I have worked with kids and young adults who have been wounded by life for the past 23 years. While there has been a good learning curve along the way, I still feel like I am just beginning to understand how trauma and abuse affect the heart and soul of us humans, and how best to help people along a healing path.
Full disclosure: I am not a licensed therapist, social worker, or psychologist. I am not a “licensed” anything. I am just a guy who has a heart for this population and loves being with them. So, here are the few basic things that I have seen help the hurting over time and they seem to be pretty universal for most.
- “Love is what heals trauma.” I heard a wise man, Daniel Carlisle, an FCNI Social Worker, say this at a training he led many years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since.
- “‘Caring’ and ‘relationship’ are about as healing as anything,” Dana Nichols, a wise woman and an FCNI Manager told me this also many many years ago. At the time, I was just about to start working at the SLO County Community Schools (a school which specialized in helping kids experiencing severe behaviors), and I had asked her what I could do to help the kids there since I didn't have any clinical training. This statement was my saving grace as I was trying to understand what these kids were going through, why they were acting the way they were, and, mostly, what I could do to help them.
- Love starts off by “being patient and kind,” as said by the Apostle Paul. And I believe him.
- “Listen, Love, Speak, Do.” To me, this is the best order of steps we need to apply with those experiencing trauma. I learned this approach from a psychologist and used it during my time as a Care Pastor.
I have tried to discipline myself in this fourth strategy while keeping the first three always in mind.
Listening well should always be our first step, as it is way more important than I used to give it credit for. When a person is truly heard, that in and of itself can be healing. I call it “listening from the heart.” I like to listen for the emotions behind the words and then meet the person there with mercy. A good way to remember this is to see that the word “ear” is right in the middle of the word heart--i.e., listening is at the center of being loving. This leads us to the second step.
Love the person where they are. Show empathy by trying to put yourself in their shoes, their situation, for a minute. I have learned that a little empathy goes a lot farther than a big “heart to heart.” I heard the National Teacher of the Year being interviewed right after I received my teaching credential many years ago. At the time I heard him speak, I remember I got out my pen and notepad to write down all the great teaching strategies and methods that I was sure he was going to share. He said nothing about any of those things at all. The only thing he said that he did differently from other teachers was that every day he would pick a different student’s desk to sit at for about 10 minutes before school started. Once seated, he would try to imagine what school was going to be like for that student on that day. He said if all teachers did this, it wouldn’t really matter what strategies and methods they used; the kids would learn. He said, “caring was the difference!” I believe him too.
Speak only after listening well and finding empath. People need truth, but the truth by itself can destroy people. So, speak truth, but always with kindness, gentleness, and understanding. If you need to take “a timeout” before speaking, do so. Choosing to “think before you speak” can be a very wise choice. Just being present with people who are hurting can be enough a lot of the time. This reminds me of the story of Job in the Bible, and specifically of Job’s comforters. They did great the first seven days as they just sat with Job and didn’t say a word. It was when they spoke that they got into trouble.
Do what empowers the person. Support them in a way that doesn’t leave them feeling inferior or you feeling superior. If you are there to help, action can be wonderful, but it can be tricky. FCNI has a great one-page resource on how to set and use good boundaries, called “Responsible to others, but not responsible for others.” This is a great reminder; one that will save your adrenal glands and help you to treat others with respect.
OK, it is possible that in the above article, I didn’t say anything that everyone doesn’t already know. I know that, but don’t forget that when helping people, a lot depends on what we emphasize and how we balance things.
I do believe that love and caring are the keys to accessing healing. We all need safe people to be with, to talk to, and to be heard by before we can begin to heal. We need to receive love not judgment, and only then can we find our footing and our starting place. When all of our needs are met and our gaps are filled, good things follow. Without doing this, even our best strategies, interventions, and methods won’t reach the deeper, darker, harder-to-reach places within others that they need to be reached in order to heal the real hurt that exists.