Crisis: Now in Three Flavors

Youth Specialties
June 10th, 2016

In 1938, a European living in China wrote: “The Chinese term for crisis is ‘danger-opportunity’. Without the danger there cannot arise the opportunity.” [1]

Crisis = Danger + Opportunity


How good a translator was the European who made this observation? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a convenient wordplay … maybe it’s ancient wisdom. As someone who’s helped quite a few people in crisis, I do know this: Thinking of crisis as a dangerous opportunity seems like one of those things that, if it isn’t precisely true, it certainly should be. Because every crisis seems to include both danger and opportunity—and not necessarily in equal parts.

This is why we occasionally hear someone say something like, “Losing my leg was the best thing that ever happened.” I’m pretty sure the person who says such a thing means what she gained came to seem more valuable than what she lost. Would she rather have learned that lesson from a book? Well, sure … but she learned it, as we say, the hard way.

Sometimes stories about the hard way are inspiring; and sometimes they’re stories about depression, opioid addiction, and the downward spiral. That’s the danger in a crisis … it could go either way. Which is, of course, why youth workers need all the help we can get … it’s why youth workers and teenagers are natural allies when it comes to spotting signs of crisis.

Make no mistake: You don’t have to be an adult to see what you’re seeing.

One lesson I’ve learned about helping teenagers in crisis, is that being an adult doesn’t automatically mean a person sees what’s in front of him. Even when adults see signs that teenagers are in trouble, that’s no guarantee they’ll interpret the signs accurately and early enough to make a difference before the damage is done.

So, the place to start, for youth workers and teenagers alike, is learning to see what’s in front of us … learning to tell the difference between a crisis and a passing bit of drama. When youth workers know how to do that, we can figure out how to teach teenagers to do it for each other.

Download the Crisis: Now in Three Flavors Handout

Not all crises are the same, and not just because one crisis may be more intense than another. Crisis comes in three distinct flavors:

  1. The adjustment crisis
  2. The acute crisis
  3. The chronic crisis

There may be other sub-flavors—some rocky road, or toffee swirl kinds of things—but these three are the biggies.

Adjustment Crisis

An adjustment crisis is what it sounds like: Somebody’s having trouble adjusting to a new situation … some people prefer the term situational crisis:

    • Adding a stepparent can be an adjustment crisis for a teenager
    • Changing schools, or neighborhoods, or churches, or soccer clubs can be an adjustment crisis
    • The onset of puberty … or the delayed onset of puberty … can be an adjustment crisis

Teenagers don’t have to be experts to help friends through an adjustment crisis because the key factors in readjustment are time and support. Any reasonably well-balanced teenager can help a friend in an adjustment crisis by walking through it with him or her. People going through adjustment crises may seem to just wake up one day and realize the sky is no longer dark, they don’t feel cold and alone, they’re no longer numb, or paralyzed, or relentlessly sad … they realize they’re not just going to be OK … they are OK. That doesn’t mean they weren’t really in crisis … it means they’ve successfully adjusted to their circumstances … it means the crisis is resolved.

Acute Crisis

An acute crisis is a clear and present danger to a person’s health and well-being. Until the issues that contribute to an acute crisis are resolved, the danger is real and ongoing.

    • A suicidal episode is an acute crisis
    • Alcohol poisoning is an acute crisis

Teach teenagers to assume a person who says he’s going to harm himself or others is, in fact, likely to follow through with that intention unless he’s interrupted.

Rule One for teenagers helping friends in crisis:

An acute crisis calls for skilled intervention, as soon as possible, with as little drama as possible.

An acute crisis needs attention from people who really know what they’re doing. Teenagers can help, but not alone. Youth workers can help … but not alone.

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Chronic Crisis

A chronic crisis is persistent or recurring. The underlying issues can take years to sort out. In some instances, the impact of a chronic crisis is reduced without being completely resolved. In which case it’s just a matter of time until it pops up again:

    • An eating disorder is a chronic crisis
    • Long-running or repeated bouts of sadness, anxiety, or depression are chronic crises
    • Cutting, repeated drinking sprees, obsessive shopping, compulsive gambling, and out-of-control sexual behavior are all chronic crises

There may an obvious pattern that predicts the recurrence of a chronic crisis—some trigger that sets a person off—and maybe not.… This is one of the maddening things about chronic crisis.

Maybe the hardest thing about a chronic crisis is that it won’t stay in the rearview mirror. A chronic crisis can drive a person to feel she can’t go on but she can’t stop.

It should be said that, in some instances, chronic crisis reflects a medical problem that requires medical treatment. I’m guessing none of the teenagers you work with are medical practitioners so discourage them from playing doctor with their friends. There are other instances when a chronic crisis looks like a disease in the sense that, if it were controllable … if a teenager in crisis could control it … if his parent, his youth worker, his teacher … if his friends could control the crisis, by whatever means … it would be controlled by now.

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A chronic crisis needs long, deep work. This is not a shock to anyone—we read books, we watch movies and television, we’ve seen what a chronic crisis looks like, even if it wasn’t called by that name. A person in a chronic crisis can’t simply decide to get better … that’s not how this works. How this works is, teenagers help friends in chronic crisis by helping them get the high-skill, specialized assistance they need.

One more thing:

An adjustment crisis or a chronic crisis can turn into an acute crisis rather suddenly.

The most frequent methods of suicidal death in the U.S.—guns and hanging—don’t require a lot of planning because for many people, guns and ropes are easy to come by. Teach teenagers not to think of an adjustment crisis as just an adjustment crisis … teach them not to think of a chronic crisis as just a chronic crisis. Precisely because people in crisis can do deadly harm on an impulse, teach teenagers to take every crisis seriously.

There’s danger in a crisis … and there’s opportunity. Teach teenagers—without being sappy or unrealistic—to help their friends lean into the opportunity as they lean away from the danger.

jim hancock@JimHancock writes books, designs curricula and makes digital movies for youth workers, parents and teenagers. A lot of his work is at thetinycompanycalledme.com. Jim attended his first National Youth Workers Convention with Youth Specialties in 1980. Since then, he’s missed just three conventions.

[1] Chinese Recorder, Jan. 1938, Vol. LXIX, No. 1, page 2, cited by Benjamin Zimmer, Language Log, March 27, 2007, http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004343.html (accessed 01.15.16).

Download the free Crisis: Now in Three Flavors Handout

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