Clergy View: Trauma-Informed Children’s Ministry

Simon’s father has just died following a two-year battle with ALS.

Elijah listens as his dad again threatens his mom, physically abusing her because of PTSD from his years in the military.

Cameron struggles on a daily basis in school — his diagnosis of Asperger’s doesn’t provide the coping tools he needs; it just creates the tensions.

What do these kids have in common? They have experienced trauma of one sort or another. Trauma is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” Trauma can be experienced in many different forms: a tornado ripping through town, the death of a parent, ongoing medical issues such as cancer, parents divorcing or separating, mental illness and its lifelong ramifications. Though these traumas look very different on the surface, the effects of them are roughly the same: a decreased ability to cope with life.

Many schools today are developing “trauma-informed classrooms” that approach behavior issues differently and help kids to recognize their own needs. Schools aren’t giving up on these kids, but are saying, “Together, we will find a way.”


Can churches do the same? Yes! And we not only can — we must! How can churches change to offer trauma-informed children’s and family ministry — spaces sensitive to families that have experienced trauma before arriving on the steps of their doors?

Two things come to mind: first, relationship. Children’s and family ministry must first and foremost know the individual. We must get to know the individual that has experienced the trauma — without a guiding relationship, our ministries will not know the needs of the child or family. A buddy, mentor or small group leader is able to truly get to know the child that has experienced or is experiencing trauma. Together they can partner with the family to meet their needs.

Are we structuring today’s children’s and family ministry in such a way that we not only say relationships are important, but our programs truly reflect how important they really are? Do we build in downtime for just getting to know the kids coming in our doors?

Second, language. The words we use are so very important in the messages we communicate. In the children and family ministry environments, we must use language of acceptance and grace rather than shaming and judgment. Grace doesn’t mean we give these kids a pass and allow misbehavior. It does mean we communicate to them they are of worth and value in the midst of their misbehavior. Verse after verse in Scripture points to God working our hearts toward transformation — making all things new.

Do our lessons explore the ways God can transform us? Are we communicating a message of grace to these kids, or are we telling them their trauma will always define them?

Simon’s father who died of ALS was my husband. I spent many years dealing with the trauma in my own family. I found that by sharing honestly with the kids in my ministry about what was happening in my family, it opened the doors for them to have a relationship with me. I used language that was honest and real about the pain I felt. It gave them permission to feel the emotions of trauma that are natural. By focusing on relationships and keeping language open and grace-filled, our churches can become safe places for every child to experience the transforming love of God — no matter what their background.

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