Last week, my husband and I spent thirty hours in a three-day training about parenting children from hard places. The course was designed to equip us to train other parents who are doing the tough but important work of parenting children from hard places. The training was informative, difficult, and incredibly beneficial, and I can’t wait to pass on the information to other families in the foster care and adoption community.
More than that, however, I want to pass on this information to those who are interacting with children in all settings. Our schools, our churches, and our community organizations that serve children and teens would benefit greatly from understanding the effects of trauma on the developing brain. And while I could get into the science side of this, and I hope to in future posts, I want to start with the basics.
Relationships are at the heart of God’s design for humanity. Science points back to this truth in hundreds of ways. Our brain creates new connections when we have responsive, joyful interaction with our primary caregivers in those early weeks, months, and years.
But what happens when those early relationships that were designed to shape our brains and wire them for connection aren’t safe or dependable? What happens when those relationships are the source of stress or neglect or abuse? What happens when those earliest experiences aren’t safe at all?
Well, it changes things. It changes brain development. It changes behaviors. It changes the way they think, relates, and grows.
But there is hope. Research also says that our brains have the ability to continue to change and develop over time. And as the great Dr. Karyn Purvis often said,
“Our children were harmed in relationships, and they will come to experience healing in relationships.”
That is beautiful and hopeful and worth giving my life to.
As leaders, we have the great privilege and responsibility of reflecting back God’s heart to the children and teens that are part of our churches. Sometimes these teens come from homes that are full of wonderful, connected relationships. Their needs, both physical and emotional, have always been met, and their brains developed in-line with that loving, consistent care.
And then there are those children and teens whose relationships weren’t always stable or consistent, let alone safe and connected. In some cases, those relationships are still an active part of those children’s stories. There is turmoil at home that goes unseen by the outside world but is deeply felt by the 14-year old girl walking into youth group.
Her ability to trust and develop “felt safety” often hinges upon the environment that we create. This “felt safety” doesn’t just mean she knows the plan in case of a fire, or she sees the security team walking through the halls. This “felt safety” means that she actually feels safe when she is at church. Her brain can move from the fight, flight, or freeze mode that it may often stay in at home, and she can begin to utilize the logical part of the brain. This part of the brain enables her to make wise choices rather than just reacting. It enables her to absorb new information and participate in class rather than just making sure she’s not in danger. It helps her to settle in and let go a little bit. It is one of the many keys to her future development.
If the home is a place of chaos and “felt safety” seems to be fleeting, it is critical for our churches to create those safe spaces for our children and teens. This means our leaders must learn to look behind the behaviors of a teen who is seemingly defiant, disengaged, or distant. It means looking for opportunities to connect before we try correcting.
This flips the model of ministry so many of us were trained in. Rather than looking to shape behavior or beliefs first, this model asks our leaders to build connection first. Instead of starting with theological sub-points, it starts with the main header: God’s love is absolutely unconditional, and we get to be conduits of that love in the world.
For kids who’ve experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma of some sort, this may be the sole focus of our ministry. We may spend weeks, months, or even years demonstrating that we can be trusted, depended upon, and responsive to their needs. We model God’s love this way, and we reestablish, through relationship, those powerful healing principles.
So maybe our role is to show up, listen, believe the best, see beyond the behavior and look for the unmet need in that beautiful person who was created in God’s image. Maybe our role is to speak the deep, often unseen truth, in the face of adverse circumstances – that our children are precious and loved – not just by us, but by their Creator.