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When Trauma Comes to Church

Posted: 8/21/18 at 11:20am. Column by Amanda Lott.

Churches welcome children with different backgrounds, different struggles, and different challenges.

Many leaders in those churches have expectations for boundaries and behavior from all children, but realistically there are some children who enter our doors and just aren’t able to meet those expectations on their own.

Many of them come from homes that look like a Norman Rockwell painting, yet on the inside there is upheaval and instability. Even the ones who do live an idyllic life often carry deep hurts that can keep them from meeting our preconceived notions about behavior.

Using a “trauma-informed care” approach to classroom interactions can help a child gain the confidence they need to become healthy, whole, resilient members of our worshiping communities.

What is trauma-informed care? The dictionary definition is a strengths-based framework that is responsive to the impact of trauma; emphasizing physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both care providers and survivors; creating opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

What is a shorter working definition? Leveraging the strengths of the child’s network (the child, the family, the church, the community) to respond to the impact on the child, making sure of the physical, psychological, and emotional safety of all parties, so there are opportunities for the child to feel empowered and in healthy control of their responses to what surrounds them (negative and positive).

What is trauma? Trauma is any negative factor that impacts a child’s daily living. When we hear “trauma,” we often think of large scale or extremely violent events, like 9/11 or a hurricane or a mass shooting. Those are, indeed, instances of trauma that affect children’s daily lives.

For many, though, trauma is a related event such as divorce, unstable housing, food insecurity, the death of a parent or sibling, or something as seemingly simple as a family move or a fight Mom and Dad had.

How/why does trauma affect children? When anyone, particularly a child, is faced with something that traumatizes them, their “fight, flight, freeze” reflexes are triggered; they are affected at the most basic level.

When they are in a trauma-induced pattern, they can’t access the skills higher up the chain of brain function; they can’t get to a place of reasoning through a set of interactions because their brain is “stuck” in the mode of basic survival. This can look like a child is ignoring you, or acting disproportionately angry or aggressive, or becoming precipitously withdrawn.

How can we help “unlock” the higher levels of the brain? You can start learning how to do this by treating every behavior difficulty as if it stemmed from trauma. While many behavior difficulties or escalations are not trauma based, it’s helpful to treat them all the same way at the beginning until you’re better able to unravel what’s going on (being able to tell the difference between a defiant two-year-old and a traumatized two-year-old is difficult in the heat of the moment!). Some simple places to start are:

  • Treat every interaction with every child as an opportunity to help.
  • Treat each child as valuable, accepting where they are and where they come from.
  • Check your own “fight, flight, freeze” at the door! Managing your own anxiety will help you manage theirs.
  • Help the child by not escalating tension, choosing not to raise your voice when they don’t comply, or choosing not to suggest disproportionate consequences too quickly.

Amanda Lott is Associate Pastor for Children and Family Ministries at Huguenot Road Baptist Church, a BGAV-member congregation in North Chesterfield, VA.