Differences between Youth Trauma and Adult Trauma

Feb 1, 2022 9:00:00 AM / by Rev. Carla Wilson

It’s a match made in, well, not heaven. A new semester, a new pandemic strain outbreak that suddenly and severely limited activities and gatherings over the much-anticipated holiday break, and a fresh wave of burn-out being experienced by both youth workers and youth. Young people and adults are experiencing the same desire for support in this challenging season. So why is there so often a sense of disconnect or a breakdown in communication? Basically, it’s because adults and children experience burnout in very different ways.

In my years as a case manager in the social work field before becoming a pastor, I was deeply blessed to be trusted by many children I supported through trauma and abuse. They let me in enough to share that their anger and acting out came from frustration and a sense of helplessness. The need to connect became desperate, to the point of pushing boundaries and only being able to focus on what gave them immediate gratification. Remembering this helped me understand why Zoom participation or take-home kits have received a significantly decreased response as the pandemic has worn on and pandemic stress has increasingly contributed to a trauma response in my youth. No matter how hard I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to meet their stress-related need for “right now or nothing.” (To my guilt-ridden youth workers struggling for ideas or engagement, please give yourselves some of the grace you give your families. It’s just brain chemicals, not your calling or gift.)

As an adult, my fellow youth workers and I have been experiencing a trauma response more grounded in mature hormone and brain development: avoidance, a sense of detachment, numbness, drifting attention and forgetfulness, guilt, and a sense of helplessness. Our adult perspective often catches us in “the overwhelms,” as my teens say. That can actually make rapid-fire responses more difficult than usual to keep up with.

So how can we support and continue to engage our children and youth in ways that respect the effects of a new wave of stress and trauma on their developing brains? Certainly all young people are different and stress response is significantly impacted by family support, cultural connection, and a sense of physical and emotional safety at home. You can help by reminding youth having difficulties with self-regulation a few clear and simple behavioral guidelines at each gathering. Say them AND have them written somewhere easily visible. Schedule shorter activities that involve some level of physical activity to accommodate shorter attention spans and increased fatigue. Be ready to offer non-judgmental and frequent reminders and redirection, and affirm positive behavior. Allow young people to talk about their challenges in ways that might come out as twisted humor and slightly off-color remarks. Hold space for them to process through laughter and reenactment of scenarios through play or theatre. Consider Instagram videos or a TikTok channel over Zoom. Think short and sillier than usual.

We don’t know what this next semester and this new year will bring, but we know that our young people continue to need us, and more importantly to need God and the comfort of God’s unchanging love. Keep reinforcing that and you won’t go wrong.

(For more resources and information about trauma and the pediatric brain, consider visiting the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.)

Topics: Youth Ministry, trauma

Rev. Carla Wilson

Written by Rev. Carla Wilson

Still a professional diversity trainer and cultural competency consultant, The Rev. Carla Christopher Wilson also serves as Assistant to the Bishop in Charge of Justice Ministries for Lower Susquehanna Synod of the ELCA. A former Poet Laureate of York, Pennsylvania and an adoring dog mom, Carla lives in Lancaster, PA with her family.


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