Toward Care of Children and Youth after Trauma

By Kate Wiebe

Elements - Feb 2015 Banner

Recently, the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB), under the direction of pediatrician and grief expert Dr. David Schonfeld, announced a new resource: the Coalition to Support Grieving Students (grievingstudents.org). What a great contribution! In my opinion, it’s a resource we’ve needed for far too long. Teachers, sadly, lack resourcing and training both during and after tragedies in schools, even as they are the ones who encounter and shepherd the daily healing of children and youth. It’s great to see organizations like NCSCB increasing tools and aids specifically focused on classroom experiences.

But what about faith communities and youth groups? Where are the resources for pastors and youth ministers specifically focused on healthy program development after trauma, and not just on counseling troubled youth or kids in crisis? Many youth groups have learned how to thrive after trauma, yet their stories of best practices are few and far between. In other cases, too often, responders brought hammers, nails, sleeping bags, and extra coats, when companionship and emotional and spiritual care were needed most – especially in cases that involved children and youth.

In the last decade, there have been at least five incidents of mass school violence in the United States, plus countless other forms of violence in schools throughout the country. Some reports estimate an average of one school shooting per week, resulting in severe wounding or one or two deaths. Of course, these lists don’t count events like mass stabbings in schools. Those seem harder for us to account for and collectively acknowledge. For example, when people refer to the shooting at UCSB last May, they often do just that – they refer to it as a shooting. We stumble over having to repeat that the killer first stabbed his roommates to death before proceeding on a shooting spree through the campus. A month before that event, in April, I had responded with a team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to a school stabbing in Pennsylvania. Over 20 students ended up in the hospital, and numerous students were eyewitnesses to gore they had never imagined. Yet that event did not stay in the national headlines for long. No doubt, you are probably also aware of incidents in your own communities that likewise didn’t make national headlines – events that continue to cause individuals and families to struggle with the senselessness of the tragedy.

Even if they feel they lack training in responding to trauma well, many youth ministers today instinctually sense that after cases of violence you can’t just go back to playing marshmallow games again, as if nothing happened, and that Bible study must be done through the lens of these great personal losses in our lives. They struggle with wanting both to provide safe places for kids to be open about how they are feeling, while at the same time recognizing that some youth need places to not talk and, in some cases, to get a break from the seemingly ceaseless focus on how they are doing. Ministers wrestle with providing this kind of healthy balance.

Indeed, the ability to give emotional and spiritual care is increasingly becoming a critical 21st-century skill. It’s a relief to see resources like grievingstudents.org appear on the scene for teachers. We need more tools like this for faith leaders and youth ministers too. That is why the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth (ICTG) is dedicated to providing current data and practical tools on our website, to advocating for new research and scholarship among seminaries and universities, and to creating events for field experts to network and increase capacities.

Here are a few examples of our work:

Recently assistant professor for pastoral care and counseling at Boston College, Dr. Phil Browning Helsel, provided an excerpt from his article addressing intimate partner violence. He includes a liturgical blessing for use with survivors of intimate partner violence or domestic abuse. You can read the post here and find a link to his article “Witnessing the Body’s Response to Trauma” here. Learning how to bless our God-given trauma responses, rather than blame or shame them, can make a tremendous difference for survivors in our congregations. We’re wondering, too, what if, in the aftermath of trauma, more youth groups included blessings like these in their ministry practice?

On the Resources pages and on the blog of the ICTG website, you can find articles and books, as well as podcasts and films specifically addressing care of children and youth after trauma. For example, here is a podcast by Fr. Jeff Putthoff describing trauma-informed care for youth in Camden, NJ, through Hopeworks ’N Camden. He describes the importance of both faith leaders and community leaders practicing what is called “trauma-informed care,” especially among communities facing chronic stress. He provides specific practical examples of how they are putting these practices to work in Camden.

You may watch the “Children’s Ministry through the Storm” film with presenter Ryan Timpte, Director of Children’s Ministry at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church. In it, he discusses what it is like to pastor a ministry program in the aftermath of a major national incident, like a mass school shooting, that greatly concerns members even when it is far away geographically.

Over the next three months, guest blogger Doug Ranck is providing a three-part blog series called “Youth Pastor in a Traumatic and Post-Traumatic World.” Doug is a prominent youth minister, with over three decades of experience. He is associate pastor of youth and worship at Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara, CA, and provides consulting, training, and education through Ministry Architects, the Southern California Free Methodist Conference, and the national Free Methodist Church. In his series, he focuses on the topics “What I feel,” “What I know,” and “What I do (or should I do)” during and after trauma. You can read his first post here and join the conversation.

Emotional and spiritual care for children and youth after trauma is a critical issue for us today as Christians. Whether we are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, elders, deacons, or faithful neighbors, our care and concern for the young people in our communities during and after trauma greatly impacts their health and well-being. Join us by getting involved in the conversations, sharing your own stories of congregational healing, and considering how you are practicing care with the young people in your community.

Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe is the Executive Director of the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth (ICTG, www.ictg.org). With over 15 years experience in pastoral care and trauma treatment, she seeks solutions for ministers and congregations to thrive after trauma. For the last five years, she has volunteered as a National Responder for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PCUSA), including responding to events in Tucson, Tuscaloosa, Aurora, Newtown, Murrysville, and UCSB. She also teaches disaster preparedness and response to ministerial groups around the country. In her free time, she enjoys celebrating holidays, traveling to new places with her family, and savoring slow-cooked meals with good friends.
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