The Story of Stephen: Teens and Trauma

The Story of Stephen

Alan was a new youth pastor. He was fresh out of college and ready to change kids hearts for Christ. Most of his summer was spent planning a back to school bash. This was going to be the big event to get kids locked in for the school year.

Stephen was the typical neighborhood kid. Stephen’s parents didn’t come to church and he only seemed to show up when there was some special even or free food. He didn’t talk much and he didn’t seem to let people in very easily.

Alan noticed Stephen, but that was about all. It was difficult to form a connection because Stephen always had his walls up. Stephen didn’t cause any trouble. Alan was just glad Stephen came at all.

The night of the bash came and Alan was busy trying to make sure there were no major problems. The games were in place. The slides were prepared. The videos were queued up. The sound system had been checked and rechecked. The food was prepared. All of the volunteers were in place.

Alan’s heart pounded with a mix of anxiety and excitement. This was going to be his first big success as a full-time youth pastor. Everything was running smooth until it wasn’t.

Stephen arrived just in time for the free food. He sat down in a corner by himself. Amber, one of the volunteers, noticed that Stephen didn’t grab any food so she put some nachos on a plate and brought it over to him. Stephen said he didn’t want any. Amber didn’t want to be pushy so she sat the nachos on the table in front of Stephen and told him that he could have them if he wanted or throw them away.

Stephen raised his voice and said, “I told you I didn’t want them. Are you deaf?”

The volunteer didn’t know what to do. Stephen had always been quiet. She was startled and a little offended. After all, they had rules posted on the youth room wall and one of those rules was “respect adult staff.”

Amber pointed out the rule and told Stephen that it’s not respectful to yell at people. Stephen stood up and flipped the nachos over which landed right on Amber’s shirt. Drew, another adult volunteer, saw this and ran over to help. Drew was a bigger built guy and his presence alone could be intimidating. Drew  put his hand on Stephens’s shoulder and told Stephen to calm down and take a seat. Stephen began cussing both of the volunteers out which caused them to raise their voices commanding that Stephen go outside of the youth room. Stephen eventually took a swing at Drew and hit him right in the nose. Blood splattered and everything spiraled out of control.

Right in that moment Alan walked back into the youth room. On one side of the room he saw adults physically trying to restrain Stephen and on the other side another adult volunteer was trying to herd teens into the sanctuary and she was clearly on the phone with the police.

This was not the way that Alan had pictured the night going.

This also wasn’t the way that Stephen had pictured the night going.

So what happened?

Was Stephen being a jerk because he had to prove that he was a tough street kid? Were the volunteers being too hard on Stephen or insensitive to his needs? Would Alan had done anything different if he had been in the room?

Most adults have the same reaction to a teen like Stephen. “What is wrong with that kid?”

That reaction and the attitude that it represents is exactly why I’m writing this.

There’s not enough information in the scenario above for anyone to really know why things escalated so quickly.

Let’s take a step back and look deeper into the events. Stephen had been to church on multiple occasions and had never acted this way. Why on earth start now? Did he simply have a bad day? Sometimes that could be the case. We don’t ever know what people are going through when they walk through the doors of our church. We don’t always know how bad their day, week, or month might have been.

We usually know a handful of people really well. They talk to us after service. They send messages throughout the week. They go to all the events and stay engaged on social media. There are usually many more we don’t know at all. They don’t make the effort and neither do we.

Stephen wasn’t simply having a bad day. Stephen was reacting because of a situation that triggered a fight or flight response in his brain.

Behind the Story

Here’s what Amber and Drew didn’t know. Stephens’s dad beat him on a regular basis. It was usually after his dad got drunk, which happened a lot. Stephens’s dad would get drunk while watching football or basketball on TV. When his dad would sit down to watch a game he always grab a six-pack and his favorite game time snack, nachos.

The reason Stephen didn’t take advantage of the free food that night was because he couldn’t stand nachos. When Amber set the nachos down in front of him, Stephens’s brain reacted the way it had been conditioned to react after years of physical abuse. His heart rate shot up and he instantly became aggressive.

Now Stephen couldn’t have told you this. He didn’t know there was a psychologically conditioned response in his brain that sent electrical and chemical commands to other systems in his body. He didn’t know he switched into survival mode.

There was no way for anyone to know.

The adult volunteers quickly switched into, “What is wrong with this kid?” mode.

We have to train ourselves to react with a different attitude.

This was a fictional story based on real events.

What to do

I am currently serving as the Spiritual Life Coordinator at a juvenile residential treatment facility. I work with teens on a regular basis that have experienced significant amounts of trauma. I have learned that sometimes our youth groups aren’t the friendliest environment for these kids. It’s not for a lack of trying. It’s usually for a lack of knowledge.

We need to become more trauma informed. There are more teens out there who have experienced significant trauma than you will ever know. In our best efforts, sometimes we can do more harm than good. We have to do better.

I want to take several posts to give some insights on how to incorporate trauma informed practices and ideas into our youth ministries. I’m going to model this after the SAMHSA Trauma Informed Care principles. They are as follows:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency
  3. Peer support and mutual self-help
  4. Collaboration and mutuality
  5. Empowerment, voice, and choice
  6. Cultural, historical, and gender issues

It’s my goal to look at Biblical and Theological ties to these principles. I also want to make sure that we understand what that looks like in our ministry context. In the meantime, I would really like to hear some situations that you’ve encountered in your context where trauma informed care principals may have helped.

4 thoughts on “The Story of Stephen: Teens and Trauma

  1. As an adoptive mom/wife of a youth pastor I am so very happy to see you putting this information into other youth pastors hands. My husband and I had no idea the true effects of trauma abd how far reaching they can be. We have spent years becoming trauma informed for our daughter, but it carries over so much into our ministry. Blending the trauma affected and youth ministry is a beautiful thing. Thank you

  2. I don’t have a lot of experience directly dealing with victims of abuse, but I do know about the marginalized. Several kids in our youth group were on the spectrum of autism. It created some really memorable youth events. One thing it instilled in me was the need to be flexible in meeting their needs.
    Many people come to church and we expect them to have it all together. But I didn’t when I first awoke to God’s grace. I was a mess and remained messed up for years. To understand another person’s unique situation is to look for God’s image in them and bring it out. I really like what you’re laying out here, Paul. Good work.

    1. True. Too, I think many believers don’t realize–or, at least, don’t acknowledge–that believers don’t have it all together either. Accepting Christ doesn’t mean that your life is going to go beautifully from that point on, nor does it even mean that you’re going to handle bad things as a vision of grace and wisdom. I first accepted Christ when I was 5, give or take a bit. However, my child and teen years left a lot to be desired. I still don’t have it all together, though I’m doing much better now than I was as a teen. Many believers also don’t realize/acknowledge that being angry is not the same as being unsaved. Christ was angry on several occasions and the Bible never says that anger is a sin. Rather, it says that self-righteous anger is sinful. There are plenty of things to be righteously angry about.

      If I had had to choose whether to follow God based solely on how other professed/alleged believers treated me as a teen, I very likely would have walked away. As it is, I knew God. God had made his presence clear to me at least once. I also grew up listening to Christian music and shows like Focus on the Family. God was/is more to me than any individual theological belief system. –Mandy

  3. “He was fresh out of college and ready to change kids hearts for Christ…Alan noticed Stephen, but that was about all…Stephen didn’t cause any trouble. Alan was just glad Stephen came at all.”

    These are the parts that jumped out at me first. Most ministry work in the U.S seems to focus on preaching to groups, instead of ministering to individuals. Thus, it seems like the majority of the church leader’s time is centered around the sermon, following up on the sermon, maybe discussing the sermon (if he’s not too busy), and, in the case of youth leaders, supervising the group overall. There’s no time to actually connect with people because the church leader isn’t really trying to. Rather, church leaders often put their spirits into creating and giving a speech.

    When I was in late middle/early high school, there were 2 adults who shared the responsibility for the children’s group during the church’s divorce care small group. I was a teenager, which meant being several years older than all the other kids there. I was ok with this, because it meant getting out of the house. I didn’t mind doing children’s crafts or watching kid-friendly movies. I remember one was a movie in which Carmen Licciardello played a boxer and it involved the song “12 round knockout.” Well, one of the adults was a young women in college. She and I got to talking one week and she took it upon herself to arrange for the two of us to hang out together, from that point on. Sometimes, it was there. Sometimes, it was somewhere else. I can’t really say that this experience did something huge in my life; but, it mattered to me because she actually tried to connect with me. It wasn’t enough for her that I was there and could take care of myself, while she watched the younger kids. I mattered as an individual. Perhaps the biggest failing in the Church today is that we don’t really look at individuals. We don’t look at individual people, or their individual problems. It’s far more comfortable to distance ourselves and talk only about Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, and the subjects of sin, grace, and divorce, according to what has been taught by previous pastors, than it is to really involve ourselves with individual people. The whole of Christ’s life and death has been boiled down to enough material to fill just one book of the Bible. Meanwhile, we create/enforce rules for youth. Those rules that are important. There’s no doubt about that; but, when it comes to asking “what’s wrong with this kid,” the question isn’t asked from a heart that actually wants to help. It’s asked from a position of someone preparing to walk away or to bring a sledgehammer down on an errant nail, then walk away. That’s why we have trouble connecting with people like “Stephen.”

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