But we have to talk about it. According to research by the CDC, around 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be a victim of physical or sexual abuse by the time they are 18 years old. Even in very small youth ministries, we need to acknowledge the truth that it is not a question of how we would work with victims of abuse, but how we are running our ministries in a way that is considerate of the fact that we almost inevitably already do, whether we know it or not.
Many of us feel anxious about working with child abuse victims not out of selfishness, or lack of compassion, but from a place of feeling deeply inadequate. We worry that we don’t have the expertise or the training or the words to provide the deep healing needed for child survivors of abuse. And we’re right. We don’t. Children who have been through the trauma of abuse, particularly at the hands of a trusted adult, have psychological, social, and emotional needs that no youth worker can be expected to meet.
We know we cannot save teenagers from the pain and hurt of abuse. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we cannot save teenagers from anything.
So what do we do? How do we live into the ministries that we were called to knowing that there are wounds we can’t bandage, and gaps we can’t fill?
I wrestled with this question over the course of a year spent working with International Justice Mission in Thailand, doing aftercare for child victims of sexual assault. Even now as a youth worker back in the US, this question still rattles around in my head. I remember traveling out to child victims’ houses when I was living in Thailand and feeling so anxious. What do I say? How do I talk to these kids? How do I make sure not to make it worse? And shelter after shelter, village after village, dozens of kids as young as four and as old as fifteen all taught me the same basic truth, and the most important insight I can give to youth workers about kids who are victims of abuse: they are still kids.
People are not defined by the worst thing that ever happened to them, and one of the greatest gifts you can give someone is helping them see that. Whether you are aware of specific victimization, or if you just assume that it must be present somewhere because of the size of your group, the response is the same – recognizing and celebrating the divine spark, the imago Dei, that still shines in your youth, even when they are blind to it.
If you’re unsure of where to start, or feel overwhelmed, try starting with a few practical steps:
1) Don’t treat abuse victims like they’re damaged. They already feel different and vulnerable; treating them like they’re damaged won’t help.
2) Be a non-anxious presence. If a child does chose to invite you into that part of their story, stay calm, and stay present.
3) Listen for the silence. Be aware of changes in behavior, of potential triggers, and that a child is unlikely to verbalize to you why something is affecting them.
4) Don’t fix it. If you notice those changes or those triggers, check in with the youth, but don’t try to rescue them in the moment.
5) Remember that you don’t own this story. If you have been privileged enough to be let into this story, honor the risk a youth has taken on you and let them retain ownership of what this story means to them and how often it comes up.
It can be tempting with abuse victims to think of them as only abuse victims, and being sensitive to the specific triggers and traumas of your youth is crucial. But the more you see their victimization as their identity, the more they may see it as their identity. Being honest and brave in the face of abuse is crucially important in the healing process, but you can’t stay there. To move through healing, youth have got to realize that this is a part of their story, but not the only part, and not the most important part.
Youth workers can be a crucial part of the healing process. We are not social workers or therapists who are there to specifically address this one issue. We are game-leaders and song-singers, we come to youth not with formal evaluations and professional detachment, but roller skates, and Sonic, and an unbridled enthusiasm for holistically knowing these youth exactly as they are and loving them for all of it.
So no, you may not know the neurobiology of trauma that has shifted the brain chemistry of your youth – but you know that they are nervous about their game next weekend. You know that they were so excited when they made first chair. You know that they hate dodgeball, but have a mean backhand in Ping-Pong and can eat seven pieces of pizza in one sitting. You know that they have questions about why God would allow bad things to happen, but when they spend time in nature, looking at tall trees and small butterflies, that they know God is real and good.
And all of those things are just as true and just as real and just as important to who they are as any hurt caused them by the actions of a broken person in a broken world. Our job as youth workers is not to try to fix the pain inflicted on to the youth in our care, it is to acknowledge Jesus’s presence in and among it, hurting in their grief and celebrating in their joy, knowing that who they are in God’s eyes, their divine spark, is no less bright because it has seen darkness, and believing these words in the Gospel of John for our youth, and helping them believe it for themselves:
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” John 1:5 (CEB)
The divine spark in youth is inextinguishable, so may we be magnifying glasses for the light that, despite all the darkness, still shines within them.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2005). Adverse Childhood Experiences Study: Data and Statistics. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
My opinions expressed are those of someone who is not a professional mental health provider. My opinions are my own and I do not speak for the FUMC Fort Worth Youth Ministries, FUMC Fort Worth, the United Methodist Church, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, or the Center for Youth Ministry Training.
* A version of this post was first shared on the Youth Specialties website.
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