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Children’s Spirituality, Trauma, and Resilience

By Holly Catterton Allen

Children around the world have survived school shootings such as Sandy Hook, natural disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the terrors of war (e.g., Syria and Yemen). Other children have endured long-term personal or family traumas such as living with physical or sexual abuse, with parental addictions or mental illness, or in chronically violent neighborhoods.

While some children come through such traumatic circumstances remarkably well, other children remain fragile into adulthood. Current research is examining what factors can encourage resilience in children who have faced long-term adversity.

Perhaps not surprisingly, faith, hope, and the belief that life has meaning have been found to be protective factors associated with resilience in children (and others). Ann Masten, resilience researcher for decades, describes spiritual and religious systems as the “human adaptive systems” that support these protective factors in children.[1] In other words, nurturing children spiritually can help sustain children when they face hard circumstances.

For fifteen years I have taught a course called “Nurturing Spiritual Development in Children.” The students in the course spend an hour a week for ten weeks in one-on-one time with the children they mentor. We have worked with children whose parents are incarcerated, children in generational poverty, and refugee children. Each week the children experience a spiritually nurturing activity such as reading a good children’s book, participating in a Godly Play story, writing letters to God, or walking a labyrinth. These activities can foster a child’s connection with God, encourage discussion about forgiveness or hope, and provide openings for making meaning of experiences of loss and grief—all of which are part of the ineffable spiritual enterprise that can foster resilience.

When university student Olivia was mentoring twelve-year-old refugee, Nahla,[2] they read Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs[3] about a little boy who loves and eventually loses his grandmother and great-grandmother. Olivia asked Nahla how she connected to the book. Nahla said that she connected with the book because when she was six, her family was fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo and her twin sister was hit by a truck and killed in front of her. Nahla further stated that she didn’t think God heard her prayers because when her sister was dying, she pleaded with God not to let her die. Sharing a rich and textured children’s book created a space where Olivia, through listening and empathizing, became a safe person whom Nahla could trust, someone with whom she could process the spiritual dissonance she was experiencing.

The most important thing we did in our paired meetings was to construct a bridge with these children from their already-existing spirituality to the actual experiences of their lives, believing as we do (and research supports) that this construction contributes to resilience in these children.

These intentional spiritual practices with the children helped them bring their religious beliefs, their relationship with God, and their understanding about how the world works to the daunting task of processing their life experiences. It is our hope that they will remember and continue to draw upon their spiritual resources as they lean into a strong future.

[1] Masten, Ann S. Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development. New York: Guilford Press, 2015.

[2] Nahla is a pseudonym.

[3] New York: Puffin Press, 2000.

Contributed by Holly Catterton Allen, Professor of Family Science and Christian Ministries, Lipscomb University (Nashville, TN) and Chair of the Society for Children’s Spirituality (CSS). Her books include Transforming Churches through Intergenerational Ministry (2018) and Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community, and Worship (2012).

A full chapter on "Children's Spirituality, Trauma, and Resilience" can be found in the upcoming book, Bridging Theory and Practice in Children’s Spirituality: New Directions for Education, Ministry, and Discipleship (due out in Spring 2020).


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