Mental health principles from the trauma-informed care movement can make your ministry a healing, healthy space for all families.
An unfortunate reality of modern life is that children and families experience trauma and traumatic events at high rates and with lasting impact. Consider this: How many families do you know who’ve been touched by the heartbreaking reality of divorce? What about families who deal with domestic violence? How many children face ongoing bullying at school? How many have been the victim of a crime? of abuse? Traumatic events are, sadly, all-too-common for today’s families.
Trauma Can Happen to Anyone
Families across all socioeconomic levels, even those from seemingly stable, healthy situations, may experience different types of trauma. Consider these statistics, as quoted from the U.S. Department of Justice:
- Twenty-one percent of kids report experiencing bullying.
- Sixty percent of American kids witness violence, crime, or abuse in their homes, schools, and communities.
- Nearly 40 percent of American kids were direct victims of two or more violent acts, and one in 10 were victims of violence five or more times.
- Children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults.
- Almost 10 percent of children witnessed one family member assault another family member, and more than 25 percent have been exposed to family violence during their life.
- A child’s exposure to one type of violence increases the likelihood of exposure to other types of violence and the likelihood of multiple exposures.
These startlingly high statistics, along with many other unfortunate realities in our world, are the reason it’s more important than ever for our ministries to ensure they’re the healing, accepting sanctuary for families we hope they are.
Making Time to Understand Trauma
Right now, you’re no more than six days away from Sunday at any given moment. Your teams need to mobilize, plan lessons, and purchase supplies. So why take the time to understand trauma and what it takes to create a “sanctuary” ministry?
The answer lies within the Bible.
Most researchers describe trauma as an overwhelming event or series of events that exhausts an individual’s internal and external resources. Trauma is an acute form of suffering—and the issue of suffering is at the very heart of Christianity. Suffering enters the Bible a scant three chapters in; its central message depicts God’s actions to remove the source and effects of suffering from his creation.
Understanding trauma matters because God uses our pain to make us more like Jesus. Several years ago, in the Christianity Today article “Don’t Waste a Crisis,” pastor and author John Ortberg recounted a survey he was part of on spiritual formation. Thousands of participants were asked to disclose what major influences accelerated their spiritual growth. Their overwhelming answer—more than preaching or Bible study—was “experiencing suffering.”
The survey results may not be that surprising. The apostles Peter and Paul both offered descriptions of how Christ-like character forms in a follower of Jesus. In each description, we find the word perseverance. That word describes how an individual can respond to trauma in light of his or her hope in Jesus. It suggests the path to spiritual maturity runs through exposure to suffering. This truth insists that part of our very ministry to children must be trauma-informed. When we better understand trauma and how to make our ministries a sanctuary for those who experience it, we help children and families navigate life’s challenges in a way that accelerates their spiritual growth.
Trauma in Many Forms
Research shows a direct link between the amount of trauma a child is exposed to before age 18 and long-term difficulties such as early death, substance abuse, stunted brain development, and poor job performance. Trauma exposure can come in many forms:
- Severe physical or emotional abuse
- Contact sexual abuse
- Severe emotional or physical neglect
- Living with a household member who was mentally ill, imprisoned, or a substance abuser
- Living in a home impacted by domestic violence
- Parental separation/divorce
- Witnessing violence
- Being threatened with violence
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
There’s a strong probability that families you’re ministering to today have experienced trauma in some form. This is where the mental health movement known as trauma-informed care can intersect with children’s ministry.
“Trauma-informed care [in mental health circles] means treating a whole person, taking into account past trauma and the resulting coping mechanisms when attempting to understand behaviors and treat the patient,” writes Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., in “Trauma-Informed Care and Why It Matters” (Psychology Today, posted July 6, 2017).
We may never know what people have experienced before they arrived on our ministry doorstep. We’re not always privy to their past hurts and trauma. We may not see their scars. But we can create an atmosphere that communicates “sanctuary” for everyone. We can create an environment that feels safe, welcoming, accepting, and secure. A place where the many who have experienced trauma can find respite and solely focus on their relationship with God.
Here are areas of the trauma-informed care movement that can shape your ministry into a sanctuary for families.
We want our ministry to appear attractive and inviting. We can also work to develop a setting that creates a sense of safety.
For instance, a hospital sets up the waiting room with separate seats rather than seating linked together, allowing every individual to maintain a sense of personal safety by being more in control of personal space. Additionally, parking lots are well lit for safety. Security cameras, safety doors, and protocol such as ID bracelets are in prevalent use.
In Your Church
Most children’s ministries already place a premium on safety with our check-in systems and screening policies. We do these things to prevent abuse and keep kids safe. These systems also have the added benefit of creating a sense of safety for parents and children—if they know about the measures in place.
Do a walk-through of your children’s ministry area. Do you promote the fact that you take safety seriously? Note anything that might make a parent or child question the safety of your ministry—from broken toys to doors without observation windows to an unsupervised door leading to the street. Make certain your physical facility is safe, and you’ll communicate a sense of security to families.
Churches need to be able to talk about struggle, suffering, and transformation in ways that communicate acceptance and healing. The Apostle Peter knew this. In his first letter to his congregation, he reminded his church that trauma was a normal experience for people and that they shouldn’t be surprised by it (1 Peter 4:12).
The Sanctuary Institute, founded by Dr. Sandra Bloom, teaches organizations to adopt shared language that allows staff and families to discuss trauma, its effects, and the recovery process. This language is used in trainings, meetings, therapeutic groups, and individual therapy. For instance, those working with children are “caregivers” and “supporters.” Additionally, the approach to understanding children’s behavior through a trauma-informed care lens has moved from asking, “What’s wrong with you?” (“Why are you being so bad?”) to “What happened to you?” (“What has caused you to cope with your current situation in this manner?”)
In Your Church
With your team, spot-check lessons for the language used to describe suffering, trauma, and behavior. How do the lessons explore the way God transforms us? Does the language reflect acceptance and grace (“God loves us even when we make wrong choices”), or does it communicate shaming and judgment (“You should know better than to….”)?
Additionally, brainstorm how your team can approach families, understanding that many have experienced traumas you may never know about. How can you weave the concepts of acceptance, healing, safety, and love into every interaction? Which ways can you adapt curriculum to teach God’s unfailing love and grace in the lessons? How can you work in conversation about the suffering we experience and how God knows our hurts? Teach volunteers to give children opportunities to talk about their challenges.
Ask kids how God might be working through those challenges. Lastly, look at your ministry terminology. Is it impersonal or familiar? Do you have “nursery workers” or “caregivers”? Do you “do” ministry to families? Or do you have a “partnership” with them? Consider what your language communicates.
One of the common effects of trauma is for people to lose any sense of control over the outcome of their life. A child who’s been subjected to abuse for as long as she can remember develops the assumption that his situation is normal and unchangeable. A child who is relentlessly bullied in school year after year sees that experience as the way life is—and always will be. This despair often bleeds into other areas of life.
Trauma-informed care providers are careful to communicate empowerment to the people they serve. They refer to clients as “survivors” and not “victims.” They help people learn new and healthier coping skills when facing negative situations. They often give children a voice in what their treatment looks like.
In Your Church
Give children goals to aim for—and show them how to achieve those goals. Putting an ethical standard in front of children without teaching them how to achieve it creates frustration and reinforces a sense of being powerless. In children who’ve experienced trauma, misbehaviors are often unhealthy coping mechanisms to a situation they don’t like or that makes them uneasy. Train your team to intentionally empower kids by showing them how to be successful and by having a voice in what’s happening. Use discipline situations to teach kids new and healthier ways to express their feelings. Use storytelling, role play, or discussion to illustrate how Bible people experienced hardship—and how God worked through the situation. Give children and parents the tools, examples, and support they need to succeed.
Trauma-informed care places a high premium on the emotional health of its practitioners. This is because the staff’s emotional health impacts the emotional health of the clients. The opposite is true, too. Mental health professionals are constantly encouraged to monitor themselves for burnout and fatigue.
In Your Church
The account of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha’s home reminds us of the tension between serving and knowing Jesus. It’s a mistake to read the story and conclude that we’ve been given the choice of being a “Mary” or a “Martha.” Ministry demands we imitate both women, with a bias toward Mary. So ask yourself: In what practical ways do I prompt my teams (and myself) to invest in their relationship with God? How do I ensure my team members have scheduled respite from serving? When do they have time to worship? When was the last time I personally took a break or sat through worship?
Larry Shallenberger works at a mental health residential treatment center for children and adolescents. He’s a former pastor working with children and families and is the author of Lead the Way God Made You (Group).
My Story: Heal the Broken Heart
As a child, I was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. God wasn’t part of our family’s life. I experienced rejection and neglect at my father’s hands. He was distant, uncaring, and inattentive. My mother was abusive, often going into rages and beating me, only stopping once she’d exhausted herself. The only expression I remember on her face is anger. My parents had no instinct to protect me, and they often left me with people who had evil intentions. I was sexually abused first at age 3. When I was a little older, another man violently molested me. I know now that God saved my life that day. I believe the man intended to kill me, but I escaped.
These awful scars left me angry, ashamed, and violent. The roiling emotions inside me led to me acting out and seeking trouble. I sought relief through alcohol and drugs. My life was sheer torment for many long years until God began to heal me and deliver my soul from torment.
My faith in God saved me, and I believe it can save other children of abuse as well. Here’s what I believe you must know about ministering to these precious children.
When an abused child hears that God loves him, he doesn’t trust that truth. His heart is raging, and he wonders: If God loves me so much, why did this happen to me? Trust is key, but building it is a slow process. Constantly affirm and reaffirm that God really does love the child.
Shame and Confusion
The abused child wonders: What did I do to cause the person to want to hurt me? The child is constantly bombarded with thoughts that something about the child made the person want to harm him. The shame and confusion overwhelm the child’s thoughts. When we help this child genuinely see that he did nothing to cause the situation—that the abuser was wrong—it helps heal the child’s soul.
An abused child will often test adults to see if they’re real in their care and concern. The child does this because, in his mind, no one can truly love him. Expect to be tested, and respond slowly and prayerfully when you want to help a child know God and his love. You are representing God, and the child will test you to see if what you say is what you live.
Modeling prayer for the child is vital. Let him see you pray for him. Let him know God hears him. God will touch the child’s broken soul and heart through prayer.
Interests and Talents
Become involved in the child’s interests like sports, drama club, or art. Be an encourager, and find ways to support the child’s interest. God placed talents, gifts, and callings in each of us, and we’re wise to draw these out of the hurting child. Help him begin to see his God-given potential—in your eyes and his own.
Love, love, and more love! Adults can show the child overflowing amounts of love, encouragement, acceptance, and kindness. The love you give serves as a catalyst to help the child grow up to fulfill what God intended for his life.
Surround the child with a caring community, such as counselors and therapists. It’s critical that a child in this situation receives the necessary professional support.