In the Wake of Trauma


By Eric Woods

His eyes were locked in a glassy gaze straight at the ground. Clearly, something was not right with this high school freshman I had only just met when he arrived at our camp.

“I’d love for you to participate,” I said, but he didn’t look up.

“Yah, I don’t feel like it,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of tough stuff going on at home.”

I was sure he did, and didn’t doubt the way he was feeling…but I had 20 other students that needed me to lead some experiential learning activities. So, on we went. “Jump in when you’re ready,” I told him, “and we can talk more later.”

It was sometime the next day, after he came down from the high ropes course and sat on the log next to me, that I invited him to tell me more about what was going on at home. “Are you safe at home?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s nothing like that,” he said, “There’s just a lot of yelling between my mom and dad. And I don’t sleep good ‘cause it goes on all night.”

As the pastor to more than 60 youth who have been removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect or delinquency, I hear stuff like this all the time. It doesn’t surprise me anymore; but I’m also learning that the kinds of struggles I see in my residents are a lot like the things “normal” students struggle with too.

Perhaps they are magnified, and sure, the specifics may be different; but they’re there nonetheless. The truth is, almost everyone is wrestling with something.

They’re concerned about the upcoming SAT, and whether their score will be good enough to get them into college.

They’re struggling with the reality of broken homes—or intact but really dysfunctional homes—and tired of lying awake at night listening to mom and dad argue.

And more than one out of five of them have experienced three or more of what are called Adverse Childhood Experiences: things like physical, emotional and sexual abuse, household violence and mental illness, neglect, and parental separation, divorce and incarceration. (By the way, there’s tons of data and analysis of the landmark study, began in the late 1990’s to look at the long-term impacts of these experiences on overall health and wellbeing. Additional data can be found at

So, it’s safe to assume that a bunch of the students in any of our youth ministries on any given day have some pretty difficult stuff going on.

And in light of this reality in my own ministry, I’ve adopted three key practices that are helping my students to engage in the wake of their own trauma.

1. I don’t assume that everything’s OK.

Remember that old question everyone asks, “How ya’ doing?” Well, it’s a loaded question for many, and it forces them to lie or brings them right back to their deepest struggle, even as they’re walking into youth group surrounded by their peers and friends.

Instead of asking that, now I use greetings like “Hey, great to see you!” or “Glad you came, we’re going to have a great time today!” My students know they’re free to share, and often ask me if they can. But they also know they don’t have to.

2. I use caution with stories I tell.

I’ve learned this from experience. Sometimes, the funny story about not getting an A in AP Calculus (I got an A minus), or the heart-wrenching story about my parents’ divorce isn’t the right story. While those stories may make the point, they may also trigger significant emotions in youth who are on the edge about their own struggles.

I don’t avoid stories altogether—I tell a lot of them—but I do carefully think through each story before I share it from up front.

3. I allow some time and space to get ready.

In the room where we meet, I always have three stations out when students are arriving, each with a stack of scrap paper, a few pencils, and a basket.

Students can engage with and answer three questions. The first – “What is something good God has done for you recently?” — allows them to practice acknowledging God’s faithfulness, regardless of other circumstances. The second station gives them a chance to let go of the challenges in their life, even just for a while, by answering the question: “What is something difficult you need to release to God today?” And the third station is simply a place to write and release prayer requests.

My students know that these stations really are just for them, and between them and God. They know that sometimes I read their notes, and sometimes I don’t. But they also know that these stations are a chance for them to set aside the distractions in their own lives…at least for a while.