How Children and Youth Process Pain

April 5th, 2017

Throughout my life and ministry, I have observed people in various life stages (childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood, adulthood) experience deep pain.  It is especially wrenching to see little children go through pain.  While some say that children are resilient to pain, could the limited reaction of children (their resilience) to pain be due to their ability to fully process it?  

Pain and suffering affect any individual’s development, regardless of their age; however, feelings aren’t always processed immediately when the tragedy occurs.  Painful events and trauma often circle back into our lives, especially while transitioning to new stages of development.  

As children grow and mature, we must understand that traumatic incidents will be processed at differing stages.  Let’s imagine that a young boy named Billy was a victim of physical abuse which happened when he was five years old.  A child might process this event at different ages based upon his cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual development; For example: (Please note: listed ages are relative.)  

At Age 4 – Dad hit me.  It hurt.  

At Age 8 – Dad hit me.  It hurt.  Dad was angry.  I am scared.  (The child has developed the ability to identify emotions within themselves and others.) 

At Age 12 – Dad hit me.  It hurt.  Dad was angry.  Dad doesn’t love me.  I am scared of Dad.  I am angry.  (The child developed the ability to recognize cause and effect.)

At Age 15 – Dad hit me.  It hurt.  Dad was angry.  Dad doesn’t love me.  I am scared of Dad.  I am angry.  I feel confused about my emotions and reactions towards my dad and mom.  My dad had other options.  My mother had other options.  God had other options.  I am angry at dad, at mom, and God.  (The child developed the ability to connect experiences with spiritual beliefs, to use complex rationality, and to contemplate social relationships).  

What does the relationship between human development and traumatic events mean for those who work with children and youth?


Pain is not processed as a one-time event.

Rather, processing pain is like peeling back the layers of an onion over the lifetime of the individual.  A child whose parent dies when they are younger will grieve this loss at various times through their development.  As you minister to them, remember that this repetitive grief may be due to their ability to process it at a deeper level.

Don’t make assumptions about their emotions or thoughts. 

As youth workers, we may assume that they are angry with God, because of our own experiences – while in reality, the thought has never crossed their mind.  Assuming anger in a student is a guaranteed way to create anger – at you.  Instead of making assumptions, learn to ask questions when and if they are ready to talk.  Otherwise, simply show them that you care. 

Be available each time that pain resurfaces.

Ministering to others in pain doesn’t mean simply showing up the day of the tragedy, but by being available each time that pain resurfaces.  Whether it is online late at night, or during youth group, we need to understand that processing pain is not usually scheduled or planned in advance.  One advantage to serving long-term in the same church context is the ability to truly walk with those experiencing this occurring road of suffering. 

DR. G. DAVID BOYD is a forward thinker, a collector of Marvel Comics, an avid gamer, a radical follower of Jesus Christ, a father of three boys, and a husband. David is the managing director of EA RESOURCES, a faith-based non-profit organization dedicated to equipping parents and churches to understand emerging adulthood. He’s also the founder of the EA Network, a network that connects those who minister to the needs of emerging adults.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.