How to listen to youth at times of crisis

I’ve seen a number of posts this week about how to talk to youth or with youth about the shootings in Orlando. And I’m sure they mean “listen” as well. But as Mr. Rogers so beautifully says, “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” 

How do we listen to youth (or anyone, really) in times of stress – especially when we are stressed ourselves? As always, I think we need to start by putting on our own oxygen mask and taking a deep breath.

It’s also important to note that our crisis may be different from that of our youth. The stress point may be due to something in the news, or it may be something at their school, or it may be something that’s happening in their heads. Be mindful that you may think things are going fine when our youth are going through something traumatic, and vice versa.

When it comes to addressing a major crisis in the news, however, I think we need to start by assuming that youth have an idea, however incomplete, about what is happening, and that we should respect that. We should acknowledge also that our own information about what is happening is incomplete, and that our opinions about them are just that: opinions. As always, humility is called for.

Once we have established our own place of humble openness, we can ask questions. Bear in mind: 1) you’re not their therapist; and 2) this is meant to be supportive, not an interrogation. Let them lead the way. This is just meant to open the conversation.

Here are some questions that come to mind:

How are you doing?
What are you hearing about [the event]?
What’s your reaction? What do you think?
How do you feel about it?
What are your friends and family saying?
Do you have any questions about it?
Is there anything you need from me?

Of course, if one question steers the conversation, then that’s where you need to go. And as always, don’t be scared of silence, and don’t jump in if youth don’t answer right away.

As the conversation continues, it will be more important to practice reflective listening -- saying back to a person, “What I hear you saying is…” and recapping what was said – than it is to provide answers.  It may be that all that is needed at the time is for you to hear them. You don’t need to solve it – as if we could anyway. Let them be heard. Let them be seen. Let them feel without fear of judgment. Let them know they are loved. In other words, minister to them. You don’t need to be the hero. You just need to be there.