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Recognizing and Responding to Cries for Help

By Carey Huffman

Social crisis was rampant and human need evident in Gloucester, England of the late 1700s. Rowdy youngsters roamed the streets aimlessly on the weekends, and journalist Robert Raikes decided to do something about it—something that would keep many out of trouble and even raise the quality of life for their families. Enlisting the help of volunteers, He used the Word of God to teach reading and practical life skills to classes of ragged children. Eventually, this institution developed into a teaching facility for those of all ages and social levels. In our society today, the need for practical help and solid spiritual instruction has not diminished, and Sunday school can still provide one of the most effective nets of support for individuals in crisis.

For some, the opportunity for consistent teaching and associations with practicing, caring Christians in Sunday school may be the only hope for building a foundation of values and attitudes that will provide strength to face life’s challenges and calamities. The truth of God’s Word is the remedy for hurting people, and caring teachers with helping skills, as well as scriptural knowledge, can be the instruments through which the Word brings healing and hope. But teachers must know what to look for if they are to respond effectively to a student’s sometimes overt, but often subtle, cries for help.

Recognize the Signs

Whatever the crisis—family problems, torn relationships, addiction, abuse, sexual misconduct, tragedy, depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts—certain outward signs seem to accompany most serious or potentially serious problems or crisis needs. Behavioral signs include: sudden changes in social behavior (becoming unusually outgoing or withdrawn), inability to concentrate, lethargy, defiance of (power struggles with) authority, hyper-activity or nervousness, loss of interest in favorite activities, or a change in friendship groups. Emotional cries include: open talk about family problems, mood swings, fluctuation between extreme silence and talkativeness, pessimism or hopelessness about the future, preoccupation with physical/sexual issues, and erratic behavior. Physical signs include: a marked change in weight or appearance, excessive eating or sleeping habits, poor hygiene, becoming more accident prone, and frequent illness. Although many of these are evident at some point during adolescence, they should never be written off as typical teen phases—especially when several symptoms are evident.

Reassure the Student

Although not all problems or crisis are spiritual, they are intrinsically related to a fallen human condition, making complete wholeness—spiritually and emotionally—impossible apart from a relationship with God and obedience to His Word. Your class should foster relationships that encourage trust in God as well as provide nurturing support in times of need. Your life and lessons should help students develop a healthy view of God—His unconditional love and ultimate power. Remind them that Christ’s suffering paid the complete price for forgiveness (theirs and others) and freedom from guilt and pain. Encourage teens that neither they, nor their circumstances, are beyond God’s reach and ability to repair. With God, the best is never in the past. He has an ultimately fulfilling plan for each life and can, at any time, take a person from anywhere and put them where He wants them to be.

Respond with Sensitivity and Rely on the Spirit

Give appropriate personal attention to individual students—actively listening with an open mind and heart. If you suspect a problem, ask questions. Before responding, make sure you have a clear understanding of what has been communicated. Confront the student’s own failures, inconsistencies, or harmful attitudes in a loving, gentle, nonjudgmental manner, directing them to answers in God’s Word. Give them information that is relevant to their immediate concerns and encourage students to take stock in the spiritual resources available. Above all, rely on God for wisdom and discernment. Since students will not always convey the whole story, you must ultimately rely on the perception of the Holy Spirit to expose the root of a problem.

Respect the Sanctions

Take proper precautions when ministering personally to young people. Consult beforehand with your pastor and/or youth pastor, keeping them apprised of the situation as it progresses. Help students communicate with parents if they have had difficulty doing so. Never counsel anyone behind closed doors. Set clear limits of time and contact and be alert to signs of manipulation. Make your obligations and limitations clear from the outset. Don’t make promises that you cannot morally or legally keep. Admit your limitations, knowing how and when to make a counseling referral for students who willingly admit the need for further help, or whose situation or behavior is potentially harmful to themselves or others.

Refer the Situation

Learn what resources are available in your community and prayerfully consider what best fits a struggling student’s needs. Ask question and get a feel for the personal and spiritual qualifications of a potential counselor. Help the student and family understand the need for the referral and let them take initiative in the final decision. Offer continued support and encouragement to the family throughout the process

As a Sunday school teacher, you should never presume to fill the role of a trained counselor. However, you can still be very effective in ministry to teens in crisis. The opportunity to be with students in non-clinical, everyday situations gives you a vantage point from which marked changes and extremes in behavior, common during times of crisis, can be more easily detected and often dealt with—before it is too late.