Discipling Children from Trauma Backgrounds

Compiled by Jenny Riddle, with contributions from Traci Newell and Mark Sly

When children enter homes from traumatic backgrounds, their lives have already been shaped by circumstances that make brokenness a part of their story. Difficulties children may have faced include medical issues, abuse or neglect, and abandonment. All have experienced grief on various levels. Whether they came into family homes as infants or older, children from adoption and in foster care know what “hard” looks like in life. Children are forced to reconcile the goodness of God with a life that has been difficult.   

Parents have the joy and privilege of walking with their children and pointing them to Christ, even on the hardest of days. And maybe especially on the hardest days. Each discipleship journey will look different; however, there will be some common themes and heart postures for parents as they seek to point their children to the Healer of their hearts.  

Understand Our Role  

Traci Newell, Education Specialist at Lifeline and a parent walking with her daughters on a discipleship journey, explains one of the most imperative lessons she has learned. Traci admits that feelings of discouragement and failure often characterized her parenting until she learned her role was not to try to change the hearts of her children. She shares, “Since many children who join their families through adoption and foster care struggle with feelings of rejection, convincing them of spiritual truths about their value can prove to be challenging. In this struggle with my own child, I have learned that the convincing is not up to me. A specific role of the Holy Spirit is to reveal truth from God’s Word (John 14:26). My role is to teach and reiterate truths from God’s Word to my kids when they are both willing-to-learn and slow-to-believe.”   

Mark Sly, one of Lifeline’s (un)adopted® Regional Coordinator, and an adoptive dad, agrees that parents should not approach discipleship with how they feel but with the truth. Parents are simply to be obedient to teach God’s Word. Deuteronomy 6:7-9 admonishes parents to teach God’s Word intentionally, saturating every part of family life.“Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”  

Practically, pointing to God’s Word may mean considering your family’s rhythms and the learning preferences of your children. Parents might consider what speaks best to their children.  

For visual learners, writing God’s Word “on the doorframes and gates of our homes” could include recording easy-to-learn verses on the bathroom mirror with colorful, dry-erase markers or using chalkboard paint to create a wall in our children’s bedrooms where we can display favorite memory verses.   

The auditory learner can appreciate and remember hearing Bible verses, and parents can be creative in the ways that we speak them. Some ideas include putting verses to music or coming up with a song or rap using Scripture.   

Kinesthetic (experiential) learners may delight in creating charm bracelets displaying their favorite verses or using markers and/or paint to record verses on their arms or hands (these are great sensory activities too!). 

Intercede and Pray  

Interceding for children is a high privilege and is a vital part of a parent’s role. Pleading with the Holy Spirit to work in their lives not only recognizes a parent’s inability to do that work but also attunes a parent’s heart for God’s desire for their growth in discipleship.   

Mark and Traci both suggest taking a moment to pray immediately with a child when an issue arises: “Lord, we confess this is hard; we are struggling; we need your help and discernment.” Acknowledging weakness in front of our children helps point them to the One who can help and models dependence upon a powerful, faithful, loving God who cares to hear the hearts of His children.  

Share Grief  

Grief can impact a child’s learning process, including learning about God. Traci shares her experience with grief work in her children’s lives. “I have come to understand that grief work is something I must do with my children, and sometimes, it is necessary before they can learn other things from me. Grief work, in this sense, can mean helping our children identify and understand feelings of grief they may experience that color their understanding of God’s Word and who He is. If a child is battling sorrow and feeling disconnected from the wonderful promises found in Scripture, it may help him/her to know our God is well acquainted with sorrow and has a heart that can be grieved as well (Isaiah 53:3).”  

Having open conversations with children about weaknesses and struggles can help them to see that they are not alone in times of discouragement. In this sense, parents model what it is like to walk with Christ in the difficult days of life. She suggests simple sentences like the following to start a conversation:   

“You know, I have felt sad at times lately and have been talking to a friend about my feelings. I have discovered that talking about my sadness helps me feel better.”  

“I am learning to talk to the Lord about my true feelings. I am also learning that there is absolutely nothing that I can’t tell Him because He already knows what I’m thinking.”   

Being Present  

There may be times when a child does not need a parent to give advice, try to fix things, or say anything (although they can certainly pray silently!). Rather, a child may just need a parent to “be” with them. Traci points to the time in Job’s life when his friends “sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights and no one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13). “Sitting with” her children, Traci said, “is an irreplaceable part of their discipleship.” She went on to say that her daughter “is certainly teaching me that sitting with her, not always giving advice or chiming in, is extremely important as she works through the ups and downs of life. Sometimes, when I am willing to become quieter, His voice resounds louder in her ears.”   

Teach a Christocentric Story  

Children from traumatic backgrounds can have difficult stories. Whitewashing difficult details or trying to tie up harsh stories with a silver lining will not help children work through God’s redemptive work in their story. Instead, Mark encourages parents to address the brokenness and explain how Christ’s victory is given to those who follow Him. Parents can show children how God’s work through their stories can uniquely position them to make an impact for Christ. Their story is part of His story. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Lifeline’s Journey magazine, a resource for Lifeline alumni families. You may read digital past editions of Journey here. Alumni families may sign up to receive Journey here.