During my first year editing Represent, a magazine by and for teens in foster care, a writer I’ll call Leah began a story that painfully detailed her father’s sexual abuse. Though Leah assured me she needed and wanted to write the story, with each new draft she seemed to slip deeper into despair.
Though normally meticulous in appearance, Leah’s long, blonde hair became stringy and unkempt, and she began to smell like she wasn’t bathing frequently. One day she showed up at the office with a black eye, which she would not explain. Leah did say she was thinking constantly about the abuse that had happened several years ago. She found herself crying all the time and said the girls at her group home made fun of her for it. The other day, when her boyfriend hugged her, she said, she got flashbacks to the abuse and began sobbing uncontrollably. “I’m a freak,” she said.
I trusted Leah’s sense that it was important for her to tell her story and work through the thoughts and feelings it stirred up, painful as they were. But I could also see she was suffering, and that worried me. I had no social work training, and I felt unsure how to proceed. Was I doing enough to support her? Who was I, really, to say that she should be working on such a painful story?
My boss’s office was filled with books like Writing as a Way of Healing and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, which, he told me, confirmed through research my sense that working with Leah on her story would ultimately help, not harm her. But as with many of the more sensitive stories I edited that first year, overseeing it left me in a constant state of self-doubt.
It was fortuitous, then, that I attended a seminar on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that can affect people who have experienced trauma such as sexual abuse. There I learned how creating a narrative about the trauma can help heal the damage. While awareness of the potential therapeutic benefit of my work at Represent did not dramatically change the way I managed my writers, it did provide the framework I desperately needed to feel more confident in guiding young people telling painful, personal stories. It also reminded me that because I did not have social work training, I shouldn’t hesitate to seek out mental health professionals’ advice when I felt in over my head. I was able to work more effectively with my writers and avoid becoming overwhelmed myself.
Since then, editors at Represent have understood how useful it is for us to pick up social work skills wherever possible. We’ve made a point of attending seminars that give a therapeutic perspective to our work and have come up with guidelines to help both writers and editors feel more secure when a young person is plowing away at a particularly painful story. The following tips resulted from attending conferences for therapists, talking with student writers about Represent‘s process, sharing tips with colleagues in the field, and working directly with teens on narratives about trauma.
Create a sense of trust and safety from the get-go.
“When a young person brings up a traumatic event, the way adults respond to it is very important,” says Libby Hartigan, who has worked at the teen-written paper L.A. Youth since 1989. “If someone says, ‘I was raped’ during a group discussion, it’s critical for the adult in the room to say something like, ‘I’m really sorry to hear that,’ or, ‘I didn’t know that happened to you.’ It doesn’t have to be a lot. Just ‘I heard what you said and I have a response to it, and that response is that it makes me sad to hear that and I appreciate your courage to bring it up.’ It helps not only that kid, but the other kids in the room.”
But avoid asking intrusive questions initially, especially in front of a group. “Show you’re receptive to it and not nosey. Nosey can come later,” says Hartigan.
Assess whether the timing is right.
It takes time to acquire the necessary perspective to reflect productively on a painful, personal event. To determine if a writer is ready, gauge whether they have moved beyond merely recounting an event to being able to reflect on their role in it or how it has affected them. Hartigan has found that this takes about six to nine months, which is exactly what psychiatrist Edward Rynearson, an expert on violent death, discovered through his research.
Know your legal responsibilities.
In certain states you are required to report abuse when you hear about it. Know what your legal responsibilities are and be upfront about them with your young people.
Educate yourself about PTSD, and don’t hesitate to seek help and refer young people to mental health professionals.
Ten to forty percent of youth in violence-ridden neighborhoods may develop PTSD. This can leave them in a chronic state of hypersensitivity and anxiety, so that they feel certain they’ll be able to get out of a bad situation fast. Chances are, a young person recalling an intense personal trauma, whether through writing or talking, may experience PTSD symptoms as well.
Purposefully calling forth a traumatic event in a safe environment with boundaries, dignity, and a trustworthy adult is how therapists help a person associate the trauma with something manageable. Through that association, a person can eventually have some control over trauma and feel less overwhelmed by it. (This process is similar to those used at many programs pioneering therapeutic models for using narrative to engage hard-to-work youth, including Represent or The Beat Within, a publication by incarcerated youth in the San Francisco Bay Area.)
As I learned with Leah, things can get worse before they improve. Memories of trauma may bring with them the old feelings of helplessness, depression, or worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts.
When working with a young person, stay alert to these symptoms and educate yourself about why they are happening. Seek help from professionally trained therapists and social workers whenever you feel uncertain about how to proceed. Remember that your role is not that of a social worker’s, and you are not expected to be one. Identify therapeutic resources young people can use. At Represent, editors often refer writers to programs offering teens free therapy, like The Door in New York City.
Identify and normalize the symptoms of PTSD.
Let a young person know upfront that tackling a difficult and personal subject is likely to bring up a lot of emotions. To normalize the experience for the young person, explain PTSD and its symptoms.
Let the young person know that people with symptoms of PTSD may have many of the feelings my writer Leah experienced: recurring flashbacks or nightmares, or unexpected outbursts of feelings such as extreme anger or helplessness.
PTSD can also involve “trigger” responses, where something unexpected—like the tone of someone’s voice—can cause a person to overreact impulsively and sometimes violently, or to have panic attacks.
Because the hypersensitivity that comes with PTSD is exhausting, many people with symptoms will numb themselves through drinking, drugs, or sex. They may also learn to avoid situations that trigger them, which can be fine, unless that leads to trying to avoid the unavoidable, like relationships, jobs, or going to school.
Giving young people an overview of these symptoms may help make them feel less frightened about what they’re experiencing and more comfortable exploring their feelings and reactions in their narratives, resulting in richer stories.
Assign a lighter story.
My first summer at Represent, one teen said she had flashbacks of being beaten with a bat. She wrote about being abused in the present tense, even though the rest of her story was in the past. She soon stopped participating in group meetings, putting her head on the table whenever her peers spoke. Her writing was affecting not just her, but all of the staff, including me.
I’d attended the PTSD seminar by that time, so I had an idea of what was happening. After talking with her about PTSD, to no avail, I eventually told her I could not continue working with her on the traumatic story anymore if she did not also start another, lighter story. So she began a story about how much she loved running. This helped immensely.
Working on a story about something light and “normal”—like a sport, first love, or hobby—can remind a young person that there’s more to life than pain. It also makes the workload more manageable for the adult in charge.
Ask about the future.
When a writer dwells on something difficult in her past—especially a situation she had no control over—balance her perspective by asking her to take a break to write about the future. Ask her to describe who she wants to be in five years, what she wants to be doing, what kind of people she hopes to be surrounded by, and how she plans to get there. This reminds a young person that as she gets older she’ll have more control to create a life she wants. It’s also helpful for the adult collaborator to be reminded of the writer’s resiliency and future hopes.
Build trust by being persistent, nonjudgmental, and patient.
“It’s all about timing,” explained Antwaun Garcia, who has written for Represent for over 5 years. “You have to be patient for that individual to tell their story on their time, and persistent in getting it out of them. After a while the adolescent sees this person is really caring, and they’re not just doing it ’cause it’s their job. That’s when they’ll open up.”
Avoid putting a story about personal difficulty on a tight deadline, added Garcia. Highly personal stories develop at an unpredictable, often idiosyncratic clip, and it’s most respectful to allow young people to explore them at their own pace.
Help identify triggers.
Ask the young person whether any current situations set her off, making her feel the way the original trauma did. Pinpointing how a trauma continues to affect a young person not only helps the writer gain more control over her reactions, it will make the narrative stronger.
Help identify avoidance or numbing techniques.
This could mean using drinking or drugs to numb feelings, or it could involve avoiding certain types of situations or relationships. Identifying these coping mechanisms can help a young person explore more direct ways to deal with feelings associated with trauma.
Take care of yourself and don’t be overly attached to outcomes.
Identify coworkers you can speak with about what you’re hearing and how you’re feeling. Stick to a manageable schedule and workload. If you don’t know how to proceed, ask for help. And try not to be too attached to a young person’s progress.
Of course, all of us working with young people who have been through trying circumstances want to see our teens flourish. After working at Represent for several years, I have seen firsthand how writing can exorcise demons from the past and make room for other concerns, like school.
At the same time, experts say that many who’ve gone through severe trauma never recover completely, and that those who do, do so on their own schedule. Expecting clear evidence of a young person’s growth—something out of your control—can be a recipe for burnout.
Instead, appreciate the fact that unlike teachers or therapists, you have evidence of tangible progress—a product—that you and the teen have collaborated on together. When one of the young people you work with is in trouble, allow this evidence of achievement to remind you that the young people really are accomplishing a lot.
Despite what experts say about who does and does not get past trauma, take inspiration from Garcia who, having written dozens of personal stories, is convinced that finding one’s voice through youth media is one of the best ways to begin processing and moving on from a difficult childhood. “I think most troubled kids just need that one person who listens to them,” Garcia told me. “Soon as you have that one person and give them that voice everything else just falls into place.”
Above photo: Writer Antwaun Garcia says he is wary of therapists but enjoys writing about his life and even finds it therapeutic.
Guiding young people through painful, personal narratives.