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How leaders can respond to trauma

| by Dr. Boyd

What makes something traumatic? And why is trauma a big deal?

While I have experienced trauma as an adult, my childhood was stable. My parents remain married and still reside in the same home where I grew up. Although being the youngest of four boys, sometimes landed me in trouble, my biggest childhood issue was probably hitting puberty.

Stability is not common for many children today. They experience divorce, remarriage, single parenting, step-parenting, alcoholism, drug abuse, financial problems, unemployment, unbelieving spouses, chronic illness of parent or child, school problems and abuse. Each of these events or factors may or may not lead to trauma in a child’s life, but each will affect the individual’s development. Trauma is defined as an emotional and physical shock following a distressing event. Signs of trauma include problems with sleeping, eating and regulation of emotions and attention.

Development occurs naturally in a supportive, loving context. However, when the environment is dangerous or stressful, the body reacts. Cortisol is termed the “stress hormone” and is secreted during our body’s “flight or fight” response. While the hormone is helpful, the human body must relax to bring functions back to normal following a stressful event. Chronic stress prevents relaxation in the body and causes certain parts of the brain to develop while interfering with the development of other parts of the brain. When the body continually creates cortisol, the body experiences trauma.

Exposure, experience and effect

There are three components when describing trauma: exposure, experience and effect. Exposure refers to what happened to the individual (the details of the event). Experience refers to the perspective of the individual (how they felt). Effect refers to what has happened to the individual because of the event (victim’s response). Each component is key to understanding and treating trauma. While two people may be exposed to the same event, their experiences and effects may be completely different. Each person may experience the event differently resulting in separate and distinct effects—causing one individual to be affected by trauma and the other remains unaffected.

The effects of a traumatic event may only affect the individual for a few weeks, but could also lead to life-long disorders. According to the Center for Disease Control, “Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue. Much of the foundational research in this area has been referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACE].” Adverse Childhood Experiences greatly increase an individual’s risk for stroke, STD, alcoholism, injected drug-use, and suicide attempts (all of which can further delay an individual’s development).

The effects of childhood traumatic experiences can be lessened through processing the trauma through treatment. Childhood trauma that is ignored can often emerge later in life which can bring the individual’s growth to an immediate halt. Processing traumatic events at various stages of life is often necessary for healthy development. For example, when a parent dies, the child may need to process multiple times during adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Many people who have experienced trauma have triggers (including sights, sounds, smells, or touch) that will take them back in their mind to a painful experience.  The trauma of those in under your leadership will be triggered, and it can occur at the most inopportune times (for ministry leaders—in between church services). When it does, here are three pointers to help you respond.

1. You want to focus entirely on what is being said, rather than how it is being said.

Traumatic events often disrupt the individual’s ability to emotionally connect with the events that occurred. People make wrong assumptions about the validity of a story based upon the individual’s emotional state. Your job is not to make assumptions, draw conclusions or discover the validity of the story. Your sole role is to be an empathetic listener.

While listening, refrain from asking probing questions. Let them disclose what they want—and allow other details to remain hidden. While you may ask questions to clarify what occurred, sharing too much of a traumatic event can cause the individual flashbacks or additional injury.

2. Try not to give Christian clichés or throw out advice.

People rarely remember what you say (unless you say something stupid), but they will remember your presence. Limit what you say to three things: acknowledge their bravery for speaking out, acknowledge the trust they displayed in you by sharing (and thank them) and acknowledge that their pain is real. Validation of an individual’s pain is a step in the healing process.

3. Take time to process their trauma to determine what your next steps should be.

If given the chance, ask the individual, “Knowing your story, what can I do to help you?” While you may not be able to comply with all their requests, the question may help you understand what has already been done to support them in their pain. Some situations may require no further response, but others may require you to speak with family members, other church leaders or government officials. In cases involving child abuse and neglect, pastors are required by law to report the abuse of children and adolescents. Remember that as a leader, you are not equipped to deal with trauma, and your role may be simply ensuring that the individual is adequately supported.

If you do become part of the support network of someone working through trauma, guard your own emotional health. If you have similar pain in your past, you may not be able to become fully engaged. Supporting the individual requires that you remain emotionally healthy and keep your own emotions in check.

James provides similar advice when he states, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). His advice will guide you as you journey with your people through the valley of trauma.

Photo source: istock

Dr. Boyd

Dr. G. David Boyd is the Founder and Managing Director of EA Resources, a non-profit that seeks to equip parents and churches to minister to emerging adults. David and Rachel have been blessed with three energetic boys – Josiah, Andrew, and Tobias.

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