Understanding childhood trauma ― its causes, effects and what kinds of interventions can ameliorate its damage ― is key to effective ministry in places like the orphanages for at-risk children in Russia, a renowned trauma researcher told the Russia Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) here Oct. 4.

“Our most pressing health and social issues can be attributed to traumatic childhood experiences,” Eamon Anderson, a member of First Presbyterian Church of Missoula, Mont., and a childhood trauma researcher at the University of Montana, told the 50 participants in the Russia Mission Network annual gathering. Most of them are engaged in partnerships with Russian congregations that have extensive outreach ministries with children and orphanage-dwellers.

“People can heal from the impact of trauma,” Anderson said. “This is a very hopeful field. But all of us who minister with children must understand it better.”

Anderson, who spent four years in Roma (gypsy) ministry in Romania, said that experience led her to question “how effective we were being and how can we be more effective as ministers in the world.”

Trauma, she said ― citing several experts in the field ― “results from adverse life experiences that overwhelm and individual’s capacity to cope and to adapt positively to whatever threat he or she faces. It’s the experience of a real or perceived threat to life or safety or the life or safety of a loved one,” Anderson said, “that  causes an overwhelming sense of terror, fear or helplessness.”

Anderson, who got involved in trauma research (and ministry) after 9/11, said events are not themselves aren’t trauma. “How children react to events is the trauma,” she said. “Their experience of dealing with the trauma-causing event is what determines the outcome for the child.”

What research tells us Anderson continued, is that childhood trauma:

  • is common ― more than 90 percent of children worldwide experience some sort of trauma in their lives;
  • comes in clusters ― one trauma tends to lead to another ;
  • is cumulative ― becoming more complicated and severe over time; and
  • is amenable to treatment.

“We also know that trauma affects children in many ways,” Anderson said. “It impairs children physically, emotionally, cognitively. It impacts their psychological development, their success in school, their ability to for healthy relationships. Their coping resources are diverted to survival, not to healthy development and their goal-setting and ability to think about the future is compromised.”

This analysis is hopeful, Anderson insisted, “because it indicates that intervention ― and ministry ― is possible and can be effective. Our Christian values of hope of rebirth and the importance of healthy relationships are just what many of these kids need. People can change their destinies. We believe this.” 

These insights are the key to ministry with traumatized children, Anderson said. “Successful intervention  requires not just emotional and psychological healing, but spiritual healing as well,” she said.

Strategies for effective trauma ministry, Anderson continued, include asking the right questions about what impacts us; creating physical and psychological safety; mentoring; psycho-education for children and caregivers; creating predictability, ritual, and routine in daily life; and creating healthy relationships.

Strong partnerships with Russian congregations that are engaged in children’s and orphanage ministry “can enable U.S. Presbyterians to be effective co-ministers of these strategies,” she said.

“If we don’t look through the trauma lens, we pathologize people, blaming them for their own circumstances,” Anderson said. “Trauma is a great equalizer – we have all experienced it.”

But the church has the theological understanding and ministry tools to be a healing agent for children throughout the world, Anderson insisted, quoting Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20-21: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”