Responding to Kids in Crisis - Grow Youth & Kids Ministry Curriculum

Responding to Kids in Crisis

In this post, here’s what we’ll cover:

Content Lists
How to understand a crisis from a kid's perspective.
5 ways you can help a kid in a crisis situation.
3 resources for more training, tools, and tips for making a safety plan.

If we asked you to share your favorite memories from ministry, it might take you a minute. Ministry is full of things to remember, from the funny stories kids share to the life-changing decisions they make for Jesus. You’ll have dozens of favorite moments throughout your time in ministry.

But if we asked you about some of the most challenging times in ministry, it would be a lot easier for you to name them. The hard seasons tend to stick to the back of our minds. Our difficult seasons as ministry leaders are often connected to the kids we serve. When they struggle, experience tragedy, or find themselves in crisis, we’re often right next to them, helping them process and stay connected to God in the middle of it. We check in with our kids and their families, pray for them, and help them walk through what they’re experiencing.

If you’ve ever found yourself in one of these situations, you may have not felt prepared. When we think of ministry, we tend to put our energy into teaching, building a weekly environment, and working with volunteers. Helping a kid through a crisis rarely makes the list. What we do know is that kids have a complex spectrum of experiences. What one kid experiences each day can be similar but pretty different from the experience of the kid two chairs over. Two kids might not even interpret the same experience in similar ways. For the most part, developing a single, definitive strategy for walking with a kid through a crisis may not be helpful. Instead, we can build a simple database of strategies to help lead us to something helpful for our kids, their families, and us.

To help you out, we’ve made you something to help you remember some of the potential responses to any crisis situation you face. Before we get there, though, let’s talk about what a crisis is.

WHAT COUNTS AS A CRISIS?

As an adult, when you talk about crises, some ideas probably pop into your head — natural disasters, major health scares, major international events, and a few other things. Because we have this larger scope and frame of reference, we can be quick to dismiss things we don’t personally view as a crisis. A kid might share a problem they’re facing, and we may think, “Just wait ’til you’re older!”

Sure, what the kid in your small group is experiencing may not seem like a big deal to you, but it is a big deal to them. Their whole existence might feel like it’s wrapped up in this problem, and they need a trusted adult to help them through it. What counts as a crisis comes from your life experience, context, and resources. So, just because it doesn’t feel like a crisis to you doesn’t mean it’s not experienced as a crisis to a kid or someone else.

A crisis can be any situation that feels like a threat or danger to ourselves or our situation, leaving us feeling like we may not have the tools to navigate through it successfully. Through this lens, we can be more empathetic to the kids’ experiences in our ministries. They don’t have as much life experience and may be feeling entirely new things. They most likely don’t know where to find their answers or how to start looking for them. They don’t have much control over their decisions, either.

That’s why we recommend you take every problem seriously. This doesn’t mean every problem is addressed with the same urgency, but every time a kid tells you about an experience they’re having or says something that you find concerning, they’re giving you a chance to support them, empower them, and lead them into a deeper relationship with God.

Now that we’re on the same page about what a crisis is and how it can show up in a kid’s life, let’s take a look at a few ways you can respond whenever you encounter a kid in crisis.

Free PDF Resource
Crisis Response Decision Tree
With just a few simple questions, you and your team of volunteers can know which response may fit your situation best and what steps to take in following up with your teenagers and their families.

5 CRISIS RESPONSES

1. ENSURE SAFETY

Any time a kid shares something that may signal they’re in a crisis, it’s up to you to make sure the current situation is safe for them, others around, and yourself. Safety for everyone involved is the theme of each of these crisis responses.

Part of ensuring safety means being upfront and honest about confidentiality. If a kid asks “Do you promise not to tell anyone?” you need to be clear that there are situations where you’ll need to inform others according to laws, church policies, and other factors. Most notably situations involving abuse — physical, sexual, emotional, and neglect — are legally required to be reported in most states.

If you haven’t already, review your state’s mandatory reporting laws, and train your volunteers on how to abide by these laws as well. To make things easier for your team, add some crisis response resources to your Volunteer Handbook so they know what to do.

2. DE-ESCALATE

We’re not always ready for kids to share about their crises. Even if we’re caught off guard, we can remember to help de-escalate the feelings and emotions a kid might be experiencing.

Your role in any crisis is to be calm and supportive. If you start to panic you may communicate

  • “I’ve made someone mad”
  • “I’m going to get in trouble”
  • “This person doesn’t know how to help me”

Some situations might be harder for you to respond to based on your own experiences. Know your limits, but do everything you can to demonstrate calm to the kid confiding in you.

De-escalating a situation might look like…

  • Moving from a crowded area to somewhere quieter that is still in public.
  • Speaking in a calm, regular voice. Your tone on its own can communicate a setting is safe.
  • Take notice of your reactions and the reactions of the kid. Are you scared? Defensive? Are they?
  • If the situation is causing you distress, grab another adult the student trusts to step in for you.

3. LISTEN

A crisis is a time when our brains might snap into “fix it” mode. We have a distressed kid in front of us, and we want to help them. As much as we might want to, we can’t just jump in with solutions. We need to give kids space to talk and express their feelings and experiences. After all, they are the experts in what they’re feeling. If you find yourself wanting to do something, remember listening is doing something important. All of us, no matter our age, need people to stand with us and hold space with us in the hard times.

Listening to a kid means…

  • Let them talk. Don’t make it about you or offer advice unless specifically asked. It will be helpful if you can relate to what is being shared, but if we jump in before a kid is ready to receive advice, we may come across as dismissive or uninterested.
  • Introduce an activity. A lot of kids aren’t ready for direct one-on-one conversations, but they may be more open to talk if you’re doing an activity with them. Consider coloring, drawing, playing with LEGO sets, or stacking blocks while you talk with them.
  • Empathize with them. Even if you don’t exactly understand or relate, you can still show empathy. Phrases like “That sounds frustrating” or “I can tell you’re hurt” can help communicate empathy.
  • Ask questions. Asking questions may not seem like you’re listening, but they’re a way to extend the conversation and show interest in what is being shared. Questions like “Can you tell more about that?” or “How did that make you feel?” can help a kid feel like someone is listening to them. At the same time, they help you explore the details of the source of their crisis. Ask questions from a place of curiosity. You’re not interrogating anyone, but you are trying to understand the situation more.
  • Silence is okay. Sometimes people just need someone to sit with them. A kid may not always feel like talking about what they’re feeling. Actually, they may not even know exactly what they’re feeling or have the right words to express it. It’s okay to sit in silence and to just be present with them. And if silence makes you uncomfortable, that’s okay. Your comfort isn’t the only goal.

4. EMPOWER

When we have a kid confiding in us, our goal isn’t to fix things ourselves — it’s to empower the kid to take the next step. Remember how we defined a crisis? A crisis can be any situation that feels like a threat or danger to ourselves or our situation, leaving us feeling like we may not have the tools to navigate through it successfully. In a crisis, kids are looking for someone to fix everything and make it all okay. So, you can respond by choosing to empower them and help them find the tools and resources they need to navigate their experience.

Empowering a kid can look like…

  • Affirming their decision to reach out to you in the first place. Talking about a problem takes a lot of vulnerability and can be scary.
  • Ask questions like “What do you want to happen?” to help kids start to dream and wonder about what’s next.
  • Explore past situations where they’ve used their strengths, skills, and other tools to overcome a problem. Looking to the past might help them see a way through their current situation.
  • Help them explore their social supports. What friends or family members do they trust? Which of these people could they talk with?

The goal of empowering a kid isn’t to come up with the solutions on your own. It’s to help guide them towards identifying the tools and responses that they find helpful for their situation. It’s about uncovering their strengths and helping them visualize the options that are in reach right now.

5. REFER

Making a referral might be one of the most important steps to take. Most likely, you’re not a licensed therapist or counselor, so many of the crises your kids face might be outside of your scope. It’s okay to tell a kid or their parent, “I’m not equipped to handle this, but here is someone who is.” All of us have limits to our expertise and what is appropriate to help with. If you haven’t already, put together a list of local counselors and other resources your kids or their families may need in a time of crisis. If your church offers services, include those, but be sure to have a few outside of your church as well.

We know that there are a lot of steps and details to remember, so to help you train your team in crisis response, we’ve created a decision tree. With just a few simple questions, you and your team of volunteers can know which response may fit your situation best and what steps to take in following up with your kids and their families.

BE AWARE OF WARNING SIGNS

When working with a kid in crisis, there are a few warning signs you should watch for. These signs could signal a kid who has or is currently contemplating suicide and who may need help. Not all of these signs need to be present for a kid to be considering suicide, and the signs themselves may vary by age, gender, and cultural identity.

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves
  • Talking about…
    • Feeling hopeless
    • Having no purpose
    • Feeling trapped
    • Being in unbearable pain
    • Wanting it to end
    • Not wanting to wake up
    • Being a burden to others
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Use, or increasing use, of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or pursuing risky behavior
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

If you happen to encounter a kid displaying one or more of these behaviors or thoughts, take it seriously. Don’t immediately assume the student is a threat to themselves, but ask follow-up questions. Start a conversation and explore what is sitting underneath their thoughts and feelings.

It’s also important to know the stories of your kids. Knowing these behaviors and thoughts is only one part of preventing suicide, but personal experience also plays a key role in whether or not a student is considering suicide. Kids who are bullied, abused, have experienced a stressful situation, or who have access to a means such as pills or a weapon are more likely to think about or attempt suicide.

Remember to always take any mention of suicide seriously. Ask follow-up questions, know the signs, and refer for help whenever you need to.

RESOURCES

You don’t need to handle all of this on your own. One of the best things you can do for your kids is to know that you don’t know it all. You don’t need to have the perfect response ready to help a kid in crisis. You just need to help them find the tools to make it through another day. That could look like being willing to listen to them, helping them troubleshoot their problems, or pointing them to a new resource.

Below, you’ll find some helpful resources from national organizations. These organizations have tools, training, and ways for kids in crisis to seek help for various issues. Consider researching the resources your city, county, and state may offer for kids experiencing a crisis. These resources can help you guide a kid toward safety and develop a safety plan. When you don’t know what to do, turn to these lifelines for help.

Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Text or call 988

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

Self-Injury Outreach & Support

Free PDF Resource
Crisis Response Decision Tree
With just a few simple questions, you and your team of volunteers can know which response may fit your situation best and what steps to take in following up with your teenagers and their families.

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