As a youthworker you may be struggling with how to talk with your students about a shooting rampage. It may be difficult to talk to your students about the devastation of an F4 tornado that wipes out a small town. It is important to remember that children look to the adults in their life to make them feel safe. This is true no matter what age the children are, be they toddlers, adolescents, or even young adults.
Consider the following tips for helping your students manage their distress.
Talk with your students. Talking to your students about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all students need to be able to know you are there listening to them.
- Find times when they are most likely to talk: such as when riding in the car, while dinner, with peers, or at coffee shop.
- Start the conversation; let them know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the information they are getting.
- Listen to their thoughts and point of view; don’t interrupt–allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.
- Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs; acknowledge that it is okay to disagree.
- Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Give them a hug.
Keep your ministry settings a safe place. Youth, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. But sometimes home is the environment in which the crisis lives. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that your students may come to youth group seeking the safe feeling they denied at home. Help make it a place where your students find the solitude or comfort they need.
Watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety. After a traumatic event, it is typical for teens (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your student’s behaviors may change because of their response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, or changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in a few months. Encourage your students and their parents to create space where they can convert feelings into words by talking about them or journaling. Some youth may find it helpful to express their feelings through art. Make concession for artistic expression during your gatherings. Many student lack a broad emotional vocabulary to accurately reflect what’s going on inside their head.
Take “news breaks”. Your students may want to keep informed by gathering information about the event from the internet, television, or newspapers. It is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news because constant exposure may actually heighten their anxiety and fears. Also, scheduling some breaks for yourself is important; allow yourself time to engage in activities you enjoy.
Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your students and their families. Be a model for others on how to manage traumatic events. Keep regular schedules for activities such as family meals and exercise to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.
These tips and strategies can help you guide you’re your students and their families through the current crisis. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, you may want to consider talking to someone who could help. A licensed mental health professional or counselor can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward. It is important to get professional help if you feel like you are unable to function or perform basic activities of daily living.
We encourage students to explore the role of honesty and confession as a discipline in the Way of Jesus. Issues relevant to this topic include: What is the cost of dishonesty? When is it safe to confess? What if the other person doesn’t accept honesty?
“I haven’t told my parents that I use pot. I don’t want them to be mad at me.”
“My abuse can’t be as bad as I’ve made it out to be; I must be making things up.”
“If I tell my family about the abuse, I’ll be the black sheep.”
“I don’t want to date that person, but I can’t say ‘no’.”
Honesty, with God, oneself and others, is a central principle of the Way of Jesus. Secrecy, lies, and avoidance are hallmarks of sin as well as abuse. In cases of abuse, young people may have been punished or ignored if they spoke out regarding their abuse, and thus learned to suppress their truths. When the consequence of telling the truth is greater than that of telling lies it makes sense that one would choose the latter of the two.
Students are therefore encouraged to recognize the cost of dishonesty: It alienates them from others and perpetuates the idea that something about them is unacceptable and must be hidden. (Think Adam and Eve) In contrast honesty is liberating.
The term “honesty” conveys an ideal that goes beyond just expressing one’s views. It is meant to convey integrity, the notion of “owning” one’s experiences, and a spiritual sense of acceptance.
Honesty is a complicated subject, however, as real risks are on the line for the abused student. Honesty needs to be selective. It may not be safe, for example, for a young person to confront their abuser.
One particularly difficult situation is when a student asks the youth worker to hide information from parents or other adults, such as substance abuse. In such scenarios, it is strongly recommended that the youth worker not keep secrets that would further place the student at risk of hurting themselves or others. It usually helps to suggest to the student to try talking honestly with the parents, setting a date by which it would happen (such as a few days). After the specified date, the youth worker then talks with the parents directly to confirm that the information has been shared. Although there may be a risk of the student dropping out of our program, the greater risk is keeping substance abuse secrets on behalf of the student. Not only would this reinforce lying about substance abuse, but it puts the youth worker in the position of being an “enabler” and may at times put other people in jeopardy (i.e., driving while under the influence).
In encouraging students to be honest, a key issue is helping them cope with others’ negative reactions. It helps to view honesty as a positive goal in and of itself, regardless of how the other person feels. This is the Way of Jesus. He routinely spoke truth for the sake of truth and not because He was concerned with how the others would react to it. There will be growth either way: If the person has a positive reaction, the relationship has increased in closeness; if the person has a negative reaction, the student has learned more about the other person and can proceed accordingly. Unfortunately, young people too often take a negative reaction to truth not as information about the other person, but as condemnation of themselves. Preparing for negative reactions is then very important because when we can see that often dishonesty is nothing more than a functional protective skill, developed to keep someone safe from threats, we can move from a place of compassion into the messiness of their world.
Because it can be so difficult for students to be honest, respecting their defenses and locating areas where they are able to make some disclosure is more helpful than trying to convince them reveal when they resist. Thus, if a student cannot be honest in a particular situation we should use this defensive posture as a thermostat for our relationship with that student. Resistance can sometimes, often time, be a gift. It lets us know there is still work to be done to develop a trusting relationship with a hurt and scared student.
If we are fortunate enough to gain their trust, we dare not do anything to lose it. It is a sacred thing when a person allows you entrance into their innermost hurt. We must tread carefully. Take off your shoes because you are walking on holy ground. It is here that we have the opportunity to witness the miracle of Jesus making someone whole again.
Suicide, sexual abuse, drive by shootings, car accidents, date rape. These events and many other traumatic events occur on a seemingly regular basis and can impact the surviving student(s), families, or youth workers more deeply than imagined. If you work with kids long enough then you will experience a traumatic event and it will serve you well to understand the phenomenon of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that is often left in the wake of a horrible event.
The following is an overview of what PTSD might look like in your youth, their families, and those that serve them.
Many triggers in the present environment can activate traumatic memory material and stimulate intrusions. Triggers are cues – often harmless – that have become associated with the original trauma. In some way, they remind us of the trauma or recall traumatic memories. The association may be obvious or subtle. They may trigger most of the memory or just certain fragments of it. Often, they trigger intrusions against our will. Recognizing triggers, and realizing that their power to elicit intrusions is understandable, are steps towards controlling its effects on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Some people find it helpful to understand triggers by their twelve categories:
- Visual: seeing blood or road kill reminds one of wounded bodies; black garbage bags can remind us of body bags; a secretary sees her boss standing over her and is reminded of her abusive father.
- Sound (auditory): a backfiring car sounds like gunshot to a veteran or inner city youth exposed to street violence; sounds during lovemaking remind one of sexual abuse.
- Smell (olfactory): the smell of semen or another’s body during intercourse, or the smell of cologne or aftershave reminds one of sexual assault.
- Taste (gustatory): eating a hamburger reminds one of an automobile accident that occurred as one drove away from a fast food restaurant.
- Physical or Body
- Kinesthetic means the sensation of movement, tension, or body position. Thus, running when tense might be reminiscent of trying to flee a beating; trying to do progressive muscle relaxation (tensing muscles, lying on one’s back with eyes closed) might trigger memories of sexual abuse.
- Tactile or touch: pressure around wrists or waist, being gripped, held, or otherwise restrained (perhaps even a hug) reminds one of torture or rape; feeling someone on top of you; a man accidentally kicked in bed by his wife while sleeping recalls a midnight attack while in prison; being touch during sexual relations with a loved one in the same place or in the same way as occurred during abuse will likely trigger traumatic memories.
- Pain or other internal sensations; surgical pain, nausea, headaches, or back pain might trigger memories of torture or rape. Elevated heart rate from exercising at night might remind one of a similar sensation during a high stress encounter such as a drive by shooting.
6. Significant Dates or Seasons
- Anniversary dates of the trauma
- Seasons of the year with their accompanying stimuli (temperature, lighting, colors, sounds)
- Other dates (e.g., a mother becomes distressed on the date of her murdered son would have graduated)
7. Stressful Events/Arousal: Sometimes changes in the brain due to the trauma cause it to interpret any stress signals as a recurrence of the original trauma. At other times, seemingly unrelated events are actually triggers. Examples include:
- A woman visits her spouse in the hospital which triggers a flashback of grief and loss. As a young woman she has a late term miscarriage in the same hospital.
- An argument with a significant other triggers memories of parents arguing violently.
- Criticism from a teacher reminds a person of being abused by his father.
- A frightening dream with no apparent related theme activates the fear of a traumatic memory. (Of course, a nightmare of the trauma would understandably elicit strong feelings of distress.)
- Athletic competition reminds an athlete of a previous traumatic injury or of a being abused when she performed poorly in the past.
8. Strong Emotions: feeling lonely reminds one of abandonment; feeling happy reminds a woman of a rape that occurred after having dinner with her best friend; anything that makes one anxious, out of control, or generally stressed, such as PMS. Some memories are state-dependent, meaning that the brain activates them only when the emotional state is the same as the original memory. Thus, if one was drunk when raped, she may feel symptoms only when drinking; if raped when sober, then drinking might provide an escape from the symptoms.
9. Thoughts: rejection by a lover leads to the thought “I am worthless,” which triggers the same thoughts that occurred when one was abused as a child.
10. Behaviors: driving reminds a person of a serious accident.
11. Out of the Blue: Sometimes intrusions occur when you are tired, relaxing, or your defenses are down. Often a thought or something you’re not aware of will elicit symptoms; so might the habitual act of dissociating during stressful times.
12. Combinations: often triggers contain several memory aspects at once. For example:
- Walking to the parking lot on a dark summer’s night (visual+kinesthetic+seasons) triggers a memory of a violent crime.
- Fireworks (sound+flarelike sight) triggers combat memories.
- Intercourse (weight+touch+sounds+relaxing+the smell of aftershave+the pressure of a hug or a squeezing sensation or the wrists) trigger memories of rape.
This list is by no means exhaustive but hopefully it will shed some light on the problems some of your students face. There are some implications for our ministries too. If we know a student has been sexually assaulted then we should be cognizant to the fact that some games we play where there is physical contact (human knot) or close proximity to others (passing a Life Saver on a toothpick) may trigger a response to that stimulus. We can simply pull them aside and prep them ahead of time as to what the game will entail and give them an option to participate or not.
Students who suffer from trauma need therapeutic interventions. Often we operate outside of our expertise and we must realize that we are not trained counselor. A referral for the student and their family is often the best thing we can do for them. Be honest with yourself about your limitations and seek outside support if necessary.