The topic of body image is more important today than ever. As our culture becomes more “selfie-focused,” the pressure on teens to look a certain way is getting heavier. If you are a black-and-white thinker like me, then you probably want to grab the mic and tell all the amazing teens in your life that they are BEAUTIFUL, made in GOD’S IMAGE, and shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed of their looks. Unfortunately, I think we all know that won’t work.
We have to be careful about the way we approach this conversation with our teenagers. We need to help them to see themselves the way that God sees them, without totally disregarding the logical reasons that they have for feeling the way that they do.
Keep in mind that:
1. Their life experiences have deeply shaped the way that they view themselves.
Words that their friends or classmates have spoken, comments that their parents have made, and things that their parents have said about themselves have all come together to shape their reality. A teenager once told me that she always thought she was ugly, which was ridiculous because this girl was gorgeous. When I asked why she thought that, she replied, “When people say I look like my mom, she always apologizes and says ‘I am sorry that they think you look like me. I wish you looked more like your father instead.'” WHAT? I couldn’t believe this. This parent had effectively transferred her insecurities to her daughter, and along with that came an emotional weight that I could not imagine having to work through. Personally, I was a very acned teenager, and I can specifically remember the teens who poked fun at me. My own journey to confidence in my appearance included forgiving those people and putting their words in their proper place, but it was no easy task.
From an early age, we take our social cues from what adults and peers around us tell us to believe. When we are having these conversations with teenagers, we have to recognize that we are challenging ways of thinking that have probably existed in their minds for as long as they can remember.
2. They won’t care about what you think until they know how much you care for them.
Body image is often a deeply decided and sensitive issue by the teen years. While a passing comment like, “What are you talking about, you are beautiful!” is well intentioned, it often enforces the idea that we adults think that teenagers are not intelligent thinkers, rather than actually disarming their insecurities. When I talk to teenagers who are really stuck or stubborn in their own personal view of themselves, I always follow the 80/20 rule: they do the talking at least 80% of the time, while I only allow myself 20% (or less) of the conversation to express my opinion. When confronted with a teen who is experiencing a situation that we adults find juvenile or misguided, it’s easy for us to be tempted to pour out our sage advice in hopes that something will catch on. However, youth ministry is not about the law of averages; we are not salesmen. With my teens, I always hope that they know just how much I care and that they can always talk to me. Something that I have learned over the years is that they are a LOT more likely to remember what you say if you say less of it.
3. Praying with them and for them is the most powerful thing that you can do.
In some cases, you may talk with a teenager who is completely unyielding in their thinking and who has no interest in believing what you have to say. While I close every conversation like this with prayer, I may cut one short if there is this kind of tension. There are several reasons why I will do this. First, people tend to be more receptive to ministry when it comes in the form of tender prayer. Second, I want them to see that I care for them and even if they don’t hear me now, my prayers may plant a seed that God can later use to help them overcome their harmful thinking.
I pray that you will relentlessly stand in the gap for your teenagers. Encourage them with continually renewed grace as you care for them, helping them rise above the negative thought patterns that are wreaking havoc on their lives.
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