Reaching Out to Youth Amid Physical Distancing

Tips for Congregations:

How can people and congregations support youth who are faced with an abrupt end of the school year? Recognize the difficulty of this situation for the teens. Avoiding the conversation or invalidating their feelings makes them feel less valued. Even if your personal feelings don't align with how the youth is feeling, recognize and validate their feelings. Their worries, anxieties, fears, sadness and uncertainty are real. If possible and safe, find ways to connect with the teens. Video chats, texting and social media are likely the top ways to stay connected.

How do we help youth who must complete the school year through online classes, isolated from teachers and friends? The current generation of teens is more connected virtually to each other than any previous generation. They don't know life without the internet and social media. Encourage them to stay in contact with their friends using these platforms. In regard to completing online classes, help youth to maintain a routine and a daily schedule. Urge them to get up, get dressed, eat breakfast and do their school work during the day, even if parents aren't home. The more “regular” their schedule, the easier for them to adjust. Suggest that they stay in contact with their teachers, even if they don't need help. Maintaining that source of contact and connection will help to maintain “normalcy” during a time when nothing seems “normal.” Even a simple check-in email to the teacher from the student to make sure they’re on track would be a great way to stay connected.

What are possible alternatives for high school seniors who may not be able to have graduation ceremonies and other yearend celebrations? This time will be especially hard for seniors. Again, recognize and validate how difficult this is for them. Do whatever can be done, safely, to celebrate and recognize their work and achievements.

Without an official “last day of the school year,” how can youth say “goodbye” to teachers and their peers? Maintaining contact in some form is beneficial. Send cards, write letters, send a text or email, and find creative ways to allow a sense of closure and peace for students. See if your community has a Facebook page for parents in the community. This could be a good way to stay in touch with other parents and find ways for students to stay connected. Ask if teachers in your community are still reporting to school during the day; if so, consider purchasing and dropping off a breakfast or a snack for them as a treat and in appreciation.

What about suspended state tournaments for sports and other activities? Cancellation of tournaments and sports is difficult. As adults, we recognize and understand that the world doesn’t revolve around sports, but for many students, it does. As adults, we recognize it’s not the end of the world, but in this moment and at this time for students, it is. Allow teens to be angry or sad. Students work hard, train, practice and put great effort into preparing for these moments that are now stripped away from them. Gently remind students that cancelling events is not just about their safety, but the safety of all - their grandparents and other family members and their community fans.

For seniors, many are losing their last chance to play competitively. This is hard. This is unfair. Seek ways for students to connect with their teammates and/or coach so that they can still have that sense of camaraderie. To them, it is more than just sports.

How can youth still feel connection with the church? As a congregation, make adaptations and adjustments for both adults and youth. Move youth group and other teen events to the virtual world (Zoom, live or prerecorded Facebook/Instagram, BAND app and so forth).

Tips for Parents/guardians:

  1. Acknowledge your teen’s feelings, all of them. Have age-appropriate conversations with youth and let them voice their feelings. Assure them it’s OK to feel that way, even if you don't personally feel that way.
  2. Seek ways for youth to help during this time. Teens want to make a difference. Here are a few ideas: Purchase and drop off snacks for first responders, medical personnel, schools with staff in the building and nursing homes. Mail cards to family or friends who are restricted to their homes. Spend time on the phone or video chat with others, especially those who are isolated. Offer to help a younger student with school work.
  3. Use this time intentionally to build a stronger relationship with youth. Technology is a part of their everyday world; they don't know life without it. Allow them to teach you how to use some of the technology they use.
  4. As much as possible, maintain a sense of “normalcy.” Try to keep the daily/weekly schedule as regular as possible, even if things are moved to the virtual world.
  5. Invite youth into your world by sharing how things were done in the past without all the technology. This can lead into conversations about family and your life growing up.
  6. Play games or find activities that don't involve technology. With their schooling and social life almost completely reliant on technology, help youth find ways to take a break from it all. Get out the board games, take a walk, play “20 Questions” or look at old family pictures. Find ways to give their minds and eyes a break from the virtual world.
  7. As appropriate, share your thoughts, concerns and feelings with your youth. Assure them that they aren't alone.
  8. You know your youth, their needs and how to help them through this time. If you're unsure of what they need or how to help, ask them.

Tips for Ministry Leaders:

  1. Acknowledge their feelings, all of them. Have age-appropriate conversations with youth and let them voice their feelings. Tell them it’s OK for them to feel that way, even if you don’t personally feel that way.
  2. Provide opportunities for youth to gather together via Skype, Zoom or Facetime; they need this support. The timing and frequency can be different from your regular weekly programming, but provide that opportunity. If you aren't comfortable with the technology, ask a youth to help you.
  3. Check in on parents and guardians. The parents/guardians of your youth will interact with the youth more than usual during this time but may be uncertain how to lead or help them. Do what you can to minister to adults as well. Provide helpful resources and let them know they aren’t alone.
  4. If you have a social media account for your youth group, consider posting a daily Scripture or question to maintain engagement with your students.
  5. Mail your students a card or postcard to let them know you’re thinking of them. Everyone loves to get good, encouraging mail.
  6. Do a “Secret Friend” with your youth. It's like secret Santa, but everything is through the mail. Ask students who would like to participate and assign each youth a “Secret Friend.” Allow them to get creative (in a kind, loving way) and encourage them to send something once a week, anonymously. When you all get together in person again, each can reveal who was their “Secret Friend.” Develop guidelines: amount of money spent and delivery method. Make sure you have permission from parents to share their address.
  7. Create a digital scavenger hunt for students to complete around their house or in a park. You can use a free digital scavenger-hunt website/app or ask youth to take pictures of things on their phone and then send them to you. If possible, offer prizes to everyone who completes or to the first few to complete. Mail prizes or award them when you meet in person again.
  8. Connect with other youth leaders to see what they're doing during this time. Ultimately, you know your students best, but we can all learn from each other to navigate through these uncharted waters. There is power in community.

Abby Lightle is director of family life ministry at Aley United Methodist Church, Beavercreek, Ohio.