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Our Children, Too

Some kids in our churches need healing love

By

Katie* was a regular at the Alliance church in her town, where she enjoyed attending Mrs. Lehman’s* teen Sunday school class. Mrs. Lehman in turn saw a spark in Katie that prompted her to invest a little more time in the high schooler, praying for Katie and encouraging her to talk about “everyday life” as well as spiritual issues.

But when Mrs. Lehman answered the phone one day, she heard words she never thought she’d hear from one of her students: “My dad shot my mom and then killed himself.”

There is a perception in some churches that children—innocent and vulnerable as they are—are resistant to trauma. But is this notion valid? When we hear “trauma in children,” we often think about young ones being physically or emotionally abused, witnessing domestic violence, or being affected by a family member’s substance abuse.

But these are not the only sources of childhood grief; children also experience trauma if they lose a loved one, suffer a car accident, or are subjected to bullying at school or through social media. In addition, living in a single-parent home as a result of divorce, abandonment, death, incarceration, or even military deployment can traumatize a child. Five children may have five different reactions to the same event, since the threshold of stress is unique for each child.

Whatever the cause, these experiences do have a lasting impact on our children and ultimately play a significant role in shaping their lives. Research shows that children who endure a traumatic event suffer negative consequences later in life. In adulthood, these children are more likely to experience mental health and substance abuse issues as well as have a greater chance to be incarcerated, exhibit emotional and behavioral issues, attempt suicide, engage in sexual promiscuity, and have poorer overall physical health. They are also likely to perpetuate the cycle, creating—both directly and indirectly—environments that produce harmful experiences for their own children.1

On the other hand, children who do not go through a trauma and, for example, enjoy a childhood in a two-parent home free from overall instability are more likely to have positive self-esteem, better social skills, and the ability to empathize with others. They are more protected from adverse outcomes, such as poverty, behavioral issues, substance abuse, unplanned pregnancy, and crime.2

With this stark comparison, the outlook for some children, including some who may regularly attend Alliance churches across the globe, may appear bleak. But because of Jesus our Healer, the situation is not hopeless. Our God is employing His Church to bring widespread restoration and healing to all who come into His presence, and He is using godly relationships as a primary force to combat the effects of trauma in children.

Todd,* an eight-year-old boy in an Alliance church, has experienced this type of love, and it has paid major dividends. Todd’s mother used illegal drugs in the home while she was supposed to be caring for him, and as a result, he was severely neglected as a baby. She would leave him for days at a time, so it is no surprise that as Todd grew up, he exhibited severe behavioral issues. However, his church displayed the unconditional love that Christ modeled for us. As Todd’s father gained custody, the members offered support and love by helping him get Todd to the hospital when the boy’s behavior was uncontrollable. Other times, they simply sat and prayed with the overwhelmed dad. In doing so, the church established and maintained a loving, godly relationship with the family. Through the actions of Alliance church members, this hurting boy now knows the protection and unconditional love that our Heavenly Father offers us. Todd’s anger still escalates at times, but his significant behavioral issues have drastically diminished.

While virtually all Alliance churches have children’s ministries, few have programs that specifically target the trauma children face. Thus, our Sunday school workers and volunteers are often the main catalysts for change and the primary method God uses to bring healing and restoration to children. No one could have predicted that Katie would lose both her parents in a murder/suicide tragedy, but when she did, one of the first people she contacted was her Sunday school teacher. Because of the relationship that was already established, Katie had someone with whom she could navigate this terrible ordeal. Of course, she still has questions and tough roads to walk, but she is not alone in her struggle thanks to this teacher’s consistency, intentionality, love, and devotion.

Stories of kids like Todd and Katie tell us that relationship is a driving force in children’s ability to cope, recover, and thrive. Our growing awareness of the traumas our kids face, and the impending consequences, should spur us to create programs to aid the children in our churches.

For volunteers who work with children or church members who interact with them, there are some simple steps to create a safer, well-informed, and loving environment for our kids when they step into an Alliance church. The first is to know your state’s mandatory reporting laws. Some states require all adults to report child abuse or neglect to the county department or local law enforcement agency, while others require only specific professionals or volunteers to report. A great resource for obtaining this information is the Web site childwelfare.gov, which has a link describing each state’s laws.

Of course, even though it may not be our civic or legal obligation, Jesus implores us to help those who cannot speak for themselves. Child protective services have legal and civic obligations to investigate and address safety and protection concerns but are limited in the personal and spiritual impact they can make. It is the Church’s responsibility to come alongside families and not only alleviate pain and suffering but also bring the only true Healer—Jesus—to the situation.

Rev. Dr. Leanne Hadley, United Methodist minister, author, and founder of First Steps Spirituality Center in Colorado Springs, asserts that it is crucial for workers to really get to know the kids they serve because a prevalent sign of childhood trauma is a change in behavior. A quiet kid who becomes more rowdy or a boisterous girl or boy who suddenly withdraws from participation should raise a red flag for church workers. While there could be other explanations for the change, it may be a child’s way of calling out for help.

Dr. Hadley also stresses that workers and churches need to create a safe environment in which children can express their problems, big or small. If this idea of a haven is part of the church culture, when a major trauma hits, there is already a structure in place in which kids can grieve or disclose abuse or loss in their lives. Dr. Hadley trains children’s ministry workers to ask children what would be most helpful if a crisis situation arises: Does he or she want the whole class to know, or does the child want to keep it a secret? Also, children who act up as a result of trauma often need a listening ear rather than punishment. It is often best to have a worker listen to the child aside from the rest of the class. Children will disclose and process deep wounds if given the chance in a safe place.

Advanced training for church volunteers, specifically Sunday school teachers and children’s ministry workers, could give them the knowledge and skills to deal with tough situations kids in their care may be facing. The book Safe Place, recommended by Alliance Children’s Disciplemaking Ministries, can help workers recognize and address abuse or trauma in children. With this awareness, strategies designed to nurture children should follow. Mentorship programs could bring positive role models to children living without a father or mother. Other, more therapeutic programs in churches could give children a safe place to process the trauma in their lives and would provide guidance from a godly, spiritual foundation rather than from the purely psychological viewpoint offered by social services agencies.

Do not be deceived. Childhood abuse, neglect, and suffering happen to the kids in our churches just as it does to the kids outside our doors. The worst disservice we can do to our children is to ignore their suffering, to think wrongly that they’ll “outgrow it,” or to convince ourselves that trauma is something that happens to “other” children but not to those who attend church.

We must take the necessary steps to ensure our children’s immediate safety, introduce them to the only true Healer, and walk with them in intentional relationship when they need it most.

*Name changed

1. Child Welfare Information Gateway (2013): “Long-term Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect.”
2. R. A. Huebner, M. Werner, S. Hartwig, S. White, and D. Shewa, “Engaging Fathers: Needs and Satisfaction in Child Protective Services.” Administration in Social Work, 2008: 32(2), 87-103. doi: 10.1300/J147v32n0206.

Safe Place (revised edition) can be ordered at thealliancestore.com.

Seven Tips for Showing the Love of Jesus to a Child

Whether you’re a Sunday school teacher, a parent, a grandparent, or a church member, there are a number of ways you can show the love of Jesus to a child.
  1. Smile: If you love Jesus, tell your face! Many kids receive only negative feedback from adults. Take time throughout your day to smile at a child.
  2. Appropriate Touch: High fives, pats on the shoulder, side hugs, fist pumps—appropriate touch from adults is a tangible way to show love to kids.
  3. Tell your own story: This generation of kids is desperate for authenticity. They will argue with science, the Bible, and even facts. However, they will not, and cannot, argue with your personal experience. Share something—your story of faith, how God’s been using you lately, what you’re learning. When you share authentically, it opens the door for authenticity to be reciprocated.
  4. Time: Many kids spell “love” T-I-M-E. Go to their soccer games, eat ice cream cones together, have them help you with a church project.
  5. Ask specific questions: Take an interest in them. Don’t just ask, “Did you have a good week?” Ask them to share the funniest thing that happened. Then ask them to tell you something that was hard. The next time you see them, refer to what they told you. This lets them know you remember and care.
  6. Listen: Kids always have a story, a joke, or a question. As an adult, simply listening to them tells them you love them. Eye contact is a great way to show you’re listening.
  7. Don’t underestimate them: Kids are amazing people with a vast ability to both love and feel pain. Don’t underestimate what they might be feeling or look down on their experiences. God is at work in and through kids. You just might learn something from them. Remember, they are not the church of tomorrow—they are the church.
—Melissa J. MacDonald Children’s disciplemaking specialist for THEALLIANCE

2 responses to Our Children, Too

  1. Well written article, a great catalyst for both individuals and churches to have discussions on what to do regarding dealing with the real world.

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