When They Confess

By Guest Contributor December 9, 2014

By Chris Maxwell

Interview with counselor Sean Williamson

What should we do when a teen meets with us to confess, “I look at porn,” “I’m having sex,” “I’m addicted to alcohol,” “I’ve been smoking,” “I’ve been cutting myself,” or “I can’t take life any longer; I’m ready to give up”? Do we tell their parents? Do we take them to seek professional help? How can we do what is best for them, what is best for the church, what is biblical, and what is legal—while still maintaining the relationship?

I asked counselor Sean Williamson these questions. Sean and I work with college students together. We know what it feels like to hear bad news, and we know the positive experience of our young people pursuing counsel. We also know the importance of boundaries and liabilities.

Here is what Sean said when I asked him about these encounters:

Sean, what is the first thing a youth worker should do when a student confesses something difficult?

The first thing to remember is simple: Don’t freak out! When a young person comes to you and trusts you enough to reveal a deep secret—probably something they’ve been pondering for a while—you have been given a great honor. Never forget that! They are placing a great deal of trust in you as a confidant. Don’t take that trust for granted.

What should we do if a student says, “I need to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone else”?

Youth workers should stop right there. Do not make that promise. You want your young people to trust you, but if there is a serious issue happening in their life, you may not be able to keep that a secret. Yes, the student may be telling you something that can stay between the two of you, but they also might be revealing abuse of some sort, an intention to do harm to others, or any number of things you simply can’t keep to yourself.
Not only can this be a life or death matter, but it can also be a legal matter for you and your church. It seems strange to worry about legal issues when a student is hurting deeply, but in that moment, you’re a representative for your entire church. Crossing legal lines puts your church and its many ministries in serious jeopardy. So hold yourself to this standard, for the good of your student and your entire church: never promise confidentiality.

How should youth workers interact with students while they’re confessing? What’s the best attitude to take?

I can’t over-emphasize the importance of listening. Do not go into “fix it” mode; just listen to their story. A time will come for dealing with the issue—but not yet.

Also, remember that confession is always difficult. The student may need a gentle push along the way. You can help make it easier by offering some open-ended statements like, “Tell me about how this started,” or “Tell me about how you felt when that was happening.”

And then?

After you hear their story, ask the Holy Spirit for guidance, take a deep breath, and take a step back mentally. Ask yourself:

  • Did they talk about harming themselves or others? Is someone in danger?
  • Is this a spiritual, physical, mental health, or relational issue?
  • Is this serious enough that we need to tell the parents or guardians?
  • What is home life like for this student? Are parents or guardians supportive? Are they hurtful or neglectful?

If there is a question of harm to self or others, do not let the student out of your sight and get help immediately. If the person is volatile and you do not feel safe, try to keep them within your sight and call for help.

If no one is in immediate danger, start to think about whether this is something you can help with, or if you need to get someone else involved. You got into youth ministry because you wanted to help young people, but sometimes the best way to help is by referring them to a more qualified person. You cannot help every student with every problem—you just are not that good (sorry to break it to you.) Work with the student to identify someone who can help.

Do you have any guidance for youth workers struggling with the decision to involve parents or someone else?

I wish I could tell you there is a hard and fast rule about when to tell parents and when to keep it to yourself, but it is not that easy. Youth workers should use a combination of experience, gut feeling, knowledge of policy, council from others, and common sense to make these kinds of decisions. But here are some general guidelines:

  • If there is a sense of harm to self or others, get someone else involved.
  • In cases where the outcome is going to involve parents or guardians anyways, such as pregnancy, go ahead and get it over with.
  • In cases where the issue is ongoing—for example, a student talks to you about pornography use and you try to assist them, but your intervention isn’t helping—get help.
  • If the student is involved in illegal or other harmful ongoing activity—for example, a student tells you they are addicted to meth or a boyfriend is abusing them—let someone know.
  • If a student is dealing with a normal relationship problem or if they just need someone to talk to, there is no reason to share that information with anyone else. That is where you can really build trust.

It can be difficult to entrust your student into the care of someone else. Is there any way to make that transition easier?

Get to know the resources in your community. Offer to take a counselor to lunch or coffee and get to know them, visit the local teen pregnancy center, or, better yet, do some volunteer work for them. This way, when you need to refer to them, you will be sending your student to someone you know and trust, not just to a stranger.

Also, accompany your student to the doctor or therapist, to the head pastor, or to their parents. Don’t just pawn them off. Be there with them as they transition to the care of this other individual.

How can youth workers preserve the relationship with a student if you decide to involve their parents?

If you feel the parents should know, talk to your student about it. Explain why you think they should let their parents know and why it should come from their own lips. Again, offer to be by their side when their parents find out.

Sean Williamson has been the Director of Counseling Services at Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia since 2008. He earned his masters in Social Work from the University of Georgia and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with the State of Georgia. Before working in the college setting, Sean was a prison counselor, worked in community mental health, and worked with the developmentally disabled. In addition to counseling at Emmanuel, he has a private counseling practice and teaches college classes.

CC Image courtesy Kelsi Barr on Flickr.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More