Responding to Your Child's Trauma Through Story

I love reading Bible stories to my little ones, discussing their questions and helping them to begin understanding God through stories. They also love reading storybooks and graphic novels together. And we all enjoy telling stories from my childhood, especially the stories of adventures when I pushed boundaries a bit. Their lives are filled with stories. Yet it’s less natural for me to tell them stories from their own lives. After all, they have lived their lives. Why would I repeat to them a story of what they have already experienced? Over the years, as I’ve studied parenting and child development, I've come to find this technique useful. When I tell my children stories of their own struggle or trauma, they process what’s happened to them more deeply. I see God beginning to heal them through the telling and retelling. We share Bible stories with our children knowing that God works through these stories to form faith, but we can also seek God’s healing power through our children’s own stories.

Biblical healing stories

God instructs the Israelites to tell their children the story of their past trauma as a nation, in order to process together and begin healing. Moses explains how the people should tell their story, which then gives healing, comfort, and identity:

“When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders . . . that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us . . . to fear the Lord our God, for our good always” (Deuteronomy 6:20-24a).

Here Moses gives the Israelites some of the earliest parenting instructions that we have on record. When Israelite children ask questions about God, Moses tells parents to answer with a story. We can imagine parents telling the sprawling story of the Israelites’ suffering and trauma through the generations, of God’s great rescue, and of God’s promise fulfilled. The Egyptians abused the Israelites in horrific ways, creating trauma in each of their lives for generations. Yet God rescued them, bringing them to the promised land. The Israelites have a chance to heal and begin new lives.

Through telling their children this story, the Israelites affirm that their suffering was real and terrible. They also affirm that God is faithful, God is with them, and they are now in the promised land, because they are God’s people. Telling their story with their children helps them to fully absorb these truths.

Healing stories today

Today therapists, psychologists, and a variety of other experts use this same method. People move towards healing by telling their stories to process events. This method reflects the instructions God gave Moses for the Israelites.

I use this method of storytelling regularly in parenting also. When something painful happens and my children come to me, we tell the story together. Recently, a child came to me distraught after falling from a tree house. After I scooped him into my lap, I asked if he could tell me what happened.

He told me the story. Each time he paused, I summarized what I’d heard, such as, “You were playing with your friends, having fun, and all of a sudden you fell.” Later, I summarized, “right after you fell, you couldn’t even breathe or talk.” Finally, I reflected back to him, “then your friends helped and you came to me.” He confirmed each summary, throughout the conversation, saying, “Yeah!” When he was done telling me about it, I repeated the full summary back to him: “So you were playing and having fun and then you fell. And it was scary and you couldn’t breathe. And then your friends helped, and you came back to me.” Then I added, “I’ve got you and you’re safe. It will be okay.” I affirmed that a bad thing happened and it was scary, his friends helped, he’s safe, and it will be okay. This tells him that his feelings are valid, reminds him that he had help, and assures him of his own safety and recovery.

Acknowledging the struggle

As parents or caregivers, we all can help children tell the stories of what happened. Whether they witnessed a terrible accident or they were frightened of a dog barking, telling the story helps. Even if the child is too young to tell the story themselves, we can tell it to them as we comfort them. For example, “You were going down the slide, having fun, and (name) stepped in front of it. You bumped into each other. That wasn’t what you expected. I’ll bet that was scary. Then you cried and Mommy scooped you up. Mommy’s got you. It will be okay.” We start by naming the events, then affirming their feelings, reminding them of whatever help they had, and finally naming that they are safe now and will be okay.

We can also help our younger, non-speaking, or more visually-oriented children to tell their stories of trauma through art. Children can process trauma by making pictures of how it used to be, how it is after the traumatic event, and how it will be in the future. This method could be especially helpful for larger traumas, such as the death of a family member or the losses of pandemic lockdowns.

Four Parts of the Story

  1. Identify what the child was doing in the beginning, how it was before the troubling event. Ex: “You were happy playing.”
  2. Name the troubling event and the feelings the child may have had. Perhaps the child was hurt, scared, mad, frustrated, sad, shocked, etc. and you can help the child name that. Help them to tell how things were after the event. Ex: “Suddenly, you got hurt. I’ll bet that was surprising. You weren’t expecting that. You were hurt and scared.”
  3. Point out the help that’s available now or in the future. This might be people or it might be that God helps in some other way. The help could also be part of how things will be in the future. Ex: “Then your friends helped” or “then the doctor put on a cast that you’ll wear for six weeks.”
  4. Remind the child that they are safe and can recover, pointing to a future with hope. Ex: “Then you came to me. I’ve got you. You’re safe. It will be okay.”

Don’t Placate

One common mistake we make when comforting children is to say, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” If everything was okay, the child wouldn’t be distressed. Saying, “It’s okay” to an upset child communicates that they shouldn’t be upset and that their feelings are wrong. It’s more helpful for our children if we can remember to say, “It will be okay.” This tells the child that we see their distress, their feelings are real and valid, and we know they will get through it. At the end of the retelling here we can also talk about how God will bring healing to a physical injury. For example, “Look, you’re starting to get a scab. Did you know that’s how God makes a natural band-aid for our bodies? That keeps out the germs. Then our bodies grow new skin underneath! Isn’t that awesome how God made our bodies so that they can heal?”

Making meaning

Stories give events structure and help us all to find meaning. From minor situations in parenting, to major trauma recalled in a therapist’s office, telling the story can start the process of emotional and psychological healing. This method of processing in order to heal stretches all the way back to the Israelites, when God instructed them to tell their children the story of their people’s trauma, God’s rescue, and their better futures ahead. We can also tell our children the stories of how God has rescued and helped us in our own lives or in the life of our family. As we all tell these stories, we affirm three things: Yes, we suffered and it was terrible. Yes, we had or have help. Yes, we can heal and live. For more traumatic situations in a child’s life, it’s also helpful to tell their story together repeatedly over time. Each time the child tells or hears their story, the truths sink in a little more.

This process affirms and reflects God‘s truth. We see this in the way God instructs us to tell our children the stories of what God has brought us through. As we help our children to tell their own stories of frightening and painful things in their lives, we can also affirm the truth that God helps us to move through suffering and that God heals and gives new life. These truths then begin sinking into our children’s hearts and minds. God uses truth to begin their healing.

About the author — Rev. Katherine Garvelink-Hirschberg

Katherine is an ordained pastor and chaplain who lives in West Michigan with her husband and their delightful children. After a decade of professional ministry in churches and other organizations, she has recognized God’s call to a new form of ministry. Katherine is passionate about her ministry of providing spiritual guidance for individuals in pastoral counseling sessions and also guiding individuals and families towards healing as a family systems coach. Katherine currently meets with her clients virtually. If you would like more information about this ministry, she would love to hear from you at

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