Dr. Jamie D. Aten: Helping Teenagers and Children Cope Spiritually and Emotionally After a Crisis

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 Today signs 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 distress increases 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.

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Source: Christianity Today