Children can experience trauma from a variety of experiences including neglect, physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, death of a loved one, bullying, racial trauma, sickness, and more. Trauma, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHS), results from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (Concept of Trauma, 7).
The compassionate response of parents or caregivers can help children who have experienced trauma find healing. Helping children feel connected and loved, giving them opportunities to express what they’re feeling, providing any necessary professional care, and being patient with behavioral outbursts will all go a long way toward helping children heal.
Our Compassion and God’s Compassion
Knowing that God sees, cares for, and understands their suffering will help traumatized children begin to heal. Reminding them that one day all pain and suffering will cease can help turn their minds away from anxiety about future trauma and toward promised future peace and joy.
Knowing that God sees, cares for, and understands their suffering will help traumatized children’s progress in healing.
Our shock and horror over the many ways in which children suffer trauma should drive us to step into these children’s lives, tangibly demonstrate God’s love, and protect them. God’s deep love and concern for children should spur us to imitate his tender care for them and to offer them hope and a sense of safety.
How amazing it would be for children who have experienced trauma to find healing and hope in their families and churches. According to a report from SAMHS,
How a community responds to individual trauma sets the foundation for the impact of the traumatic event, experience, and effect. Communities that provide a context of understanding and self-determination may facilitate the healing and recovery process for the individual. Alternatively, communities that avoid, overlook, or misunderstand the impact of trauma may often be re-traumatizing and interfere with the healing process. Individuals can be re-traumatized by the very people whose intent is to be helpful. (Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative, SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach, 17)
Practical Suggestions for Care
While the specific responses children need will vary, there is a wealth of general advice to help parents and caregivers respond well and help children heal. These recommendations are geared toward situations in which the traumatic event has ended and children are in a reasonably safe environment.
- Provide children with safety and reassure them that they’re safe. Give them examples of what you’ve done to help protect them at home or school. This might include walking them to their classroom every day, remaining within earshot whenever you’re at home, watching them play outside so they’re not alone, and waiting for them at the entrance of the school or the bus stop to pick them up.
- Help children feel connected and loved. Tell and show them you love them and will try your best to take care of them. This includes being emotionally and physically available (hugs, time together as a family). Reassure children it’s normal to have a lot of different or strong feelings after a traumatic event.
- Let children know that what happened was not their fault, and be an attentive and nonjudgmental listener. Allow children to process their experience and express their feelings. This could mean helping children find words or encouraging opportunities for them to express themselves through talking, writing, playing, music, or other activities. Don’t be dismissive of children’s feelings or encourage them to simply get over the traumatic event.
- Pray with children. Because in Jesus Christ we have a great high priest who sympathizes with us (Heb. 4:14–16), we pray and ask God to act, heal, comfort, bring justice, make things right, and more. This captures the sadness and loss of trauma and our hope and confidence that God will hear and help.
- Provide professional care for children when needed. This includes therapists, Child Protective Services workers, mental health professionals, victim-witness advocates, school guidance counselors, or social workers.
- Provide professional investigators when appropriate. This includes informing the authorities when there is known or suspected child abuse.
- When children are upset or showing strong emotions, try to respond calmly rather than react in anger. Remain supportive, speak in a steady and reassuring voice, and acknowledge their feelings. Try not to take children’s behaviors personally. Remember that children may be engaging in responses that feel automatic to them or that they feel powerless to control, and those behaviors may have protected them or others during trauma.
- Return to usual routines, when possible and still helpful. These might include mealtimes, school, weekend activities, or bedtime routines. Try to be consistent, such as picking children up on time and letting them know in advance about any changes.
- Give children some control in daily activities, appropriate to their age and developmental stage. Allow them to make some choices about clothes, meals, and so on.
- Encourage children about their security in Christ. If they have faith in Christ, their identity is secure and robust. God affirms the value of his children by reminding them they have been adopted into his family.This truth brings great relief, because they’re not doomed to live as victims of trauma. It doesn’t eliminate their wounds or silence their cries for deliverance or healing, but it does mean those wounds are not the final word on who they are.
- Engage the feeling of anger. God’s anger against sin and its effects is justified. That God is angry tells us something important, according to David Powlison: “Anger can be utterly right, good, appropriate, beautiful, the only fair response to something evil, and the loving response on behalf of evil’s victims” (see Powlison, “Anger, Part 1: Understanding Anger,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 14:1 , 40.) God’s people can also express godly anger: “Be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). It can encourage children to tell them that God is angry when they experience trauma.
- Offer hope. Rather than being simply a desire for a particular guaranteed result, hope is characterized by trust in our faithful God. Our hope draws encouragement from God’s faithfulness in the past and anticipates his faithfulness in the future. Because Christ was raised from the dead, we can trust in God’s promises.
God affirms his children’s value by reminding them that they have been adopted into his family.
As you seek to care for the children in your midst who are dealing with trauma, or to help others care for these children, we’d encourage you to remember that you are not alone and God is in control. One day, he will put all things right. Until then, it’s our privilege and calling to provide safety, comfort, and hope for those afflicted, and to walk patiently with them as individuals made and beloved by the God who created the universe and holds it in his hands.