This is Part #2 of a 3-part series for youthworkers on responding when young people experience trauma. Responding to trauma such as accidental death, natural disasters and community events may not be something that we spend a lot of time training for as youthworkers, but some basic pointers can help guide you in uncertain times and give you a reference point. For those of you who have dealt with teenagers in responding to trauma, I’d love you to add your ideas, experiences and reflections to the benefit of others.

Part #2: Managing Impact. Looking at helpful first steps in allowing a young person to effectively deal with trauma experience as best as they are able, including questions around spirituality & future security.

  1. identifying the trauma and accepting what happened.
  2. identifying the behaviour/feelings that are trauma-related.
  3. accepting that the symptoms are completely normal and recoverable.
  4. putting in place some basic responses to help the recovery process.

No one incident is ever the same, whether it’s mass trauma like in a terrorist attack or natural disaster, or a more personal, unique situation – the response of any young person could be drastically different between siblings, friends and classmates. The key is to remain as calm as possible and help a young person to recognize and accept the trauma’s effect and impact.

Accepting trauma is something that may require the help of a professional – and in these circumstances it is always wise to have at least one person you can refer to or check with in terms of your care process. It can be a significant hurdle as young people can sometimes gravitate around questions of why and how. The first step is helping a young person to express in their own words, the effect the trauma is having on them, and accept the impact of the trauma so they can move own to dealing with the trauma itself.

Constant affirmation, invitation for a young person to express themselves and patience to allow them to do it remain key at all times. This is not a time for finishing sentences or telling a young person what they are feeling. You can make suggestions, but form these around a question such as “does it feel a little bit like ……..?”, thus allowing the young person to find their own words. Key in your response is always to affirm the expression of those feelings, that they are normal and acceptable. Emphasize the reality that your acceptance of a young person hasn’t changed as the result of their trauma.

Often the most traumatic and disconcerting part of any horrific experience for a young person is trying to figure out how to reenter the community and life that was once incredible familiar but that can be changed in a matter of moments. As youthworkers, we are custodians of environment. One of our most important tasks is help work alongside families and young people in managing and creating environments where they can express within safe places.

However, you can expect that young people will strike out with lack of interest, aggression, hyper-emotionalism in group gatherings. They may become the center of attention very quickly, or they may shun the spotlight, while other students feel too uncomfortable to talk to them. Engage an action plan with a young person and their families. It might go something like this:

“Hey, when you come back to youth group or if you feel like being around on Friday/Saturday.. I want to make sure it’s as safe and comfortable an environment for you as possible. I know it might be uncomfortable to talk about this now, but I really want to make sure you have what you need. Let’s start with, what can I tell people beforehand so you don’t have to answer the same questions over and over? Or would you like to say a few words yourself? If not, that’s totally ok. But you need to know that people will ask, because they care about you. So let’s try to have a plan.”

Or in the instance of mass trauma, like in 2o04 when we lost close friends and members of church in the Boxing Day Tsunami, we gathered together and many people had the opportunity to share their thoughts. The important thing to remember is that some will need to express themselves with lots of attention and what would otherwise be considered narcissism while others will want to pretend that nothing happened at all.

Observing young people in an environment like youth group is often a good place to start if you fear they are getting stuck in shortterm trauma response. If they are often returning to the same place of fear, helplessness and horror while in a familiar environment or often getting stuck in the same place.

Dealing with the lashouts and changes in behaviour.
In many respects, dealing with mass trauma means that the group can process experiences together – from unique perspectives but with the advantage of feeling a sense of “we’re in this together.” For an individual student experiencing trauma, that isolated feeling can often be compounded by a sense of “I’m the only one who has experienced it”. In these moments, it can be helpful to gently create spaces where friends and family can express the impact of the trauma on themselves, ie: “I am so hurt and afraid when I see how fearful you are, and I feel powerless to help you feel better.” Students may become angry or aggressive, and find themselves questioning many of the values and beliefs that they once held dear, or that are valued and important to the community.

  • Don’t label it “it’s just a phase” as these questions around belief can be crucially significant for a young person
  • Enter into conversations about where the questions come from, what possible answers there are to questions. At no time is it more important for a young person to be able to honestly question God and their faith than when facing a crisis of personal or global impact. There is no more important time to listen, rather than provide answers.
  • Accept that the perspective on their world has dramatically shifted and may not return to what it was.

Trauma as Crisis Experience.
There is the potential for some traumatic experiences to propel a young person forward in certain aspects of growth and emotional maturity. This is typically reliant on processes that allow a person freedom to explore all possible responses to trauma whilst helping them to choose a proactive and positive one.

What do you think so far?