the shape of leadership

What’s Really Going On?

Ministry to kids in trauma

Chris Pruett on May 13, 2024

What’s wrong with this out-of-control kid? Why won’t he listen or behave like the other children in church?

If you work in children’s ministry, you’ve likely puzzled over such questions. I know I have.

But after years of assuming difficult kids were just bratty, I learned misbehavior can be a sign of deeper problems. Children who have experienced trauma sometimes act out in socially unacceptable ways.

Instead of wondering what’s wrong with a disruptive or uncooperative child, we should consider whether something is wrong in his or her world.

The sad reality is, many kids are dealing with difficulties they may not articulate — except through inappropriate or troubling behavior.

Abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, and other issues can lead to a lifetime of struggles, from developmental and behavioral problems during childhood to mental illness or substance abuse in adolescence and adulthood. Experts refer to these trauma-inducing events as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

ACEs include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; physical and emotional neglect; a household member’s mental illness, substance abuse, or incarceration; witnessing physical abuse; and the loss of a parent’s presence from the home due to divorce, separation, abandonment, or death.

Unfortunately, such experiences are all too common. More than 6 in 10 American adults (64%) say they endured at least one ACE before age 18, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And 17% experienced four or more ACEs.

Of course, not all bad behavior is linked to trauma, and not all trauma manifests as bad behavior. However, each ACE may significantly shape a child’s emotional and physical growth.

Childhood trauma can have long-term mental, physical, and social implications. Among other things, the CDC reports adverse childhood experiences may increase the risk of depression, suicide, heart disease, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, and relational instability later in life.

According to the CDC, “Toxic stress from ACEs can negatively affect children’s brain development, immune systems, and stress-response systems. These changes can affect children’s attention, decision-making, and learning.”

As the number of adverse childhood experiences increases, so does a young person’s risk. A 2015 study published in Academic Pediatrics found that for every additional ACE, a child is 32% more likely to have behavioral challenges, while the odds of experiencing a chronic medical condition increase 21%.

A 2009 article in American Journal of Preventive Medicine says, “People with six or more ACEs died nearly 20 years earlier on average than those without ACEs.”

There are kids in our children’s ministries who are facing trauma. They are hurting and vulnerable. And they desperately need our attention, prayers, love, support, and intervention.

Many kids today are adrift on a sea of sorrows. To reach them, remember the acronym SEA. Make your children’s ministry a place of safety and empathy, while taking positive action on behalf of those who are hurting.

The sad reality is, many kids are dealing with difficulties they may not articulate — except through inappropriate or troubling behavior.



Kids need safety. One way your ministry can promote a sense of security is through relationships.

The good news is experiencing healthy relationships can help offset the effects of childhood trauma. Many children are just one caring adult away from a brighter future.

Ask children’s leaders to pray for and check in with kids who are going through difficult experiences. It doesn’t have to be one of the ACEs listed above. It might be a parent’s military deployment, the loss of a grandparent, a sibling’s health crisis, or trouble fitting in at a new school.

Depending on the circumstances, it may take considerable time, but I have seen kids go from struggling to thriving because someone cared enough to walk beside them and demonstrate Christ’s love.

Kids also need a safe home environment. If you suspect a child is abused, neglected, or otherwise in danger, report it to the authorities immediately.*



Hurting children require empathy. They need assurance that they are not alone in their struggles. They want to know someone sees them and cares about what they are going through.

Give kids permission to express their feelings to you and to God. Assure them emotions like sadness and anger are normal.

After listening, I always tell the kids in my ministry, “You are loved no matter what!”

Remind kids often that God loves them, and so do you. Let them know they are an important part of the group.

When appropriate, talk with parents or guardians as well. Getting their perspectives on how a divorce or death in the family has affected a child can yield valuable ministry insights.

Gaining trust doesn’t happen overnight. But consistently demonstrating interest and empathy can go a long way toward helping kids feel loved, accepted, and understood.



Hurting kids need someone to take action on their behalf.

One way of providing tangible support is through gift giving. For a child going through a difficult time, a teddy bear or blanket can be a powerful reminder of God’s love.

For example, you might say, “Every night when you go to sleep with this bear (or blanket), remember that Jesus loves you and so do we. Jesus loves you more than anyone, and He will be there to comfort and help you.”

This simple act will remind children on a daily basis that they are part of God’s family. Gifts for older kids might include Bibles or journals.

Another way to show you care is by calling or sending cards to kids who are hurting. Vetted volunteers can assist with this task as well.

Finally, point families to mental health care as needed. Sometimes the hurt is so deep kids need the help of a mental health professional.

Churches should develop a referral list of local Christian counselors, including some who work with kids and families.

Perhaps your congregation could even assist with the cost of counseling for a family in crisis.

When discipling troubled kids, it’s important to consider what’s really going on. Bad behavior is not always trauma related, but when it is, the right response can make all the difference in a child’s life.

We must make safety, empathy, and positive action part of the culture in our children’s ministries. If we can help even one hurting child, it is worth the effort.

Matthew 18:12 reveals the Good Shepherd will not rest until He rescues the one sheep who is in danger. Never forget that you are part of His rescue mission.


*The General Council’s policy is to report all reasonable suspicions of child abuse. All states have mandatory reporting laws. And in most states, children’s workers are required by law to report suspected or known abuse.


This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

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