Coaching

19 Years After Columbine, No Longer a Unique Story: Supporting Youth Who Have Experienced Trauma

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You don’t have to try very hard these days to find a conversation about gun violence and school shootings in our country. In fact, we are living in such a wonderful time that opinions and facts about cause, effect, and how to prevent future shootings are literally at our fingertips 24/7. The conversation has crossed lines of generation, religion, and culture. And here’s my confession – I’m avoiding it as much as I can.

Now hear me out! I’m thrilled the conversations are finally happening. My heart is so full when I see youth stand up and speak out for what they believe is right. I’m honored to have friends stand up, rally, and fight a fight that hits just a bit too close to home for me.

I was only ten when my story of a school shooting began. Many recall April 20th, 1999 as a day of tragedy that seems to have ushered in a new age through the unthinkable. I remember it as the day I almost lost my mom, a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado who was in the building as the shooting unfolded. April 20 is also the day we lost Lauren Townsend, our close family friend and my childhood babysitter. This year, April 20th will mark the 19th anniversary of that shooting that resulted in 15 casualties and 24 wounded.

Little did I know this day was only part of my story. Just over 14 years later I received a call at work. Another shooting and more lives lost, this time at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, the school where my father taught at the time. The grief and trauma were similar, yet I had two roles to play this time. Not only was I the daughter of a survivor, but a youth minister to students who attended the school and were at Arapahoe that day. My story and history with school shootings was no longer a unique story in our youth group, and unfortunately, our youth group was not unique anymore either.

So, we did as everyone does in such situations, we went in to crisis control. Thank goodness for the numerous articles on best practices for talking to youth in crisis, ways to get parents involved, and resources to point families to. But at the end of it all, when the funerals ended and the news anchors moved on to the latest and greatest story, these kids, my youth, will still be trauma survivors. They will still have nightmares, still have the memories, and above all still need support.

How do we as youth workers continue to support this upcoming generation of trauma survivors? Sadly, school violence continues to infiltrate more lives. What are we to expect in the years to come from these kids?

Remember: there is no single way to experience the effects of trauma

The first and most important thing to know and understand is that trauma does not affect all people the same way. There is no single way to experience the effects of trauma, and THERE IS NO TIMELINE FOR HEALING. Some people recover quite quickly, while others take time to adjust. It is not uncommon for someone to be doing well and then months or even years later have their trauma resurface again. 

Educate yourself

Knowledge really is the key to working with people who have experienced trauma. Educating yourself on the specific trauma your kids have experienced as well as symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD can go a long way in supporting youth and families. It’s important to know that events seemingly unrelated can trigger trauma responses. A common example of this is when a teen has a breakup or fallout with a friend. While some may see a teen who is overreacting, they may in fact be being triggered by the loss and be experiencing a heightened reaction due to their history of trauma. As youth workers, we can support our youth by not only understanding this fact, but helping the child to recognize and understand as well. 

Anticipate and triggers

Trauma triggers are more likely to happen when incidents are unexpected or unplanned. A traumatic event is almost always out of control of the people who experience it. Thus, it would make sense that a trauma survivor would function better with more sense of control. An example of this would be if someone who was in a traumatic car crash were to watch a movie that featured a car crash. If they knew ahead of time what the movie was about, his or her response would be much less likely to be triggered by it than if it was a surprise.

We can use this knowledge in our youth groups when planning topics and activities. Has someone in your group experienced sexual trauma? A game involving touch might be a trigger. Has someone lost a parent? Mother’s Day or Father’s Day topics will probably be hard. Thinking ahead about your youth who have experienced trauma is key. The goal is not always to avoid the tough stuff, but to give some consideration and maybe a heads up to youth who have experienced trauma, and understanding if they don’t want to participate. 

Foster healthy relationships

I have some good news about working with youth who’ve experienced trauma. Studies have found that the number one factor in how well one recovers from trauma is healthy relationships! Being there for our kids, loving them, and allowing them the space to be who they are is the biggest, and easiest component of helping those who have experienced trauma!

My story and history of trauma is unfortunately no longer as unique in our world. Thankfully with some consideration and understanding, our youth groups can be a place of safety and healing not just days after a tragedy, but always.

Amy McMullen is one of the Assistant Youth Directors at the church she grew up in, St. Luke’s UMC in Highlands Ranch Colorado. She is currently working towards her master’s degree in counseling with a special interest in teens and trauma. When she is not studying or at the church, she can typically be found watching a professional sporting event (go Rockies!) or cuddling with her kitten.

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