Was Jesus trauma-informed?
You might think that asking if Jesus was trauma-informed is like asking if he was a Republican, Democrat, or Independent. You might think I'm trying to over-conceptualize Jesus, putting our Divine Savior into our human-sized categories based on what he believed and how he acted. I'm not trying to do any of that or be political or buzz-wordy. I'm just confused sometimes at the ways Christians act around people who have been traumatized. If I'm trying to build a compelling argument about why Christians should be trauma-informed, I have to start with Jesus. So that's where I am.
Trauma is a buzzword these days. It's used in work training for educators, healthcare professionals, and mental health providers. Information about trauma circles through social media, with all the different perspectives on various platforms. Due to the incredible work of people like Dr. Bruce Perry, people are uncovering the truth about what happened to them and how it impacts their everyday actions and feelings. They're figuring out that much of their anxiety and depression is due to unresolved trauma, often from their childhood. Becoming aware of this has helped many people overcome their own inner turmoil, and it's also transformed the way we work with children and young people, especially those who have experienced some form of complex trauma.
Last Saturday, Kendrick and I sat in a huge room with a ceiling so high that it seemed to mesh with the sky itself. We were interviewing for a homeschool program that we are considering for him, and it was nerve-wracking (for him and for me.) We tried to occupy Eli as the two kind ladies asked us many questions. They asked Kendrick about his favorite subject and what he liked to do outside of school. They asked me about my homeschooling journey and what made us decide to pursue homeschooling after doing public school for so long. At the end of the interview, they asked a question that caught me off guard, "How do you and your family handle both internal and external conflict?" I answered them with the truth, "We seek to pursue reconciliation whenever possible."
But as the words came out of my mouth, I felt a twinge of guilt that what I said wasn't true. Reconciliation doesn't always look the same in our family as it might in others. When parenting children who have experienced trauma, there's a whole lot more to conflict and resolution. By that, I mean, there is always more going on under the surface. And sometimes that means there isn't reconciliation, at least in the terms that Christian people mean when they use that word. There have been many times that we have foregone an apology because it came in other forms: a hug, an offer of connection, a smile. For kids who have been hurt, abused, abandoned, or neglected, words don't often mean much. So, we reconcile and come back together through meaningful connection, loving touch, and play.
I'm not sure those women would have understood or accepted that answer - the real, raw truth of what it looks like to parent my kids. They wanted the typical Christian answer.
Their next comment was this: "Just so you know, we have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and bad behavior here."
And this is where I raise an official red flag: *this organization is not trauma-informed.* No, bullying should not be tolerated. Yes, we should be aware of our behaviors and how they affect others. But also, kids (all kids, but especially kids with trauma) are usually communicating with their behavior. What if the behavior is not what you perceive it to be (a personal attack, an annoyance, etc.), but instead a response to complex, chronic trauma that my precious child experienced as a baby or young child? Would you have more compassion for his "bad behavior"? Would you have 100% tolerance for an outburst if you knew that a firm voice and expulsion from your program bring up the same feelings and sensations they once had when they felt unsafe and out of control of their lives?
Unfortunately, this is not a singular event; it is deeply embedded into Christian culture. I've seen it happen in churches, Christian schools, and Christian programming. Christians often have high moral standards for children, expecting them to talk and act a certain way. When adults see outbursts or bad behavior during a church service or in a classroom, they often react with annoyance or anger, causing a child to respond in fear. Some believe that trauma is over-generalized, a term used to describe any adverse events in our lives. Because of their perception of trauma, they dismiss the trauma responses that people have as an overreaction or misbehavior instead of a response to a perceived threat in their brains. They might even use mean tones, isolation, or expulsion as a consequence for their actions, causing them to spiral into absolute chaos and dysregulation. But this isn't how Jesus treated children or people who had experienced trauma.
**In order to prove my point about Jesus' care for those who have experienced trauma, I am going to use examples of people who were demon-possessed. However, I do want to make the absolute distinction that I am NOT saying that people who have experienced trauma are possessed by demons. Whew, okay glad we got that out of the way.**
During Jesus' time of ministry, he cast out many demons. These people acted crazy. They ripped their clothes, screamed, and acted with aggression and violence, causing them to be hated and cast out of the cities where all of their friends and families lived. They were outcasts, seen as "less than" your average person. After being cast out of their cities, they experienced extreme isolation and loneliness, which likely worsened the demon-possession situation. When they were cast out, due to the zero-tolerance policies of the pharasies and town officials at the time, they lost all access to the healing that they needed. Instead, they were faced with the hopeless reality that the only other person who stuck around was the demon that took residence in their bodies. I'm sure that, because the religious and "God-fearing" people abandoned them, the demon living inside them became their only friend, causing them to sink deeper and deeper into despair and misery with a friend of the devil himself. And what a tragedy this was! This person did not do anything to deserve the demon possession; it happened as a result of sin and the enemy.
Jesus didn't avoid these demon-possessed people; he was drawn to them and their needs. He provided them with spiritual and physical healing. He breathed new life into their bones and allowed them an opportunity to belong again.
When the little children ran up to Jesus, hopping in his arms and asking him questions, the disciples scolded their parents because the children were "bothering" Jesus. Since there was more than one little child hanging around Jesus, it's very likely that there was some bickering, lying, roughhousing, tattle-taling, and mischief going on. These are typical behaviors of young children who are learning how to live in the world. They need a lot of redirection and loving correction. But in this passage of scripture, we don't see Jesus addressing the behaviors of the children, but rather that of the disciples: “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.”
Jesus was not just unbothered by children; he was delighted in them. He enjoyed their presence. He welcomed them with open arms, and even praised them for their childlike faith, for the way that they wanted to be with him. In the upside-down Kingdom of God, Jesus looked at the "righteous" and told them to become more like the "annoying children."
In the case of the demon-possessed and the bothersome children, Jesus didn't retreat from them. He didn't isolate them. He didn't send them away. Instead, he opened his arms to them. He welcomed them. He provided them with healing, with grace, with love.
For some reason, we have interpreted "bad behavior" as a bother, as a reason to be cast out of programs and classes. But for many children, it is simply a communication that they are really struggling internally. I understand that this can look like aggression, disrespect, meanness, defiance, etc. But if we examined the behavior and dug a little deeper to understand why children are acting out, it would build compassion in us - compassion that looks a lot more like Jesus than our strict moral codes that kick kids out of homeschool/Christian school/church programs when they don't measure up. And when we build up that compassion and curiosity about why kids are blowing up or melting down, we develop a desire to learn how to best respond when these types of situations arise because children are not trying to manipulate, control, or blow up. They are trying to survive.
Being trauma-informed is not as complicated as you might think, and it is not as permissive as it sounds. Compassion is the first layer of trauma-informed care. Then, we can start the process of learning about the traumatized brain and what it looks like to care for, love, and discipline children who are not neurotypical, to no fault of their own. This does not mean that we excuse negative behaviors, but that we respond to them in ways that build safety instead of fear within our children.
There has been much research recently that has helped us better understand trauma. As Christians, we should be at the forefront of this movement, but, for some reason, it seems we are the last ones to rise up to the occasion. Trauma-informed care is one way that we can live out the Gospel in a real, practical, tangible way to the world. We can demonstrate what it looks like to stare into the face of a child who is acting out and offer safety, love, and tender care. For Christians, trauma-informed care is more than brain science; it's a tangible way of doling out radical grace and loving-kindness to those who the world says don't deserve it.
This is the same kind of love that was extended to us at the Cross of Jesus. It's a love that saw past our behaviors, our thoughts, our sin and sacrificed for us anyway. It's time for Christians to rise up and love our neighbors the way that Jesus did. He loved us first; now we go love with the tools and resources he's equipped us with to do so.
1 John 4:19
We love because he first loved us.