Discipling Children in Pain: Adverse Childhood Experiences and Discipleship

Article September 14, 2023

I will never forget the day our mission trip bus was shot.

We were in San Pedro Sula, Honduras which at the time was known as the “murder capital of the world” because it had the highest murder rate of anywhere else in the world. Still, most of the violence was from gang-on-gang activity, so none of us imagined that a few days into our trip our big charter bus with over 50 children inside would be shot 7 times. Surprisingly, no one was physically injured, but we can’t assume or pretend that watching the three gang members in the car next to us murdered by countless bullet wounds or seeing the windows of our bus shatter from gunfire while being frantically dragged to the floor by the adults was not internally damaging for the children.

Many Children Are Suffering
There are many different ways in which children can be subjected to suffering. Some children are born into unhealthy environments with abuse, neglect, divorce, poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, or mental illness present from their very first moments of life. It is impossible for a child to live through these circumstances and not be impacted. But childhood trauma doesn’t stop there. Even if a child grows up in an overall healthy environment, with loving parents who follow Jesus and provide safety and positive formation, trauma can still be experienced. A family member or friend could die, a bus or school shooting could happen, or a fire, an earthquake, being bullied, or even something as simple as getting attacked and bitten by the neighbor’s dog.

The harsh reality is that the majority of children that we care for in our ministries will have endured adverse childhood experiences.

Just living through COVID-19 for the last several years alone was a globally traumatic experience, especially for children. Think about this: for an 8-year-old child in 2022, a quarter of their life was spent living in quarantine and social isolation! They have pain. And we must continue to learn how to love them in the midst of their pain.

Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is the term that is used to describe children who experience one or more potentially traumatic events in their childhood between the ages of 0 to 17. In the mid-90s, a study was conducted by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente which found that adverse childhood experiences directly increase the risk of long-term issues such as depression, obesity, attempted suicide, and mental-health disorders. They found that children who had high ACE scores were over 7 times more likely to suffer from alcoholism, over 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, and had a 20-year decrease in life expectancy.

Adverse childhood experiences are quite common. Over half of all adults in the U.S. (64%) report that they have had at least one adverse childhood experience, and more than two-thirds of children report that they have had at least one traumatic experience before the age of 16.

That means that at least two out of every three children in our ministries will have experienced trauma by the time they hit high school!

For those of us who are serving and caring for children, this is a big deal. ACEs are so common and detrimental to the development of the child that the former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Robert Block, stated “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” The majority of our children are suffering, and this deeply matters to us at Awana because ultimately, it matters to God.

What Does The Bible Say About Suffering?
To have a biblical understanding of ACEs and childhood trauma, it is important that we understand the doctrine of suffering. From beginning to end, Scripture addresses the problem of suffering. In Genesis 2, we see God creating humanity in a garden full of blessing, while lovingly warning them of the death that would come from eating of the Tree of Knowledge. After the fall in Genesis 3, we see pain and strife being the result for man and woman. Throughout the Old Testament, there are countless stories of suffering such as in the lives of Hagar, Joseph, Moses, David, Jeremiah, and of course Job. All throughout the New Testament we see accounts of blindness, epilepsy, leprosy, false accusation, shaming, and even martyrdom. And the very heart of the grand narrative of Scripture is that of our Lord Jesus, the suffering Servant who saved the world by His crucifixion and death on the cross. As we who are believers look toward the future of our life with Christ for eternity, the promise is that we will be fully united to God Himself, and that “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) Oh how we long for the day when children will no longer suffer!

Even though we will have suffering in this life (John 16:33), Jesus has made a way for us to bring healing to tour broken world. Just as Jesus came for those who are in need of a physician (Luke 5:31-32), so also our calling as followers of Jesus must be to care for the brokenhearted. The Apostle James even goes so far as to say that pure and undefiled religion is to care for those who are vulnerable, such as widows and orphans, in the midst of their affliction (James 1:27). Extending love and care to children who have experienced trauma must become a core component of the way that we disciple the children in our churches. They need the church to be a healing refuge for them. They need your love.

Healing Begins With Love
Since childhood trauma deeply affects the majority of children that we care for, it must also inform the way that we disciple them. Last year at the 2022 Child Discipleship Forum, the director of the children’s ministry program at Dallas Baptist University, Dr. Shelly Melia, shared about the importance of promoting resilience in kids who have come from hard places. She stated that we must provide children with an authentic faith that says “Yes, there’s struggling, and yes, there’s suffering, and we’re going to be with you through that.” We are not psychological experts. Our focus is the discipleship of children. And before children can open up to God’s love for them, they need to know that they are safe with us. This is why we created a resource that will equip you and your children’s ministry leaders to learn how to care for the children in our ministries who have had adverse experiences as you develop a trauma-informed children’s ministry.

As the old Teddy Roosevelt saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is why the first building block of our 3B philosophy at Awana is belonging. We have found, time and again, that the best environment for nurturing children to believe in the gospel and become followers of Jesus, is when they belong to a church community with the help of loving and caring adults. And as we apply the 3B philosophy to children who have experienced trauma, our goal is that children will come to belong in our churches while being known in their pain, believe that God’s love for them is just the same as it has always been, and that they would become a resilient disciple who, like many of us, has scars that tell the story of Jesus’ redemptive love for them in the midst of their pain.


Taylor Skidmore currently serves as part of Awana’s Global Development team, but has been connected to Awana for over 32 years, since he was an Awana kid. He is a husband, father, writer, and certified spiritual director. He has over a decade of ministry experience, including international missions, pastoring, ministry school staff, and adjunct faculty. Taylor also loves spearfishing, Krav Maga, making acai bowls, and traveling. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Business and Economics from Westmont College and is finishing his Master of Divinity in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from Talbot School of Theology. He lives in Franklin, Tennesse with his wife, Caitlyn, and their daughter, Ahavah. Taylor’s love for Jesus and His Church is his daily motivation.