This article was originally published in Christianity Today.
People from around the globe celebrated the heroic rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team this week. Statistically speaking the odds of being trapped in a cave like the Thai soccer boys is rare.
But numerous national studies have shown trauma is more common in childhood than most people realize. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health almost half of children living in the United States have gone through one or more serious traumas (e.g., violence).
For this reason, it’s important for parents and caregivers to be informed, recognize the signs of reactions to stress, and learn how to best help teenagers and children cope spiritually and emotionally.
Recognizing the Signs
For many teenagers and children, responses to a traumatic event are normal reactions to abnormal events. But some reactions may point to the need for further help. As I shared with the USA Todaysigns to watch for include major changes in sleep patterns (including trouble falling asleep, frequent nightmares, or sleeping too much); shifts in temperament; and even jumpiness and increased anxiety or changes in play. These indicate that additional support is needed.
The risk of enduring psychological distressincreases given the circumstances. Teenagers and children at a higher risk include those who experience direct exposure to a trauma—including being evacuated to observing the injury or death of others, experiencing injury themselves or fearing for their lives. Those grieving the loss of others, those still experiencing on-going stressors such as temporary living situations, or children losing touch with friends, families, other caregivers, and social networks are also at a greater risk for experiencing long-term consequences.
Meeting Spiritual Needs
Providing spiritual support to teenagers and children after a traumatic event should include remaining open to questions, thoughts, or feelings children might share about faith in the aftermath of the tragedy. Understanding that it is common for children, especially those directly impacted by a trauma, to experience spiritual struggles, including doubts about the nature of God in the wake of a crisis.
Taking a developmental approach to addressing spiritual issues like asking questions back to the child in order to understand how the teen or child is interpreting or making meaning of an event. (When asked, “Why would God allow this to happen?” Your reply might be, “Do you have any thoughts about where God was in this?”) This will help you have a better sense of where they are in grappling with their pain and to tailor an age appropriate response.
Remember that you don’t have to have all the answers. It is better to admit that you don’t know than to respond thoughtlessly. It’s perfectly fine to tell a teenager or child you’ll think about their question, or pray about it, and then to consult with a pastor, church leader, or counselor first before answering any question you aren’t prepared to answer on your own. Be sure to circle back to their question, even if no answer is to be found.
Consider sharing encouraging stories, songs, scripture, or prayers while avoiding cliché statements. 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 can provide reassurance, but don’t be afraid to tell present-day stories as well. I was a part of a study after the San Francisco earthquake about how children perceive God. One child who had been on the bridge during the earthquake drew a picture showing a tangled bridge with the arms of God wrapped around his family. It was a beautiful illustration of how even in the midst of tragedy, God isn’t somewhere else; He’s right there with us.
It’s also important to maintain spiritual routines or practices in the home and community. Teenagers and older children may benefit from journaling about spiritual challenges arising from the event, whereas younger children might draw pictures as a way of expressing their spiritual concerns.
Steps for Emotionally Reassuring Children
Provide as safe and supportive environment. Remember their reactions are often influenced by the behavior, thoughts and feelings of the adults around them. Never treat your teenager or child like a peer, expecting them to process your emotions as well as their own. Instead, seek the wise counsel of friends or professional counselors so that you can appropriately support the children in your care. Take steps to re-establish your daily routine for work, school, play, meals and rest. Involve teenagers and children by giving them specific tasks or chores to help them feel they are helping to restore family and community life and be sure to praise and recognize responsible behavior.
Do not push children and adolescents to share their thoughts and feelings about the incident. Be patient; it’s okay if it takes them some time to discuss what they are going through. If a younger child has difficulty expressing feelings, coloring, drawing a picture, telling a story, or playing with stuffed animals together can be great conversations starters. It’s also important to reinforce good memories by making time to do something positive together. While you wait for them to open up let them know you and others will be there to listen when they are ready to talk.
Monitor and limit their exposure to the media. News coverage related to a traumatic event may elicit fear and confusion and arouse anxiety in teenagers and children. This is particularly true for large-scale events or those that generate significant media coverage. Especially for younger children, repeated images of an event may cause them to believe the event is recurring over and over. If teenagers and children are allowed to watch television or use the internet, parents and caregivers should be with them to encourage communication and provide explanations.
Spend extra time with your teenagers and children. Hug them, be there for them, especially at bedtime. Your presence, even if you don’t know what to say, can help teenagers and children feel more safe and secure. Helping your teenager and child feel loved is one of the most powerful ways you can help. If you’ve tried to create a reassuring environment by following the steps above, but your teenager or child continues to exhibit stress, worsens over time, or interferes with daily behavior, talk to their primary care physician, a mental health provider specializing in trauma, or a trusted pastor.
Dr. Jamie D. Aten is Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of the MA in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership program at Wheaton College. He is the author of the forthcoming book A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience. Follow online at jamieaten.com or Twitter @drjamieaten.