Tips for church staff when working with traumatized children

Sunday morning is the ONLY morning my family gets to fake normal. It’s the lone day of the week we all look presentable. Since we’re there for a mere hour and fifteen minutes each week, there’s little time for my kids’ trauma to unfold in the form of questionable behaviors. There’s also the fact that we’re still relatively new to town and our church. While it’s clear by looking at our family that our kids could be adopted (one dark brown child, one light brown child, and two very white parents), most in our church aren’t aware of our kids’ stories and prior trauma. So you can imagine the pit of nausea that developed on Sunday morning when I heard my husband explain to our tantruming, pajama-clad son that we were leaving for church as a family of four in 20 minutes whether he was out of his footie-jammies or not.

Thankfully, the idea of going to church in his pajamas was enough to spark my oldest child into dressing himself (in a polo and sweatpants). We dodged a bullet this time, but what about next Sunday? We’ve shared about our kids’ needs, their backgrounds, and strategies that work with their teachers, daycare providers, and babysitters, but for some reason we haven’t included Sunday school and other children’s ministry staff in this conversation. Maybe it’s because we don’t have a lot of opportunities to talk with these folks, or maybe it’s because, deep-down, I fear judgement about my parenting from other Christians more than any other group of people. At any rate, Sunday’s pajama throwdown has pushed me to write some tips for the good people at our church who share the love of Jesus with our kids. Perhaps they’ll be helpful for those of you in similar situations:

Dear Children’s Ministry Staff:
First, thank you for teaching our kids about God’s love in an accessible way to our children. We adopted both of our kids from foster care. Our son was four when he came to us and our daughter was five. Both have experienced vast amounts of trauma that has impacted their development. This trauma is often displayed in odd, inappropriate, or immature behaviors. If these happen and you feel ill-equipped, please flash their handy code-number across the screens in the sanctuary, and we will come help. However, here are some suggestions in hopes you can all have the best experience possible:

  1. Our kids sometime struggle with regulating themselves in high-sensory situations (loud, busy, colorful, etc.). Sometimes this looks like hyperactivity or defiance. If you can, offer to step out in the hall with them. Help them take deep breaths. Have them cross their arms and rub their earlobes (this helps activate both sides of their brain to snap them out of “chaos brain”).
  2. Be aware of manipulation. Our kids will use passive techniques to get what they want. For example, if I am eating a piece of pie and my child wants it, instead of asking for the pie, he/she will talk about it or ask questions about the pie instead of simply asking to have a slice of pie. Giving into their passivity will only prevent them from asking for what they need/want. Our kids will also try to charm their way into your affection through compliments, alone time with you, hugging, snuggling/holding your hand, etc. It is imperative that our kids only receive motherly or fatherly affection (including hugs) from us, their parents. Instead of hugs or special time with you, try giving our kids a high five or a fist-bump. Make sure they respect your personal space. Our kids had to charm people into getting what they need/want, and we need to break this cycle so they learn to trust us (their parents) to provide for them.
  3. Know that we love our kids. Sometimes we have to make parenting choices that are different--like taking our seven year-old to church in his pajamas. When weird stuff happens, please don’t stare. Know that we love our children and are deliberate about our parenting.
  4. Please refrain from telling our kids that you missed them at youth group/Sunday school/other church activity. We don’t always allow them to attend these activities because sometimes they just need time at home to develop their concept of family and security. These comments about missing them are genuine and sweet, but they make our kids resentful, which prevents them from fully attaching to us.

While I sometimes always feel weird handing tip-sheets to our kids’ teachers, daycare providers, and Sunday school leaders, I recognize that the general public has no knowledge about how to effectively work with kids with histories of trauma. It’s up to me to be an advocate for my kids, to set them up for success, and to put on my big girl pants and move past the awkward.

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