Before you skip over this article because your students don’t have sex – I’ve been there. I’ve had that same thought. My youth are good kids, we’ve done lessons on waiting till marriage, I bought them a bulk of purity rings from Oriental Trading, there’s no way this is going on in my group. The truth is, in the United States 46 percent of high school aged youth are sexually active, according to Advocates for Youth. That number rises to 62 percent of high school seniors. Your students are very likely dating, and equally likely dating someone outside the group. And that’s okay! It’s good for them to understand and begin to develop relationship skills and boundaries. But, with dating sometimes comes sex. It’s not what we want, but it’s happening.
So, knowing that by the time they are seniors, over half of students are described as sexually active, it’s good to know what to do when one comes to you to open up and shares. If this hasn’t happened yet, it likely will. Youth leaders are in the relationship business, connecting, nurturing and engaging people about vulnerable topics. We end up wearing all sorts of hats – relationship counselor, personal cheerleader, I even know a youth director who routinely teaches his students to drive stick. So, when a teen comes to you to discuss where they are in their relationship, it may come up that they are having sex, and it’s a good idea to have an idea of what to do when that happens. Here are a few things to think about beforehand.
Confidence & Reporting
The first thing to consider is what you are expected to keep confident and what you are required to report. As a youth leader, you are a mandatory reporter, which means if you learn of abuse, neglect or the immediate threat of harm, you must bring it to the attention of authorities. Unfortunately, there is some interpretation involved with this, some of which has to do with your denomination, state and ministry procedures at the local church. Review the policies in place and be aware of what qualifies as mandatory. Some states it depends on whether a student is over 16, in others it’s only reported if one of the participants is over 18, so it can be confusing. Call your local high school and talk to a guidance counselor about what the law says, because they are held to the same standard and will know it intimately.
The other side of this issue is keeping confidence of someone seeking counsel from you. Keeping confidence is crucial to developing a relationship in which you can help to nurture real change, and it takes time and consistency. Do you pick up the phone and call the student’s parents after they leave? Do you encourage them to talk to their parents but keep their secret? Do you force them to talk in hypotheticals? You should decide your course of action before it happens, so you can think it through and remain consistent. In my office, if it’s not a crime or an immediate danger, we work together to develop a plan in which the student informs parents, but that’s what works for me.
That all being said, if the sexual contact is abuse, there is no interpretation or question, you report.
Be aware of environment
Depending on your own ministry guidelines, how and where a conversation like this takes place is important. There is a balance to be struck between private enough to not embarrass or alienate the student, but public enough that you are still following best practices for one-on-one conversations, especially if you are having this conversation with someone of the opposite sex. Have another adult around, whether or not they are immediately in the conversation. If this means meeting at a coffee shop and talking at a booth, so be it. It’s important to protect yourself and your ministry while also helping your student. If a student is wanting to meet after church or before group, make sure the parents know you are meeting, even if you don’t share specifically why. Document what was said and when, even if you aren’t reporting it so that you can reference it later in detail if you ever had to. I like to keep a log using a code system so no one but me would know who I was talking about but provides important information if someone were to ever question me. This also provides a good record for me to follow up in detail and within an appropriate timeframe.
I know that when the “S” word is mentioned, we all want to react. Resist this urge. Let the student talk it all out first. Your job is to listen to their whole story and not faint when they say they’re having sex. Once that’s been accomplished, then you can start talking with them about it. It’s good to remember that they are talking to you because they know there’s a problem already, so be careful. Guilt, shame or judgment is not going to help anyone in this situation. Be calm. Breathe. Overreacting is a sure-fire way to make sure this is the last meaningful conversation that student takes part in with you. Remember that we all sin, and that God’s grace covers us all. Listen first and react slowly.
Whether or not you agree with the decisions a student has made or is making, you can’t help them if they don’t continue to share with you. When a student comes to you about anything sensitive, affirm their decision to share with you. Affirming openness does not condone what is being shared, but it does build new depth of trust and connection. It’s important to build trust.
Imagine yourself as a teenager who has engaged in sexual activity. Perhaps it’s not so hard to imagine what it’s like to have sex before you were ready or before marriage. It’s good to remind yourself what that feels like, because it’s going on in the life of the teen sharing with you. What is something you needed to hear when you were in that position? What did you definitely not need to hear? What advice would have helped you in your faith, future relationships or marriage? Answering these questions personally will begin to shape an appropriate empathetic response as well as begin to help you form a response for after you’ve listened to your student’s story.
It’s also worth noting that this can bring up some very raw, real emotions in you, especially if your own history of relationships and sexual intimacy has involved sin or trauma. There can and may be a profound emotional response from both you and the student sharing, so be ready for that to happen. It’s not easy to predict how we will react in these sorts of conversations or what might inspire a specific response, so it’s even more reason to have put together a plan to talk through this subject. Remember to maintain your professional boundaries, have faith and remember it’s not about you right now.
Specks and Logs
Minimizing judgment and condemnation is probably the most important part of this conversation. It is very likely that the student already feels guilt or shame about what’s happened, or at least has a clear understanding of what the Christian line on this subject is and how it differs from their actions. What has been done can’t be undone, and this is about processing and working on the process of repentance; not as a means of condemnation but rather as forward sanctity and growth. We are not looking to spend time pointing out the speck in their eye, nor should we spend time describing the log in our own, as some may consider doing to break the tension or to enforce relatability. Resist that urge, instead be a non-negative participant in focusing on their story. Jesus forgives, and we are not here to point out specks, logs or pass sentences; we are here to help model that forgiveness and live into the love of God and neighbor.
Work Through the Awkward
I get it. This will likely be super awkward. But this is something that is an important part of student ministry and one of the greatest issues impacting your students. Sex, in addition to being something that has severe spiritual implications, can have a profound emotional impact to the development of your students. Helping them process what is happening to them and helping to direct them to a healthy, Christian relationship structure is crucial. Be ready to feel weird about this conversation, because it will feel weird, but the important things Jesus calls us into are often well outside our comfort zone. You being able to work through it will help the student work through it, too.
No matter what is shared with you, always end your conversation in prayer. This is an opportunity to invoke the help and support of the Holy Spirit in the actions of you and the student, but also an opportunity to remind the student that they are a loved, cherished child of God. Thank God for the courage of the student to share their story with you. Ask for guidance and support moving forward as two people walking together. Thank God that there is nothing we can do to be separated from His love. And mention the teen by name. Prayer is powerful and being part of this type of prayer in this situation can have deep healing effects on a student in turmoil.
Every student is unique, but the issues that they face are universal. Sex is an issue faced by millions of teens. It’s a problem that’s not going away, and it’s our job to do our best to be Jesus to them in these instances of counsel. How we respond in situations like these will have a lasting impact in a substantial way in the lives of our teens. The best way to do that is to be prepared to process and receive their story in a loving, Christlike way.