“Once I understood [them] to be traumatized…I saw them as they really were – loving, hurting, gifted, fearful, seeking, blessed people of God. For my ministry, and for my own family, that has made a world of difference.”
Understanding Trauma’s Affect on our Faith Formation Practices
Everyone has a different gauge of trauma. Grounding your response in the understanding that trauma is a noun that describes an individual’s experience is of paramount importance. Each individual is the arbiter of their own experience and description of trauma.
Trauma affects us all, directly or indirectly. Many people live with the ongoing effects of past and present overwhelming stress. Despite the large numbers of people affected, many of us often don’t think of the possibility that someone we meet, speak with or support may have experienced trauma. This makes us less likely to recognize it. Keeping the possibility of trauma on our radar means keeping the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of people who may be trauma survivors in mind. It means being respectful, acknowledging and understanding¹. As community members and agents of reconciliation and redemption, faith leaders must proceed from a place of acknowledging and understanding trauma-informed formation².
Trauma and Adolescence
As a youth minister, sharing “highs and lows” was a sacred ritual in our after-school program. Everyone— youth and adults—shared the best and worst thing they had experienced since the last time we were together. As trust was built, the honesty increased, and we heard some powerful stories. I started thinking about how much of what was shared was “typical” adolescence and how much was events outside the control of our teens. As a youth minister, and a one-time teenager it dawned on me that the answer is both: the definition of trauma and description of adolescence are basically the same.
Based on my experience and current literature, my own definition of trauma is “a sudden or sustained change experience that leaves us in a new reality.”
Adolescence was a much more recognizable concept. We know these years to be an age of physical, emotional, and social transformation. We know adolescence is filled with internal and external factors that leave us in a new reality. We know that, like trauma, adolescence is not something we can avoid or control. Both bring about a change that is beyond our control that and that occurs, often, without our consent.
How could I use this sudden clarity of understanding the shared experience of all teenagers, those who have experienced external trauma and those who have not?
Trauma Study with Youth
Shortly after, I started a trauma study with the students in our after-school program. We walked through physical responses to trauma and learned about flight, fight, and freeze responses. We discussed instinct, emotional, and logical responses and how our bodies take action. We talked about emotional responses and repression. We learned how memories work, how we tell the story of events that happen to us, and how those tend to create a “good vs evil” narrative.
The next step was to discuss how our personal narrative leads us to lash out or push back against others out of self-protection. I expected it to be a difficult conversation. Surprisingly, it was not. Everyone could clearly see how we often hurt others out of fear, assumptions, or emotional dysfunction. The group made the jump easily, seeing how offenders start as victims and often hold onto that identity, refusing to see the harm they had done.
The application lessons came quickly through stories from each person’s life. Tension with parents, arguments with best friends, fights with strangers, and even experiments with drugs and alcohol were expertly dissected by 6-8th graders.
We were a group full of discoveries:
“Ah, some of the fights with my parents are my fault!”
“Oh, my parents are hurting from things that happened to them!”
“My friend’s family impacts the way they treat me.”
“My grandpa isn’t coming back, and it’s not my fault.”
All the Difference in the World
I had always had good programs at my Church, but once I started treating youth and their families as victims of trauma, something changed. I became more of a pastor than a programmer and youth learned to care for each other in new ways. Once I understood youth and their families to be traumatized, I stopped looking at them as slacking parents and uncommitted youth and saw them as they really were – loving, hurting, gifted, fearful, seeking, blessed people of God. For my ministry, and for my own family, that has made a world of difference.
- This definition comes from the Australian Blue Knot Foundation.
- For additional information on becoming a trauma-informed congregation, see Interfaith Community Services excellent pdf resource.