“No one ever told me I would spend so much time counseling teenagers in my youth ministry” is an often-heard cry. A large part of youth work is counseling. Some youth workers feel comfortable with counseling, but most are terrified.
The truth is that as a youth worker you are a counselor. You are perhaps not trained in counseling and feel inadequate to counsel; but nevertheless at times merely because of your position in the church, students, their parents, and even the community at large will look to you for answers.
When it’s time to help a student walk through a problem or crisis, there’s an effective five-step process of problem solving that youth workers can use. Again, remember, using this process does not make you a professional counselor! But, it works nicely as a framework and evaluation tool in walking alongside a student as they deal with a problem.
1. Find the Real Problem. Jumping in and solving a problem too quickly in a discussion can cause us to miss the real problem. It is important to be direct and ask the student what he or she considers the problem to be. This is the time to ask open-ended questions and listen, not give advice. It is a fact-finding mission.
Let’s say, for example, you are approached by a student who has an alcohol problem. On the surface, you might be tempted to address the issue with the point of view that the problem to be solved is alcohol consumption. But in doing so, you may miss the real problem. It’s important to dig beneath the surface to find out why this student is using alcohol. What is the student trying to escape from? What is missing in his or her world that there is a need to fill that void by drinking?
2. List Alternative Solutions. Once you have assisted in helping the student clarify the problem, you can help him or her look at various solution alternatives. For example, if the problem as defined by the student is “I fight with my parents over the use of the car,” possible solutions might include a meeting between you, the student, and his or her parents to discuss the specific problem; a discussion with the student about what makes his or her parents irritated and development of a plan to alleviate the problem; or the purchase of a used car (which might mean helping the student brainstorm ideas for coming up with the money to buy it, maintain it, and provide insurance for it.) Remember, people support what they create. Don’t provide all the solutions yourself; guide the student to come up with ideas too. If the student helps come up with the solution, he or she will own it and have a better chance of following through with the selected course of action.
3. Select a Plan of Action. If one of the alternatives seems to be the best idea, then address the problem by using that plan. Sometimes it’s very helpful to role-play or rehearse the plan. It is important to remember that a plan of action might also include an outside referral for Christian-based counseling. At this stage of the process, youth workers often make a mistake by thinking that their counseling job is now over. But the process is only half finished.
4. Establish and Enforce Accountability. Good, positive accountability is a loving way of saying, “I want to walk you through this process, but I need you to be completely honest with me.” Most action plans with teenagers are not as beneficial as they could be without some method of accountability. You might say, “Since you really want to quit smoking, let me challenge you to stop for a week. Call me if you get the urge. If I’m unavailable, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Next week let’s compare notes after the youth group meeting to see how you’re doing.” It is absolutely vital to follow through on your promise to hold the student accountable. Remember, a failure to follow through on your promise of accountability is more damaging than the failure to set it up in the first place.
5. Set Up an Evaluation Procedure. We all need to see small chunks of success along the way. As part of the problem-solving accountability structure, put together some method of evaluation. Don’t look for perfection; instead, find a method that will encourage attainment of the student’s goals. A regular phone call, checkup meetings, and journaling are all simple evaluation methods. Of course, the more complex the problem, the stronger the evaluation process will need to be (e.g., if a student is chemically addicted to drugs, then the evaluation procedure must be more in line with that particular problem and will probably entail professional help).