It can be difficult to get students to share their thoughts and feelings with you—especially children and teens who have experienced trauma. Relationships are built on trust, and often young people whose trust has been violated find it difficult to trust others. But sharing their emotions and talking about their hurts are important steps in the healing process. So, how can you encourage a traumatized youth to share? Sometimes the key is asking the right questions.
Here are some tips to help:
- Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. You might ask, “What was the hardest thing about your mother’s death?” Though you may not get a candid answer the first time (or even the second or third), being caring and direct will let the child or teen know that you are available to talk when she is ready and that it is okay to talk about difficult things.
- Share your own feelings about trauma. For example, you might say, “I was so frightened during the earthquake! I was afraid I might die. What were you feeling?” Knowing that he is not alone in experiencing difficult emotions may help the child or teen feel more comfortable sharing his own pain and fear.
- Be specific. Choose questions that require detailed answers instead of a simple “yes” or “no.” For example, instead of asking, “Are you angry about what happened to your sister?” ask, “What was the first thing you felt after your sister was kidnapped?” This type of question encourages the child or teen to reflect more deeply on the difficult situation, identify her emotions, and consider how these emotions are affecting her mood and behavior.
- Be sensitive to the symptoms of trauma. Traumatic stress causes physical changes in the brain, triggering the parts that process stress, pain, and fear. To adapt, children and teens often learn to function at high levels of stress, causing them to react to even seemingly unimportant situations with heightened emotion. Make sure your questions are phrased in ways that make the child or teen feel cared for and safe. You might say, “I can see that you are hurting, and that makes me feel sad. I would like to help. Would you like to talk with me about it?”
- Focus on hope for the future. While it is important to let the traumatized child or teen know that you understand the reality of his pain and fear, it is also important for him to develop hope for the future. For example, you might ask, “What is one thing you would like to do to honor your mother’s memory? Let’s do that together.” Encouraging children and teens to see that God loves them and has a good plan for their lives will help them to better cope with their stressful and painful situations.
Sharing thoughts and emotions with a trusted friend or mentor is a critical part of the healing process. As you ask questions to help your students begin this journey, be sure to pray with them and for them. As James 5:16 teaches us, “Pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Through your gifts of time and love, you can help traumatized children and teens to see God’s healing in their lives—and this gift has value beyond measure.