Come with me, I'm fading underneath the lights.
Come with me, Come with me, Come with me now...
Can't you see the signs? -- Creed, "Signs"
Kids today are complex. They grow up faster than we imagine, and
they face issues that were nonexistent -- or at least more hidden
-- when we were children. And as children's ministers, we often
find ourselves trying to interpret what kids are really going
through based on the signals they're sending. Is Sarah struggling
to make friends? Has Keisha's father come home? Is Mark being held
back in school this year? Is Vickie prepared for her family's move?
Is it possible that Peyton is being abused at home?
Traversing a child's inner world requires attention, compassion,
intuition, and common sense. It's a minefield-laden world we live
in, and unfortunately children are all too often the casualties.
Part of our role as children's ministers is to support families as
they safeguard kids' overall well-being -- and there are many
instances in which that well-being is threatened, ranging from
abuse to self-confidence issues. How do we recognize the signs that
a child is covering up a trauma, crisis, or hurt?
We asked three experts for their advice. Pulitzer Prize-winning
author and researcher Robert Coles, Christian clinical psychologist
Dr. Gary Hackney, and Christian counselor Steve Rossi offer their
insight into kids' secret worlds.
Proceed With Caution
If we see kids for only one or two hours per week, is it really
possible to assess whether a child is living through trauma or
crisis? The answer is complex. The experts say yes -- adults with
limited contact with kids are often able to spot trouble through
behavioral indicators and other signals kids send. But in the same
instances, adults may misinterpret or miss these signs, so it's
necessary to proceed carefully. The best rule of thumb is to
observe and interact with the child over a period of time -- that
way you can distinguish between a child who's acting out because he
didn't get enough sleep the night before and one who's dealing with
internal trauma or stress. Use these observation tools.
• Communicate -- "Talk to the child," says
Coles, author of over 50 books, including The Moral
Intelligence of Children (Random House). "There's nothing like
a good conversation. I wouldn't advise getting into a lot of
psychological gobbledygook...You see a child who's ailing or
hurting, you try to figure out what it's about." Coles also
suggests checking with the parents or with other teachers and
adults who know the child to gain clearer understanding. It's also
important to do a bit of self-assessment when you're preparing to
talk with a child. "Find out what it is about the child's behavior
that's bothering you," says Coles. "[Then] ask the child directly.
Tell the child what's on your mind in a friendly and direct
• Monitor -- When a child's behavior or
appearance seems out of the ordinary, it's important to monitor the
change and try to assess how dramatic it is. A strong signal that a
child is hurting comes in the form of an abrupt change that takes
hold; for example, a child who's normally outgoing and happy
suddenly becomes withdrawn or cries inexplicably. "Any significant
change in [a child's] behavior," says Rossi, can be a signal of
something amiss. "But it's got to be particular to that child. And
every child is different," he adds. See the Signs There are common
indicators that a child is experiencing trauma of some kind. The
key is to remember that what's normal in one child may not be in
another -- so look for a consistent change in that particular
child's behavior. Here are signals that may indicate something is
• Regression -- Children (infants included)
regress to earlier developmental stages when trauma occurs.
Behaviors such as thumb sucking and soiling clothes may
• Exaggerated Fears -- "Fears come back that
belong to a younger age," says Rossi. For example, it's not
age-appropriate for a 10-year-old to suddenly fear loud noises.
• Anxiety -- Kids have startle reactions that
are exaggerated and seem out of place. For example, a child might
overreact to a distant ambulance siren.
• Emotional Insecurity -- Clinging, crying, and
difficulty separating from parents may signal that something's
amiss. Conversely, so may a reluctance to return to parents.
• Withdrawal -- This is more than shyness, so
look for signs of children who were once social now pulling away
from others. The child may "zone out," seem distracted, or be
• Extreme Emotions -- Children may cover up a
deeper issue with irritability, belligerence, or excitability. The
child may be overly aggressive or overly withdrawn. The child may
cry for seemingly no reason.
• Listlessness -- The things that used to make
the child happy no longer do.
• Physical Complaints -- A child frequently
complains of a stomachache or headache, but there are no other
signs of illness, such as fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. On the
other hand, you may observe bruises, injuries, and other signs of
• Verbalized Complaints -- Older kids express
fear, a sense of doom, nervousness, and unhappiness.
• Change in Habits -- The child may not sleep
or eat the same as before. Also, a child may neglect his appearance
and seem to be disheveled or have poor hygiene.
• Acting Out in a Sexually Inappropriate Manner
-- Hackney gives the example of a kindergarten-age girl who
insisted on rolling on top of boys in her class during nap time and
trying to kiss them. The Cover-Up Kids seem to have a natural
instinct to "cover up" when something is wrong -- so often their
behavior becomes very exaggerated or completely reverses as they
try to overcompensate for their feelings. Kids hope that no one
will notice for a lot of reasons -- they fear the consequences of
discovery, they worry about being different, they resist the
unwanted attention, and the list goes on. But if you notice a
child's behavior change dramatically and consistently, your antenna
should go up, says Christian clinical psychologist Hackney. Watch
the child and take note of his or her behavior over a period of
time. Talk to the child, talk to adults who know the child, and
talk to the parents. "If [a child is] very nervous, very upset,
then you get the hair twiddlers, the nail chewers, the constant
pickers. There's something going on in [the child's] life to cause
this to happen...It's real hard when you see kids only a couple
hours per week. What you want to do is look at change. Behavior
change is always motivated by something," says Hackney. The
Low-Down If you suspect or know that a child is experiencing a
crisis or trauma, the experts offer these tips for assisting the
• Talk. Don't be afraid to talk about the
problem with the child and parents if it's been established that
there is a problem. Often, "we dance around the issue." says Rossi.
"Talk about it."
• Treat it seriously. "This child is
suffering," says Rossi. "By connecting with that suffering...we're
less likely to say or do something that is going to worsen that
situation. The worst thing we can do is be insensitive or do
• Take action. "Out of fear, adults will do
nothing. Out of fear of litigation, people will back away from
doing something that could help," Rossi says. "Being too tough,
being too rough, not responding, saying 'you'll get over it,'
saying 'time will heal' -- these are the worst things we can do.
Often adults don't want to deal with it when they notice changed
• Don't be clinical; be human. "Sometimes we're
so busy imposing our knowledge on these poor kids...," says Coles,
"that they get lost in the midst of that kind of imposition of
thinking and analysis."
• Don't label or diagnose. "Most people are not
qualified to diagnose," says Rossi. People who aren't mental health
experts simply don't have the knowledge or expertise to diagnose a
child. As children's ministers, our role is to be alert to
problems, support the child, facilitate getting the child or family
help, and in cases of abuse or neglect, notify authorities
according to your ministry's protocol.
• Use your head...and your heart. "Common sense
is not to be dismissed. That's a very important part of our
humanity...reaching out to children mind, heart, and soul," says
• Be objective. Don't let your emotions take
• Get in touch with the child. "One of the
things that adults do is they try to look at a child through
adults' eyes," says Rossi. This won't work; remember what it was
like to be a child and then approach the child with those
sensitivities in mind.
• Don't underestimate the child's suffering.
Hackney's work has been primarily with victims of abuse -- ranging
in ages from 18 months to 87 years of age -- and he says that
people deal with trauma's ramifications all their lives. He says,
"Abuse or neglect may not meet legal standards, but it is still
traumatic to a child."
• Don't underestimate your ability to connect with the
child. "Let us not underestimate our own possibilities and
our own humanity in the form of our willingness and eagerness to be
of assistance to children," says Coles. Work in Progress Experts
are optimistic about kids' resiliency -- especially those in a
church community and those who experience the love and concern of
caring adults. "Children who are churched seem to fare a whole lot
better" when it comes to overcoming trauma, says Rossi. The church
provides a caring community, support system, and belief system that
unchurched kids typically don't have. "If God is the healing agent
-- talk about resiliency, talk about power and healing," says
Coles emphasizes the importance of making a human connection
with a hurting child. "Try to draw the child out, not be analytical
and point out behaviors. Be human, responsicarng, and interested.
Have a conversation, play a game, find a way to connect without
creating an analytical moment. Share a glass of milk or an ice
cream cone," he says. To connect with a child, approach him or her
in a calm, safety-oriented, soothing, nonthreatening way.
Kids needs a soft approach, an understanding approach that helps
them relax and feel safe. Talk about feelings. Adults can draw kids
out by expressing their own feelings, then asking the child for his
or her opinion. This allows a child to get a sense of safety about
sharing his or her feelings. "The bottom line is reassurance," says
Rossi. Coles says, "We are human beings who can be hurt, also who
can be healed by time and new experiences and people with whom we
He's optimistic about a child's ability to heal, regardless of
the trauma suffered, and he cautions against our adult tendency to
limit children. "[We can't] be too fatalistic and almost categorize
the child as...a child who's been hurt, [as though] he'll never get
out of that because we've imposed an airtight label on him."
Ultimately we serve God, and we serve children. As their
supporters, friends, teachers, and caregivers, we're often faced
with difficult situations. While we can't heal every hurt, or
diagnose or prevent every problem, we can focus on serving children
when they're in need. We can be there for children as the great I
AM is there for us.
We can be present as God continues to be present for us. "We
keep our eyes and ears open for pain and hurt," says Coles. "Those
pains and hurts are expressed by children sometimes indirectly, but
we're human beings, we know these children...It's our
responsibility and our opportunity as adults to learn from
children, to respond to their cries of distress, and to let those
cries of distress fall upon our eyes and ears, our hearts and our
minds and souls in such a way that we reach out and say, 'Yes, here
I am.' " cm
Jennifer Hooks is associate editor of Children's Ministry
Counseling Basics for the Novice If you find yourself
faced with a child who's hurting -- and you're uncertain of how to
proceed -- use these counseling basics to connect with and support
• Actively listen. Stop what you're doing and really listen to
what the child is saying. This means even repeating back what the
child has said to you -- for instance: "What you're saying is you
feel uncomfortable when other kids tease you about your scar."
• Emphasize safety. By creating a safe environment for kids,
they won't resist confiding in you. Let them know that you'll never
judge them or make fun of them for anything they say or do.
• Be empathetic. By definition, this means to vicariously
experience another person's situation. Try to put yourself in the
child's shoes and imagine what he or she is feeling -- then treat
the child how you would want to be treated. Don't be in a hurry to
solve the problem; sometimes the child only needs to talk.
• Don't promise to keep a secret. While confidentiality is
highly important and kids need to know they can trust you, the
simple fact is some secrets absolutely cannot be kept. Let the
child know you'll respect his or her wishes for secrecy as much as
you're able, but that for his or her protection, you may need to
let another adult know what's happening.
• Get help. If a child's situation requires intervention of any
kind, follow your ministry's protocol and get help. This will most
likely begin with notifying your children's ministry director or
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