By Jess Greaser, Youth Director at Calvary Church in Souderton, PA
I remember the moment my perspective on trauma shifted.
I had been on staff at a large church in youth ministry for many years and had a toolbox full of experience and knowledge that gave me confidence in handling all of the issues our team faced in ministry. But all that changed the day I worked with my first client as an intern at an alternative school for middle and high school students. I quickly realized that even though I had 10+ years of working with students in my church and was halfway through my Masters of Counseling program, I still had a lot to learn—especially about trauma.
The deep dive into the world of trauma felt like a daunting task. But the more I learned, the more I realized that there are a few basic truths that can be incredibly valuable for those of us who work with students and their families in any capacity.
First, the stats are staggering. Two thirds of children report experiencing at least one traumatic event by the time they are 16 years old. Divorce, domestic violence, the death or illness of a loved one, and neglect are just a few examples of the traumas that may impact the lives of our students. Studies show the brain is negatively impacted by trauma, and because of that, students that have had traumatic experiences may at times act, think, and feel differently than their peers. Students who have experienced trauma may do things like…
- Engage in risky behaviors.
- Have struggles eating, sleeping, and completing everyday tasks.
- Be overly aggressive or passive (increased fight or flight response).
- Display attention-seeking behaviors.
Second, you don’t have to understand a person’s story in order to show compassion. This is important for a few reasons:
- You don’t need to worry that your lack of similar experience will prevent you from being a positive influence or a safe person in the life of a student who has experienced trauma. Your care, faithfulness, and listening ear can be highly influential and healing!
- Every story is unique because every person is unique. Even if you have had a traumatic experience similar to your student, theirs is likely to be vastly different from your own. Forgetting to see the other person and their experience as unique prevents you from fully hearing and seeing them the way they need to be heard and seen.
- Saying you understand can actually diminish the other person. Saying we understand can downplay the importance of the other person’s experience. On the contrary, allowing someone to tell their own story without having to compare and contrast to someone else’s empowers them. Two questions to ask yourself before sharing a “similar” story from your own life:
- Why am I sharing this?
- Could telling this story take the focus off of the other person and their story and pain?
Third, create environments that help students thrive. Don’t over spiritualize by “speaking” for God. Phrases like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or, “God must be preparing you for something big,” can actually do more harm than good in this situation.
Instead of feeling the need to speak immediately, get comfortable with sitting with people in their deep pain. It is okay for students to question or be angry at God in the middle of their grief and pain. God is big enough to handle their anger and catch every tear. And sometimes the best thing you can do as a leader for a student dealing with trauma is to create an environment that is safe for them speak and process without fear of judgment.
Lastly, recognize you are not a trauma counselor, and that’s okay! It’s harmful to counsel someone through trauma if you are not trained. To be honest, the more healthy and supportive relationships a client has outside the counseling office, the better. Remember, you have a vital role to play in the life of your students, but being their counselor isn’t one of them.
So if you’re trying to comfort and support a student dealing with trauma in your ministry, here’s what you can do:
- Realize the statistics tell us that many students in our ministries have experienced trauma.
- Remember you can have a huge impact in the life of a student by showing up consistently and creating a safe space.
- Recognize the hero complex. We all want to help people, but this desire can quickly turn into a desire to fix or rescue. Never pressure someone to share with you. Be willing to admit when you are in over your head. Seek outside help and support. Do what you can to create environments where students can feel loved and supported.
- Encourage students who may benefit from counseling to pursue it. One way you could be for your students is to set up a scholarship fund for those who could benefit from counseling but cannot afford it. As a trusted person in their lives, your encouragement to take the next step toward healing will go a long way!
We have the power to positively influence the lives of those around us. Being informed and remembering we are not alone will allow us to have a huge impact in the lives of students struggling with trauma. We are better together, and we serve a God who will wipe every tear and bind every broken heart.