If you have worked with youth for any period of time you have encountered a student who discloses, for the first time, that they are the victim of abuse, that they engage in some form of at-risk behaviors, are contemplating suicide, or a myriad of other statements/behaviors that require acute attention. But often in our ministry training we are not taught how to respond to crisis as it is revealed to us. The following are guidelines for Frontline workers; people like you and I who are faced with students in crisis.
- Many of the problems kids have are complex and multidetermined and the emergence of these behaviors and their subsequent maintainance have typically been reinforced by biological, psychological, and social factors over the course of years. We must be quick to listen. Do not respond from a reactive place of shock, fear, or revulsion. This will drive the student away or compile more shame on their already fragile spirit.
Know Your Role
- Most maladaptive behaviors are external symptoms of deeper problems and often these deeper problems are not issues we are trained to handle. We MUST know our limitations. Too often we trespass into areas that we are not equipped to handle ourselves, let alone lead someone else through.
- Be an educator. Though we are not experts in treating certain problems we can learn about them. Educate students, parents, volunteers, and staff on signs and symptoms of specific problems. (i.e, long-sleeve shirts in inclimate weather is a sign that student may be hiding scars from self-injury).
- Linking systems and coordinating care. Connecting your student and their family to needed services such as social service agencies, food pantries, domestic violence shelters, healthcare, etc.
- Serving as a conduit to treatment. If the problems are severe then counseling is likely necessary. You coordinating that connection and providing ongoing support or even being involved in the counseling as a support relationship is essential in the healing process. This may be the most important thing you do for your student.
- Primacy of relationship. Your presence will say more about your love for the student than anything you do.
- Prayer goes without saying but don’t under estimate the power of prayer. We are told that wherever two or more are gathered in the name of Christ, He is present. Pray! Pray regularly. Pray with fever and faith. Teach your student and their family, if they don’t know how, to pray as well.
Sit In The Front Car
- There’s no denying you’re getting on a roller coaster. You might as well strap into the front car. You will traverse high highs and low lows. Be prepared for paradoxical behavior and irrational thinking. Remain in the present with your student. You will learn to do a balancing act between acceptance vs. change (accepting the student where they are at but trying to move them forward), unwavering centeredness vs. passionate flexibility (remaining calm in the middle of chaos), and nurturing vs. benevolent demanding (providing support, sensitivity, and compassion while setting and maintaining boundaries).
One of the keys to working with teens is to know, set, and maintain healthy and appropriate boundaries (for the student and ourselves) while remaining in the mess with them. This is not always easy and will require prayer, discernment, and wise feedback from others.
Chris Schaffner is a veteran youth worker and certified counselor. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.