Listening Well to Students in Crisis

Being present in moments of tragedy and crisis in the life of a student is one of the most precious and challenging tasks in youth ministry.

The task demands several skills of young pastors and it’s common to feel unsure how to proceed. The following are a few tips on how to approach difficult conversations after tragic events in the life of a teen or family.

Modeling this article after crisis situations in ministry, as well as in my professional life, I acknowledge that crises often unfold in a pretty predictable way. Often there is an unexpected communication alerting you, the pastor, to the event. Then in quick succession, a student will come in to talk one or more times with you about the event. These early conversations can be intense, and the teen is often very emotional. After this initial flurry of activity things may calm down a bit, but it is erroneous to think of the event as “over.” The structure of this article mirrors this timeline. The early content applies to the early conversations, and the later stuff is for later.

Help the student be comfortable

If a teen or parent approaches you to talk about a crisis situation, starting with an open ended question and simply letting them talk is a great way to start. For some students who may be a bit shy or unsure, you may need to ask short questions to help them share. Quite often a person under stress will be able to speak freely when they are ready. Your job here is simple: listen and pay attention. The conversation will flow more smoothly if the student can feel that you are listening, and a simple tool to use to achieve this is called active listening. This is a set of nonverbal actions the listener uses to indicate to the speaker that they are listening. It helps the speaker feel supported and heard and encourages sharing. A helpful acronym to remember these skills is SOLER.

S: Squarely face the speaker. Face them not just with your head turned toward them, but with your whole body turned in their direction.

O: Open posture. Keep an open posture during the conversation. Keep legs and arms uncrossed and avoid placing objects, like a desk or computer screen, between yourself and the speaker.

L: Lean forward slightly. This posture conveys your interest and attention to the speaker.

E: Eye contact. Maintain steady and appropriate eye contact. People differ on how much they are comfortable with, so pay attention if the speaker continues to look away, and mirror their eye contact “style” (frequency, length of contact) to help them feel comfortable.

R: Relax. Sure, think about everything your body is doing, try to listen and remember what the speaker is saying, but relax! It might be a lot to think about at first, but just try and make sure your body posture isn’t tense. You want to appear relaxed.

Remember, it’s always important to keep child safety protocols in mind with any one on one conversation with a student. The parent or student may feel you are needed urgently, but take the time to set up meetings appropriately, and according to safety protocols used by your church.

Strike a good balance between listening and “fixing”

An important part of being supportive during a difficult time is determining what the student needs from you. Is it just to vent? Do they need help understanding something or resolving confusion? I find it helpful to wait until they have finished sharing, then make sure I’ve understood everything by asking a few clarifying questions. Then, I ask what they need from me that would be helpful today.

It’s important not to assume that the student wants problem-solving type solutions. It’s easy to jump to that automatically, especially when someone is in pain right in front of us.

Often it’s very helpful to have someone simply sit with us and bear witness to our pain.

Be cautious about jumping into sharing lengthy personal stories from your own life in early conversations. Make sure the focus stays on the student. Also be wary of the words, “I understand.” Many times we will not, and saying it isn’t always helpful. A better choice is to say, “I would imagine that felt _____” and fill in the blank with the best feeling word that seems to fit. If you’re wrong, they’ll usually tell you.

Keep in mind that after a loss or major life stressor teens’ emotions will be running high. During those intense moments, their thinking may seem extreme! Provide perspective gently, and if the student makes statements that make you worry about their safety, always reach out for additional help (parents, mental health support, or more senior church staff).

Follow up

During crisis events in student’s lives conversations may take place with short notice, be intense, and come rapidly. Especially if the student is a member of a family in the church, you may see them after the initial tragic event, and a couple more times (perhaps during a funeral service or other related event) during a short period of time. For grieving individuals, it is very important that they have trusted people continue to care for and check on them after funerals are over and schedules have returned to normal.

Depending on the type of crisis or tragedy they endure, there may not be a recognized social process for caring for them. Consider things like miscarriages, non-fatal drug overdoses, or mental health related hospitalizations. Society doesn’t give us a convenient set of actions to take to comfort people affected by things like these, so we as caregivers must get creative. The good news is that love and care are always appropriate. Offering emotional support, extending invitations to spend quality time, or providing opportunities to talk (or just sit in silence) with a trusted adult are great options.

Simply being in the presence of someone who understands what has happened can be of great comfort. Try and relax about doing the exact “right thing” for someone in crisis, and do the best thing you know how to.

As you’re following up, there will be a few important dates to keep in mind. For families that have lost a loved one, the family members’ birthday, major holidays, and the anniversary of the death will be among the hardest days, especially that first year. These are good times for wise youth pastors to plan a check in with the student. In the case of traumatic events, the anniversary of the event, as well as the anniversaries of important associated events (for example an accident date, and date released from the hospital) can be difficult days.

Understand potential impacts to their lives

People can respond to tragedy and loss in interesting ways. Depending on what’s happened, you may see a variety of responses. Parents who have lost a family member may begin to restrict the activities of their children. Children who have suffered a loss or trauma may act out during youth group or begin having behavior problems at school. Older teens may throw themselves into a hastily considered romantic relationship or self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Students may become depressed or anxious, and may isolate themselves or have more conflict with peers.

Keep in mind that unusual behavior may be related to the recent event in the student’s life.

Particularly in the case of disruptive or rebellious behavior, adults often forget this important reality. Keep connected with affected students to stay aware of how they are feeling. Set limits as needed for any inappropriate student behavior, but also maintain a good relationship with them. You may also find yourself reminding parents (gently) that this can be part of the process. By keeping an eye on students (and keeping open communication with parents) that are hurting you may help keep some of these potential outcomes from worsening. You have a different vantage point than a parent, and may be able to help them see when a student may need extra help from a therapist or other professional.

Megan Dinnel