Helping Teenagers and Children Cope Spiritually and Emotionally after a Crisis Like the Thai Cave Rescue

This article was originally published in Christianity Today.

Photo by Siam Pukkato/Shutterstock

Photo by Siam Pukkato/Shutterstock

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 or Twitter @drjamieaten.

How Not to Help—Lessons from Elon Musk’s Thai Cave Response

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.

Photo Source: Bruno van der Kraan/Unsplash

Photo Source: Bruno van der Kraan/Unsplash

There’s been a lot of coverage about the comments and allegations being tossed back and forth between British rescue diver Vern Unsworth and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk over Musk’s response to the Thai boys soccer team trapped in a cave.

According to Unsworth, Musk arrived on the scene uninvited—what emergency managers commonly refer to as an SUV (i.e., spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer)—with a small unmanned submarine. 

Musk has pushed back against these claims, saying he was indeed asked to help and be on scene as the Thai cave rescue unfolded. He has gone as far as insulting Unsworth on Twitter and says he plans to run a demonstration to show that his submarine would have worked. 

Regardless of who said what, what would or wouldn’t have worked, or what Musk’s motivations actually were, this debacle serves as an important reminder that we should pause before jumping in to help. Consider these tips the next time you feel the urge to jump in your car and drive to help those affected by a crisis or send some food or hand-me-down clothes.

Know why you want to help

Musk has in the past been referred to as a Superman-like figure because of his visionary leadership in technology. 

But those helping because of a what some experts call a “superhero complex” help not to meet the needs of others, but instead to meet their own personal needs. This might include being driven by external motivations, like getting “in on the action.” Other people want to be known as a do-gooder. Still others might struggle with anxiety about what happened and want to help in order to alleviate their own negative feelings.

Swooping in to volunteer for the wrong reasons—like wanting to be a hero—is more likely to cause harm than help. You will likely only add to the chaos of the crisis to which you are responding.

Focus on being more other-oriented

Each of us is limited by our own experiences, so one of the most important and powerful ways we can bring aid is by listening to those we are assisting. Don’t assume you know what survivors need. People affected by a crisis or disaster know their own needs better than you do.

If your help is going to make a positive difference, it needs to match up with what the actual needs on the ground are right now, and what those needs will be later.

Truly listening to those you are there to assist will keep you from coming across like a “bull in a china shop.” Listen to local gatekeepers, officials, and authorities about what is needed, too. Doing so makes it more likely that survivors and professional first responders on site will accept your assistance and that you will be addressing actual felt needs.

Remember that no job is beneath you, pitch in wherever you’re told help is wanted. Small jobs sometimes make the biggest difference. And be open to hearing that your help may not be needed. If you make your helping all about you—what you have to give or what you can do—it’s probably not going to help them.

When and how to help

When the next catastrophe happens, there will be a time and place for you to deploy or to give resources. Unless you are helping your neighbor, wait until specifics on what is needed and how others can help start to emerge.

Look for ways to volunteer through established relief groups, ministries, community organizations, and the like. Just showing up on your own accord ends up adding to the havoc by getting in the way of trained responders, diverting resources from survivors, and contributing to the already taxed local infrastructure.

To make sure your dollars go to work, consider giving to trusted relief organizations and nonprofits. Giving money is one of the most effective ways you can help in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Give to organizations that already possess the skills, know-how, and resources to respond effectively. 

Wanting to pick up and go help or send resources when crises strike is a good thing. However, you need to resist the urge to self-deploy or to send resources until you you’ve considered these tips. Doing so will help prevent you from being a SUV—or, in this case—a Tesla.  

Jamie D. Aten, Ph.D., 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 ResilienceFollow online at or Twitter @drjamieaten.