make meaning of their lives based on their identity in Jesus. For example, sixteen year-old Claudia shares that her parents are getting divorced, or her grandmother has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or her classmate is pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is (truth be told, it is not uncommon for a student to be dealing with all three of these things at once, and even more). There are lots of various meanings she can derive from, and in the midst of, these life experiences. How do we help her move forward? How do we help her meet Jesus in these places?

How can we help her make good meaning?

There Is No Such Thing As Obvious

Without realizing it, we can easily start to believe that some things in life are just plain. For instance, you are walking on the sidewalk in front of a bank when an armored car stops on the curb, two men in uniform with thick canvas bags and shiny submachine guns jump out and enter the bank. Obviously, this is a routine pickup from a security company. But why not a carefully orchestrated robbery? Or training drill? Or hidden-camera show? The evidence supports each scenario. However, our minds automatically select the option that makes the most sense based on our past experiences, level of cultural awareness, etc. When that selection process is nearly instantaneous, we call the answer “obvious.”

But there is no such thing as truly “obvious,” because no event ever has a singular, unmistakable meaning to all people in all places. Each new President is hailed as a savior by some and a villain by others. Soccer is pure glory for some, pure monotony for others. And the cross is either a sign of mercy and love, or the symbol of a hoax that has fooled the world for millennia. And just because it is obvious to me that so-and-so was a great President, soccer is amazing, and the cross is salvation, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to someone else. It is all a matter of interpretation and meaning-making, and the speed at which we do each.

We’re All “Writers”

The human brain does not simply catalog new experiences into unique, non-overlapping “memory slots.” Instead, our brains naturally assemble our experiences into a “cohesive story that allows us to integrate selected moments into our sense of who we are. Stories are used to organize, predict, and understand the complexities of our lived experiences.” 2  By the time children reach third grade, they are already able to recount individual experiences in single coherent stories, and by eighth grade most can tell their life story as one unified narrative. 3

In other words, when Claudia learned her parents were getting divorced, her brain instantly began the process of “writing” that new information into a singular “life story” by which she determines her identity, forms her worldview, and creates expectations for the future. Helping students make good meaning begins with identifying the ways they already “write” their story. A small sampling of things I have observed Lake Avenue Church students “writing” recently: I love my family but I can only trust my friends; hard work is the way to success; I can do what I want as long as I’m not hurting anyone; I am good at almost everything (yes, really).

Our First Responsibility

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” 4

Max De Pree wrote that phrase in his seminal book Leadership is an Art, and meaning-making is exactly what he was talking about. Students are in significant need of good meaning-making tools. They are navigating adult-sized experiences with kid-sized resources; that is to say, the joys and pains they encounter in their school years are fully grown, while their ability to process those things and make healthy decisions is still developing. 5

Parents and youth workers have the opportunity to partner together to offer those adult-sized resources. When it comes to making meaning for students – choosing the story that will help them understand their lives – we can offer the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, if “reality” includes things like the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, holistic transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the redemption of all creation, then any student who is unaware of these things is making meaning with insufficient tools. By properly defining reality and guiding the process of meaning-making, we can help students like Claudia understand that even in the midst of divorce (or illness or crisis of any kind), there is the potential for peace and even joy.

Tell Me A Story

It all comes back to the framework of “narrative.” We must tell stories if we hope to influence the grand story that students are already “writing” about their lives. As Cormode has written, people (of all ages) attempt to find a story that makes the most sense of a situation, and will compare competing stories against one another in order to select the one that makes the most sense. 6  As youth workers, it is incumbent upon us to offer students and families a set of stories and vocabulary that can help them make sense of their circumstances. Offering things like a theology of suffering or instruction on resurrection is helpful, and what will help make it “stick” is a story of that theology in action.

Let me illustrate this using Claudia’s parents’ impending divorce. We might first affirm her feelings of confusion/anger/sadness, and then share how God loves her and her parents, and hates the pain that they are all suffering. The narratives Claudia might have at this point are (a) it’s my fault, I’m a bad kid; (b) one parent is the culprit and the other the victim; and/or (c) God does not exist, or if he does, he hates us or has forgotten about us. These are all “stories” that attempt to make sense of the facts she has been given.

The most effective way to help Claudia move forward may be to speak into the stories she is evaluating. We have the opportunity to offer a different story. For instance, we might share the story of the resurrection, and how God brings new life from death. We can share stories of the power of the Holy Spirit, both from Scripture and from our own experiences. We can offer Claudia a vision of a better future made possible by God’s grace. As Cormode explains, we take our own stories, our people’s stories, and God’s story, and then weave them together to create a shared story of future hope.

Love Takes Time

No less a theologian than Mariah Carey reminds us that sometimes the process of transformation is exactly that: a process. 7  The students and families in our lives will oftentimes either be too comfortable or too hurt to change immediately the way they “write” their stories. Students like Claudia have deep-seated anger, confusion, and shame, and none of these will dissipate overnight.

In these moments, let us remember that not even Jesus could control the meaning that his hearers made, and yet he remained consistently loving. Our task is to continue creating categories, stories, vocabulary, and meanings that others can adopt for themselves, 8  and keep telling them over and over until they take root.

Action Steps

  1. Check out an online news source, find a top story, and expand it to see all the related articles from the various sources.  Then take note of how the headline profoundly shapes your initial impressions of the event. For instance, “Dow Soars Above 12000 on AT&T Deal for T-Mobile” strikes a different chord for me than “AT&T Merger Unlikely to Benefit Consumers.”
  2. Take inventory of the go-to words, phrases, stories, etc. in your church in general, and youth ministry in particular. We all have vocabulary that we use frequently. Identifying what we already say can help us figure out how we want to go forward. For instance, at my church, we often use the phrases “God’s unexpected family,” “worship, community, service,” “a Revelation 7:9 church” (referring to cultural diversity), and “our purpose is to reflect our God to our world with our lives.” When students are facing loss or disappointment, I have a few stories that I almost always go to, like illnesses or deaths in my family, or the time when I was cut from the soccer team, or instances when I needed to repent and receive forgiveness. What are your core phrases and stories, and what kind of meaning are they creating?
  3. Make a short list of words, phrases, Bible passages, or even short sentences that you’d hope students remember from their time in the youth group. For instance: grace by faith not works, God is good all the time, worship is a lifestyle, etc.
  4. Equip your staff with the ability to identify the way students are writing their stories. Based on what Johnny or Lizet says and how they behave, what story or stories seem to be guiding them?


  1. Scott Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), x.
  2. Laurel J. Kiser, Barbara Baumgardner, Joyce Dorado, “Who are we, but for the stories we tell: Family stories and healing” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy Vol 2(3), Sep, 2010: 243-249.
  3. Annette Bohn, Dorthe Berntsen, “Life story development in childhood: The development of life story abilities and the acquisition of cultural life scripts from late middle childhood to adolescence” Developmental Psychology Vol 44(4), Jul 2008: 1135-1147.
  4. Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1989), 11.
  5. Jesse Oakes,Recruiting Volunteers: Lessons from One Church’s Journey, accessed 31 January 2011.
  6. Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense, 28-36.
  7. Mariah Carey and Ben Margulies, “Love Takes Time,” performed by Mariah Carey, album Mariah Carey 1990, Columbia Records.
  8. Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense, 54

Managing Anxiety in the Family

Strategies for Changing our Relationship Dance

Aug 10, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

When I work with families in a therapy setting, I can learn a lot by how a family situates themselves in my office.

In fact, where they sit is often diagnostic in and of itself.  How close are they sitting to one another?  Where are the parents sitting?  Where is the kid sitting?  These are all things I pay very close attention to in the initial seconds of a family session because their physical proximity to one another and the way they position themselves says a lot about the emotional proximity and issues that may be present in the family.

More often than not, family members unconsciously arrange themselves in the shape of a triangle with the parents sitting on my couch next to one another while their kid sits across from them.  I on the other hand usually pull up a chair alongside all of them as we begin to enter into the process of better understanding the reasons why this family has found themselves in my office.

Me: “So what brings you in today?”

Dad: “Our daughter has been having all kinds of problems at school.  She isn’t doing her homework, and she hardly seems like she wants to hang out with her friends.  I don’t know if this is normal for her age, but it’s the same way at home too.  She doesn’t want to be a part of the family and the only things she enjoys doing are talking to her friends on Facebook or texting them.”

Me (to myself): “Pause.  Take a breath.”

In the initial moments of our session, the problems within the family system have already been defined and framed around one key person: the kid. I am told that if I can somehow just fix the teenage daughter, then apparently the entire family system will get better. The parents speak as if their daughter isn’t present in the room, using a depersonalized tone that communicates that if I just tinkered with their child long enough, surely she will begin to behave differently.

This might be how a typical family therapy session begins, but at some point during our initial meeting I ask the question…

Me: “How is your marriage?”

Mom: “What?  This isn’t about my husband and me. Our daughter is the one with the problems.  After all, that’s why we’re bringing her into counseling.”

Forming Triangles and Placing Blame

The self-arrangement of the family into a triangle is apropos for my work with them. It is usually the very formation of an emotional triangle within a family that creates some of the unhealthy functioning that has brought them into counseling.

I would estimate that in about 70%-80% of the situations in which kids are brought into my office for counseling, the presenting problems have less to do with the individual child, and more to do with what is happening in the larger family system, and more particularly in the couple’s marriage (or former marriage).  The children have often become the scapegoats or the symptom-bearers for the marital problems.

In family systems theory, a triangle is often formed when two people in relationship experience conflict or anxiety between them.  In order to deal with this anxiety and conflict, they triangle a third person in an attempt to lessen it. 1

In other words, when a couple is having difficulty in their relationship, or there is anxiety and stress created by a lack of connection, they often pull a child into the center, making that child the focus of their problems.  This movement gives a struggling couple something to focus their energy on, and for a time creates the illusion that things in their marriage are actually okay.  They might even feel closer to each other because they are working together on the same “problem.”  In fact, they are desperately trying to avoid the difficult work of looking at their relationship.

About a month ago I taught a parenting class about family anxiety at my church, where I serve as a part-time staff member to provide counseling and education to families, youth and the youth staff. In that class I was hoping to bring awareness to what marriage and family therapist Murray Bowen talks about when he describes the family as a nuclear family emotional system.

One of the patterns that Bowen describes is the impairment of one or more children.” This impairment occurs when:

…[S]pouses focus their anxieties on one or more of their children. They worry excessively and usually have an idealized or negative view of the child. The more the parents focus on the child the more the child focuses on them. He is more reactive than his siblings to the attitudes, needs, and expectations of the parents. The process undercuts the child's differentiation from the family and makes him vulnerable to act out or internalize family tensions. The child's anxiety can impair his school performance, social relationships, and even his health.

So what happens when parents are unable to deal with issues between them in their marriage?  Someone usually suffers and I find that it is usually one or all the kids within a family system because they end up absorbing the anxiety for other members of the family.  This often sends the message to the kid that “something is wrong with me,” and can in and of itself become a self-fulfilling prophecy where the kid actually begins to live into the behaviors that the parents describe.  The kid may surmise to themselves, “Well, if I’m the problem, then I will show my parents what a real problem is.” At this point families often become stuck in a pattern of negativity.

Taking Responsibility for Ourselves

In order for things to change within a family, everyone must begin to take responsibility for themselves.  One of the things that I have learned as a marriage therapist is that it is quite common for a spouse in the marriage to hold the belief and verbalize it as something like, “If you would just stop being critical… [or if you would just stop nagging me…or if you would just clean up after yourself…] then our marriage would be great.” When couples put responsibility for change solely on their partner, they are living in a fantasy land.

This line of thinking often extends beyond the boundaries of a marriage and seeps into the entire family system. It’s much easier for us emotionally to believe that it is our children who have the problems, and if we could just fix them, then things would be fine.  We find ourselves saying things to our kids like, “If you would get your act together then we wouldn’t have these problems.” Or “If you would change, then your mom and I wouldn’t be yelling at you all the time.” Parents may not be saying that out loud to their children, but many are processing these kinds of thoughts internally.

Recognizing Our “Pain Dance”

Besides being in private practice as a therapist, I am on staff at The Hideaway Experience 2  which hosts marriage intensives bringing together four couples over a four day period.  The couples participate in marriage therapy in a group context with two therapists present.  It has been a powerful experience for me, and I have learned a lot in this setting about how our issues in marriage impact our kids and entire family’s lives.  And the good news is that we can do something about it.

In the model 3   that we use at The Hideaway we help couples better understand what we refer to as their Pain and Peace Cycle.  The Pain cycle is simply the negative pattern of interacting that couples get locked into, grinding any understanding of an issue or conflict resolution to a halt.  We are wired such that over time when we experience certain feelings (i.e. abandonment, not good enough, rejected, etc.) we learn to behave in an automatic, instinctual way (withdraw, get angry, criticize, etc.).  These are patterns that have been hardwired into us over time in our family of origin, in important relationships, and in our marriage.

Once a couple understands the negative pattern of interaction that they are stuck in, then we begin to help them form a new pattern called the Peace cycle.  The Peace cycle is a positive pattern of interacting that is based on the truth of who God sees us as and the healthy behaviors we engage in based upon that belief.

This Pain and Peace cycle is all about couples becoming aware of their negative patterns of interaction, taking responsibility for them, and then working on forming new and healthy patterns of relating to each other.

But here is the beautiful insight I have gleaned from the model.  Our kids push the same buttons that our spouses and others push. So if a parent can take responsibility in their adult relationships, then they can also take responsibility in their interactions with their own kids. When we take ownership, we de-escalate the conflict on both levels.

Creating a New “Family Dance”

Creating new patterns of change in our marriages and family lives do not happen overnight, but instead take a lot of practice.  I wish there was some magic bullet, but there isn’t. The good news is that there are several things we can begin doing today to become more aware of and start the process of implementing in our own lives and the lives of our families.

Knowing Where You Begin and End…

Knowing where you begin and end in relationships is what we might refer to as establishing healthy boundaries.  I like to think of it as one’s ability to stand on their own two feet.  I shouldn’t be dependent on my wife or my young kids to prop me up. Marriage and Family Therapists talk about the concept of differentiation a lot, which essentially is the process of balancing life’s two greatest forces – the desire for separateness and the desire for togetherness.  Why is knowing where you begin and end important?  Because when you know this, you then know what you are responsible for in yourself.

So beginning the process of taking responsibility for yourself (and in the process de-escalating conflict in your family) means that you need to establish some healthy boundaries.  If you don’t know where to begin, one place to start is by looking at Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s classic, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life.   4  I think it’s a no-nonsense, straightforward, practical look at what boundaries are and how to set them.  They have also written Boundaries with Kids and Boundaries with Teens editions.

Practicing Self-Awareness…

My own therapist told me at one point to go about life as if there was a huge “spotlight of awareness” shining its light on everything that I did.  He wanted me to just be really aware of myself in the moment.  I think one of the ways couples begin to make changes in their marriages and in their families is just becoming more aware of themselves in relationship to others and then to simply begin to experiment with new types of interactions.  This is something that I have done in my own marriage as I have begun to experiment with taking responsibility for my Pain Cycle and working to bring about my Peace Cycle.

Learning to Self-Soothe…

I have a ten-month-old son who loves to suck his thumb.  What he is essentially doing is soothing himself, especially when he is anxious or upset.  It’s a way that he copes.  As adults we may not suck our thumbs, but there are other ways we can self-soothe.  For example, learning not to be reactive but to sit with our own anxiety for a bit is a form of self-soothing. It would be easier for us to argue with our kids, but self-soothing requires us to show some restraint and patience in our interactions.  We can self-soothe by exercising or by practicing calming breathing patterns.   5

Seeking Help…

Sometimes we just need help from those who are not intimately involved in our marriages and families.  We need someone to walk alongside of us and lead us through new territory. Sometimes good friends can help if we can be honest with them. But we may also need more help to change, which is when we can seek the help of a professional therapist. It’s a scary thing to do for many people, but it may be the thing that helps you break out of old patterns and forge a new—and healthier—relationship dance.

Beyond the Triangle

There’s no denying that most teenagers do have problems that need to be addressed. But if we really want to have healthy families, often we need to begin with the adults in the family taking responsibility for themselves.  Rather than point the finger at our kids because they might be convenient scapegoats for our anxiety and conflict, real transformation lies within a family’s ability to do the hard work that relationships require.

This article was originally published at in June 2011.

  1. Murray Bowen emphasized that people respond to anxiety between each other by shifting the focus to a third person creating what is known as triangulation. The Bowen Center:
  2. The Hideaway Experience: Marriage Intensive,
  3. See 5 Days to a New Marriage by Terry Hargrave and Shawn Stoever:
  4. Cloud, Henry. Townsend, John.  Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. Zondervan.
  5. There are also plenty of unhealthy forms of self-soothing that people engage in such as compulsive or addictive behaviors, so it’s important that we learn and practice ones that are beneficial to our personal and relational growth.

Take the Leap

Growth Through Risk

Aug 10, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

July, 1987. High noon. A day that would live in infamy. On the pool deck, one terrified five year-old boy in elastic-waist swim trunks trying to fathom how plunging in headfirst would result in anything but certain death. In the water, one supremely confident father, also in elastic-waist swim trunks, patiently attempting to persuade his eldest son to dive. Elaborate bribes of candy and playtime were thrown around like rice at a cartoon wedding.

We must have been quite a sight for the lifeguards and other families at the pool that day. Back and forth we went for at least fifteen minutes, like two wrestlers angling tirelessly for leverage, neither quite gaining the upper hand long enough to pin the other. Until my Pops finally won. I fixed my gaze on the spot next to him, placed my right hand on top of my left and made a pyramid above my head. I then took a deep breath, leaned forward, closed my eyes, and waited for the reaper to take me.


My first dive.

Later that night, my dad proudly reminded me of my feat. I dived, and yet lived. I learned a lot that day about risk, trust, and courage. Those lessons, which came at such a high price to my young nerves, have paid many dividends in the decades since. Whether it was playing a big soccer game, learning a new instrument, applying to colleges, or asking my wife to marry me, my decision making abilities have been influenced, and significantly so, by my first dive. One might say it has helped with every leap since.

Cute story? Yes. But I may have done you a disservice by presenting it so simply. I may have derived some positive and useful lessons from that day, but in fairness I could have just as easily walked away with negative ones. For instance, “The Dive” could have been the birth of a paralyzing lifelong phobia of water, or elastic. It could have buried a splinter of suspicion between my father and me that years later festered into full-blown distrust. I walked away with a willingness to take risks, but I could have walked a way with a compulsion to avoid them. Here’s the difference-maker: interpretation.

Making Sense of Experience

My parents made a conscious and consistent effort to help me process that day in ways that were healthy. We’ve had plenty of laughs about it, sure, but we’ve also had a number of fruitful discussions to help me derive some really great outcomes from a scenario that might otherwise have led to some really bad ones. In other words, it is not strictly speaking the event that shaped me, but the interpretation of it – and my parents played a key role in that interpretive process.

During the journey of adolescence, young people become worker bees of interpretation, constantly examining the events of their lives from a variety of angles – some of which they have never considered before. Most everyone in a student’s life – family, peers, youth workers, coaches, even their Facebook friends – has some kind of opportunity to influence her interpretive mechanisms. Without a doubt, a large portion of my job as a youth pastor could be accurately described as equipping students to interpret their lives and their world through the lens of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Parents have already been doing this with their children long before I ever enter the picture.

Many, if not most, of these opportunities to teach interpretation occur spontaneously. However, what if we did not have to wait for fate to arbitrarily send these opportunities our way? What if we could create planned, thought-provoking opportunities and then help students make sense of them afterward?

I am not talking about trying to control every event in a student’s life (as if that were even possible), but rather strategically offering experiences that have the potential to challenge and stretch students, and then being a key part of the process of challenging and stretching.

This happens every time parents take their child to serve the homeless and afterward debrief things like poverty and helping others, or when a youth group takes students river rafting and then later leverages the experience into a conversation about community and our need for one another that evening around the campfire. The key element here isrisk, because it compels the student toward new thoughts and decisions. Without realizing it, many parents and youth workers already understand and believe in this model. Hopefully, by adding a little research-based context, we can maximize our future efforts in this vein for the benefit of students.

Anatomy of a Decision

Nearly fifty years ago, psychologist James Marcia published a theory of adolescent identity development that has been enriching research, parenting, and youth work ever since.   1  He argues that the two central criteria which mitigate a student’s journey through adolescence are exploration and commitmentexploration describes a student earnestly considering things like vocation, friends, sex, God, etc., and commitment is the moment when that student begins to make life choices based on her discoveries.

Marcia also observed something that parents and youth workers have long known from experience: some decisions are the result of a long process of balanced thought, while other decisions are not. Marcia nuances this into the following four categories:   2

  1. Identity diffusion occurs when a student is unable to, or not interested, in making a commitment to any particular identity. The 14-year-old girl who wanders in and out of youth group as predictably as she wanders from relationship to relationship with guys is diffused. She’s not looking to figure out who she really is – yet.
  2. Foreclosure occurs when students embrace clear commitments, but they’re really the commitments of their parents or culture, chosen without exploring options.
  3. Moratorium (sometimes referred to as “crisis”) is a time of exploring options of who a student wants to be.
  4. Those who resolve moratorium by making clear commitments have reached identity Achievement.

The following diagram may help:

By default, many if not most young people are either foreclosed or diffused on major issues (e.g. faith, sexuality, and so forth), meaning their views are either mainly those of their parents/coaches/youth workers/friends (foreclosed), or partially formed but amazingly easy to sway (diffused). Adolescence, after all, is a time of (re)establishing oneself as an individual in light of and against prior contexts.

In Marcia’s system, it is personal crisis that acts as a catalyst in the formation of a personalized individual identity, i.e. the “real me” that students are working so hard to forge. Precisely at this time is when parents and youth workers can utilize the controlled risk involved in experiences like rock climbing, snow camping, or justice experiences like World Vision’s 30-Hour Famine. In Marcia’s terminology, the element of risk here is “moratorium,” providing a powerful, attention-getting opportunity to help students think in new ways about what they believe. Ideally, a student emerges from one of these experiences with a commitment nurtured by the information we give them, and empowered by the fact that they – themselves – chose it.

The High Dive

An example might go like this: Annabelle is a high school senior whose grades and scores earned her a scholarship that would make her the first in her family to go to college, but the school is two states away, and Annabelle has never even left her area code. At first she was ambivalent (diffused), and then excited from the encouragement of her family (foreclosed)…until the reality of living far from home became more concrete (moratorium). The deadline to respond is edging closer, and Annabelle does not know what to do.

One Saturday morning, Annabelle’s mom takes her to the local indoor pool. They’ve done this before, and normally they swim a little and chat a lot. This time, however, Annabelle’s mom leaves her things on a chair, makes her way to the 10m platform, climbs all the way up and, to Annabelle’s shock, executes a perfect pencil dive into the water over thirty feet below. And then it’s Annabelle’s turn. After much gnashing of teeth, she finally gathers the gumption to duplicate her brave mother’s accomplishment.

Later, as they warm up over hot chocolate and celebrate their adrenaline high, Annabelle’s mother explains that even though she’s afraid of heights and was never particularly athletic, she always wanted to do that, and would not trade the feeling she has right now for anything. She explains that fear can help keep you alive, but when it dominates your decision-making, it can keep you from really living. By the end of their discussion, Annabelle realizes that the only thing holding her back from college is fear of the unknown.

Two weeks later, as she drops her acceptance letter to college into the mailbox, she remembers the feeling she had on the top of that high dive. She realizes that the decision she is making is not easy, nor risk free, but it is good.

The point is this: Annabelle’s mother brokered an experience of controlled risk and then guided the time of interpretation afterward.  Doing so awakened Annabelle to a reality she was not seeing, and gave her the ability to make an informed, wise decision.

Next Steps

What are your local “risk-rich” opportunities? Things like rock-climbing gyms (or real rocks), bodies of water, or go-kart tracks might be a good place to start. Who are some people who can resource “risk-rich” opportunities?

  • Make some calls. Can the places you’ve identified accommodate your family or group’s size and needs? Do you have to be 18 or over? (If so, what a great staff or family bonding exercise!) After that, make some site visits. It’s well worth the time it takes.
  • Cover your bases. If you are a youth worker, run the ideas by your supervisor(s), wise friends, key parents, and so forth. Also, permission slips are usually a good idea here!
  • Once you decide what to do, give plenty of advance notice to parents. It will equip them to participate in the process of post-event debrief and interpretation, and they will be much more forgiving if little Suzie indeed tweaks her hamstring or gets bit by a deer.
  • Recruit some students to be publicists. In my experience, most students jump at the chance to be the public face of something awesome. Their energy lends more credibility and momentum to an upcoming event than you and I could ever hope to generate.
  • Get by with a little help from your friends. The more adults can help out, the more the students can feel loved and be kept safe. This may be a great chance to invite some adventure-seeking types toward a unique, custom-fit role on the volunteer staff team.
  • Create time for your own post-event debrief to help students process and make meaning of their experiences in light of their ongoing identity development. If you're a parent, DON'T SKIP THIS PART!  With your own kids (and others if they've joined you), make space for this critically-important processing.


This article was originally published at in January 2011.


  1. James E. Marcia, “Development and Validation of Ego-Identity Status” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3(5), 1966: 551-558.
  2. As described in the upcoming publication from the Fuller Youth Institute Sticky Faith: Developing Faith That Will Last a Lifetime by Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford.