All teens struggle with feeling hurt or sad at times, but some teens go through especially traumatic situations such as their parents divorcing, a death in the family, physical abuse, substance abuse, serious illnesses, or a variety of other difficult circumstances. Trauma rarely affects only the teen with whom you are working. The child’s stress is often compounded by his or her parents or guardians also feeling overwhelmed by whatever stressor or stressors are going on at the time. You will be able to help the hurting teen best if you are also helping his or her family.
You can help by explaining to hurting children and teens that the adults in their families are still there for them and are able to help them even when the adults are crying or seem overwhelmed. Sometimes children hide their own grief or worries and try to deal with them on their own because they feel like the adults have too much stress already and they do not want to add to it.
You can help by letting teens and their parents know you are available to listen if they would like to share what they are thinking and feeling. Do not push them to share if they are not ready. Check back in with the teen and his or her family members every so often in case they would like to talk but are too shy or overwhelmed to reach out. Be sure to maintain confidentiality. Unless a child is in danger, do not tell the parents what the child says and do not tell the child what the parents say. If any of them say something you think the other should know, encourage them to share that information themselves.
You can help by reassuring children, teens, and their parents that it is normal for people to experience grief differently. Keep in mind that each grief is unique. A person may grieve differently at different times in his or her life and family members might grieve differently even though they are going through the same loss. After my 8-year-old nephew’s funeral, my younger son asked me if there was something wrong with him because he wasn’t crying all the time like the adults were. Thankfully, I had already talked with a counselor and knew to tell him that it is normal for kids to grieve a little differently from grown-ups. Children and teens need to hear that the way they are grieving is okay.
You can help by keeping an eye out for children and teens starting to struggle with anxiety or behavior issues long after the trauma and by being there to encourage and comfort them and their families. Be aware that symptoms of grief or stress may seem to be over but then might suddenly show up much later. After his cousin died, my younger son seemed surprisingly okay until almost a year later when his birthday rolled around and his cousin wasn’t there. Almost overnight, my son went from seeming to be well-adjusted to having random anxiety attacks and feeling sad and fearful for several months.
You can help by letting teens and their families know that even though things are not how they used to be, God is with them in the new normal. God’s love for us never changes.
You can help by directing people who are struggling with their faith to your pastor, congregation members who have survived similar struggles, and a reliable Christian counselor. Offer to go with them to meet with these people or introduce them in person. Reassure them that God is always close to us regardless of how close to or distant from Him we feel.
You can help by sharing examples of people in the Bible who held onto their faith through struggles and by sharing Bible verses about how God sees us through when we are hurting. Be discerning about how and when you share Scripture with people who are hurting. Some people will find Bible verses comforting at all points of the grieving process while others might feel like you are suggesting that their situation is easier than what some people in the Bible went through or that they are not being “good Christians” if they feel sad or angry. Three pieces of Scripture I have found helpful when going through tough times are 2 Corinthians 4:7-9, Romans 8:38-39, and Psalm 40.
You can help by praying. As soon as you hear that a family is hurting, pause whatever you were doing and pray for each member of the family. Then, get in touch with them and pray with them, if they are comfortable with that. Pray for yourself, too, asking God to give you wisdom and guidance to help them heal and to know that Jesus still loves them and is there for them.
You can help by working with your pastor to prepare trauma resources now so that you have them ready to share when you need them. People who are experiencing trauma often do not know where to turn for help and might feel too upset to focus on figuring out how to help themselves. My favorite resource for teens and adults is the book Hope When Your Heart Breaks: Navigating Grief and Loss by Michael W. Newman (Concordia Publishing House, 2017). The book has short chapters that can be read in any order, depending on which topic a person feels they need most that day. The author includes Bible passages that connect well with the struggles grieving and hurting people experience. It is helpful for any time a person feels hurt because of a sense of loss, even common losses like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or failing a class in school. This book is a great tool to help teens learn how to cope with struggles we all face throughout our lives. I keep a few copies of this book on hand so that I can quickly pass them along to people who experience a loss or are hurting. Another helpful tool you can have available is a one-page resource sheet that you can either keep for reference in the main office at your church or make copies of so that you can easily hand them to people who need them. Some information you could include on that page are contact information for trustworthy Christian counselors, pro-life pregnancy centers, shelters for those who are homeless or abused, and various support groups (grieving, loss of a child, divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse, etc.). Take the time to find great resources so that suffering families don’t have to waste time and money on researching and trying various resources until they find ones that help.
You can help by getting healthy food to people who are in acutely traumatic situations. When families are going through a traumatic event, they are sometimes too overwhelmed or busy to make sure they eat regularly. After a few days of nothing but vending machine snacks at irregular hours, people can start to feel physically miserable in addition to their emotional pain. You can organize members of your congregation to deliver meals to the family’s home(s). Be sure to check with the family first to see what they feel would be helpful and to find out if they have any food allergies or other restrictions that need to be worked around. When going to visit and pray with a hurting family while they are at a hospital with a dying or critically ill loved one, you can take along some healthy foods (grapes, carrot sticks, celery, cheese, bread, sliced meat, etc.) and disposable utensils and dishes. Taking them in a small cooler with ice packs will keep the food fresher longer.
You can help by offering to sit with the family member who is in the hospital while the rest of the family goes out for a meal or takes a little time to take showers and change clothes. Keep a notepad with information about anyone who visits or the name of any doctor or other professional who stops by while they are gone.
You can help by reporting abuse. Find out your congregation’s and community’s policies about mandatory reporting of abuse and have all the necessary phone numbers available so that you can report right away if a teen shares that he or she is being abused.
When trauma hits a family you care about, it can throw you off balance emotionally, too. You can help by taking time for self-care and getting counseling yourself if necessary.