This article was originally published in Engage: GUN VIOLENCE AND YOUNG PEOPLE from The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary
After the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 17-year-old student Paige Curry told reporters, “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.”
This is the world in which today’s teenagers live. School shootings—and gun violence in general—have become so commonplace that some teens are no longersurprised when it happens in their community. Sadly, many wonder when it will be “their turn.”
Paige went on to add, “I wasn’t surprised. I was just scared.” Gun violence has a significant emotional and spiritual impact on teenagers, and it’s important that youth workers understand how to help.
As a former youth-minister-turned-disaster-researcher, I have seen over and over again the significant and sometimes long-lasting spiritual and emotional trauma these events cause. Our research at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute has also shown the significance of faith and spiritual meaning-making to recover from this kind of trauma. As a youth worker, you will be a primary person that teens come to with their questions, doubts, fears, and hopes.
It may seem difficult to know what to say or do when your teens are struggling with something this big. The following are seven steps youth ministry workers can take to help affected teens cope with the psychological and spiritual impact of gun violence.
Listen to spiritual concerns. Providing spiritual support to your teen after a traumatic event can be as simple as remaining open to questions, thoughts, or feelings they might share about faith—and understanding that it is common, especially those directly impacted by violence, to experience spiritual struggles, including doubts about the nature of God.
Be honest about what you don’t know. Remember that you don’t have to have all the answers to spiritual questions or struggles your teen might be having. It’s better to admit that you don’t know than to respond thoughtlessly. It’s perfectly fine to tell your teen that you’ll think about their question, or pray about it, and then to consult with another pastor, church leader, or counselor first before answering any question you aren’t prepared to answer on your own.
Share spiritual encouragement. Consider sharing encouraging stories through songs, Scripture, or prayers with your teen. Discuss the proactive and redemptive things that also sometimes occur during or following traumatic events. The Old Testament stories of God’s care for Joseph, for Moses, and for the children of Abraham are all examples of encouraging spiritual stories. Also, don’t be afraid to tell present-day experiences or examples—from your own life or that you’ve witnessed—to provide assurance.
Maintain spiritual routines. It’s also important to maintain spiritual routines or practices in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Re-establish your spiritual routines like worship and youth group as soon as possible. The goal is to help your teen find some normalcy in their spiritual lives after such an abnormal event.
Foster spiritual expression. Look for ways to encourage your teen to express their spiritual thoughts and feelings about the incident. Teens may benefit from journaling about spiritual challenges arising from the event. You might also ask them if there might be someone they trust, that when they are ready, that they’d feel comfortable sharing their story. Artistic outlets like art or writing a song can also be helpful strategies to encourage.
Refer for additional spiritual support. If you’ve tried to create a reassuring environment by following the steps above, but your teen continues to exhibit spiritual struggles that worsen over time or interfere with daily behavior, talk to a trusted mental health or healthcare professional.
Encourage them toward prayer and action. As Christians, we know that prayer is powerful and should be our first response to difficult things. Pray with and for your teens, and encourage them to bring their fears, anxieties and hopes to God. I also believe that the words of 1 John 3:18 —“Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth”—provide a helpful framework for how we can respond to gun violence with both prayers and action. I am a founding signer of the Prayers & Action petition, which calls on Christians to do exactly this. It may be helpful to remind teens that their voices and experiences count, and that they can be part of not just proclaiming the good news but also demonstrating the hope to which we hold.
Dr. Jamie Aten is the Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook (InterVarsity Press) and A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press, forthcoming January 2019). In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion Award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.