LOVE LIFE: Caring For the Care-Giver - Paying the Toll of Caring for Students In Trauma

Posted on by YFC Seattle

By Warren Mainard and Mark Haug

As Generation Z enters into our culture as the most stressed, anxious, lonely and fearful generation in US history, youth leaders and parents find the dynamics of their ministries changing dramatically.  Instead of directing energy and enthusiasm to life-giving youth ministry practices like creative youth meetings and events, student leadership development and outrageous youth games, today’s youth leaders are spending an increasing amount of their time in a constant state of crisis care, counseling students and parents and bearing the burdens of a vast majority of their student ministry that appears to be only hanging on by a thread.  While Youth Leaders certainly feel a calling to care for, love and go after the one sheep that has been lost, it now feels as though the 99 are in critical danger and in need of care as well.

There is no debate, serving as a care giver is more taxing, draining and demanding than ever.  To maintain long-term care and stability for students, we must be sure that we are caring for the caregivers.  Before we look at how to care for caregivers, let’s examine four ways that caring for students, particularly those struggling with stress, depression and suicidal thinking impacts youth leaders and parents.

Four Weights On Caregivers

  1. Distress:  Distress is defined as “extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain” and refers to a normal and inevitable experience of life. This unhealthy form of stress may result from personal loss, financial concerns, working with traumatized students, or in a high conflict relationship. Caregivers should be mindful of this stress and how they are managing their personal stress level. Left unchecked, distress can lead to feelings of inadequacy or the inability to cope and can lead into Caregiver burnout.
  2. Caregiver Burnout:  Caregiver (or, therapist/pastor) burnout is a term often discussed but not entirely understood until the caregiver begins to experience it for herself. Youth leaders should remain self-aware of emotional exhaustion, loss of empathy, and their personal sense of accomplishment– all of which fluctuate on a continuum. Burnout is usually accompanied with thoughts of, “I can’t handle this anymore,” “I am not cut out for this,” and “my students would be better off without me.”  While caregiver burnout is not healthy, it is normal, and it is both treatable and preventable.
  3. Compassion Fatigue:  Compassion fatigue occurs from giving excess amounts of empathy and is compounded by the pressure felt when students don’t seem to be making progress. Mother Teresa, known worldwide for her role as a caregiver to the most desperate and needy understood the reality of compassion fatigue.  As a common practice, she required her Nuns to take a full year off for every 4-5 years they served, recognizing that the massive emotional drain required extensive times for personal restoration.  When a person experiences compassion fatigue, they often begin to become abnormally calloused and find themselves thinking, “I know I should care, but I really don’t.”  This can cause a Youth leader to question their calling and even their personal relationship with the Lord.
  4. Vicarious Traumatization:  Some have suggested that vicarious traumatization is also known as compassion fatigue, however, we should differentiate the two. We who work with people who were victims of trauma are particularly susceptible to vicarious traumatization. Although the caregiver has not personally experienced the trauma, by entering into the stories of their students with empathy, they can begin to personalize their students trauma and experience negative emotional, spiritual and even physical effects. Many caregivers find that they cannot stop thinking or “replaying in my mind” the traumatic experiences of their students.  Compiled over time, this can bring tremendous fear, shame and suffering into a caregivers personal world.

This leads us to a big question - What can Parents and Youth Workers do for Self-Care in the midst of helping students who are dealing with Mental Health challenges?  While the next blog in our series will deal with more practical steps for care, the following principles will help you get a better handle on Caring for the Caregiver.

  1. Be Mindful:  Whether you are a hard-charging type A leader, or an empathetic listener with a deep reservoir for compassion, we all have our limits.  Take note of your personal dashboard and be aware of your own need to rest, be recharged and refueled.  Ask yourself reflective questions and invite other caregivers to ask you probing questions as well. Consider taking time to work through this Self Care Assessment Worksheet.
  2. Be Intentional:  Do not expect life or ministry to give you margin and provide opportunities for rest, health and self-care.  Be intentional to create healthy rhythms for personal renewal as well as blocking out hours, days, and weeks in your calendar when you are completely separated from your responsibilities as a caregiver.  Take active steps to engage in non-ministry related relationships, read life-giving books and enjoy soul nourishing activities.  Consider including personal counseling into your own self-care plan.
  3. Be Gospel-Focused:  Caregivers can often unintentionally develop a Messiah complex, believing that they are the only ones who can help their students through their problems.  Jesus never said, “Come to (insert your name here) and he/she will give you rest for your souls.” No, Jesus said, “Come to ME…” (Matthew 11:28).  Jesus invites us to cast all of our burdens, worries and anxieties upon Him, because He cares for us (see 1 Peter 5:7).  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was so overwhelmed with anguish and agony by the weight of the world, he literally began to sweat drops of blood (see Luke 22:44).  This “man of sorrows” has endured every suffering and trauma so that we do not need to (see Isaiah 53).  Take comfort in Jesus the Prince of Peace.  Remember these Gospel practices prescribed by the Apostle Paul - “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

In our next blog, we will dive deeper into some practical and meaningful steps that caregivers can take in order to stay healthy for the long term.

Other Posts in this Series:

LOVE LIFE: Critical Care for Students and Care Givers in a Suicide Culture

LOVE LIFE: Suicide in Seattle - 16 Risk Factors

LOVE LIFE: Breaking the Code of Silence

LOVE LIFE: Engaging with Suicidal Students

LOVE LIFE: 8 Thinking Errors Common Among Suicidal Students

LOVE LIFE: Coping by Cutting - Understanding and Engaging A Student Who Is Cutting

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