For youth workers (paid or volunteer), there can be nothing more frightening than the belief that something terrible might happen to a student that you have invested so much time and energy in. As a substance abuse counselor, I struggle with the reality that one day someone could overdose and die regardless of how much I try to help. I live with the often frantic sense that “there had to be something I could have done!”
Never knowing when crisis or tragedy might happen we learn to be hypervigilant, always on our guard. Is today the day I get the call? Will it be a car accident? A school shooting? Suicide?
Sometimes we feel as though we’re in a lethal game of chess with our kids, always trying to be two moves ahead and aware of the possible counter-moves. This type of hypervigilance can be exhausting.
As a youth worker of at-risk kids, you may find yourself on a constant emotional roller coaster with no scheduled stops. In times of crisis we often set aside our own needs entirely and as a result, we risk burnout and compassion fatigue. Be reassured that the time for balance will come if you’re intentional, but there are some things you can do now.
1. Seek supportive relationships
This will be essential in avoiding burnout. We have this discussion with nearly every person that visits the Shelter at SYMC. We encourage them to build a network of friends, family and peers who are kind and encouraging. Don’t isolate yourself in fear or shame. Seek respite in these relationships from the intensity of the situations you are facing with your kids.
2. Develop health-conscious behaviors
This is three-fold as I see it; rest, exercise, nutrition. Get adequate sleep, avoid snack foods, take a brisk walk daily. All three are important for emotional stability and combating low levels of energy.
3. Have fun
A life that is overrun with doom and gloom and that is absent of joy is not one worth having. We need recreation. It brings balance. Laughter releases endorphins which cause us to feel pleasure in our brain. Often, when working with at-risk kids we lose our ability to laugh. The best cure for a “lost laugh” is a “Three Stooges-I Love Lucy-Gilligan’s Island” marathon.
4. Spiritual retreat
It is essential that we create time for retreat. We should develop the discipline, schedule in our calendars, and add to our budgets the practice of seeking spiritual direction. There’s something magical and refreshing about pulling away from the insanity and seeking Abba’s face in solitude or with a spiritual companion. Jesus would often pull away after a busy day of ministry to connect with his Father. He would travel across the lake, go up the mountain or into the garden to pray.
These simple acts can break us of our dependency on ourselves. It causes us to reflect on whether or not we are growing a savior complex. Have I, with the best intentions, placed myself in the position of God? I have found that when my levels are the lowest it’s because I have been the one trying to “save” and “fix” kids myself. Being God is hard work and I’m just not cut out for it.
If we expect to be in this for the long-haul we must pace ourselves. It is an intentional discipline that we need help in cultivating. I am thankful for the other youth workers God has placed in my life that help me find balance. They constantly remind me I am not God. And, we laugh a lot. As a result, we have a better chance of loving and ministering to the kids in our community out of an overflow rather than a deficiency.We have a better chance of ministering to kids out of an overflow rather than a deficiency. Click To Tweet
CHRIS SCHAFFNER is a certified addictions counselor working with chemically dependent ’emerging adults’ and 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.