Children need help to deal with tragedy. Sometimes it’s a global tragedy like a war or national disaster. Other times it’s the personal loss of a loved one or the breaking up of a home. How should we respond to these things? Parents have the opportunity and responsibility to teach their children how to think about and react to these events as well as their inner feelings and the confusion they may be experiencing.
Notice how, in Deuteronomy 6:6-9, God instructs his people to teach their children through life experiences. “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
Day to day life provides opportunities to teach children about God. It is the job of parents to frame the picture of world events, to help children understand life from God’s point of view. Teachable moments become available in times of crisis. That doesn’t mean that you preach or lecture. It means that you ask questions and carefully share information that can guide your children to right thinking.
So what do you say? How do you respond to their questions? How do you draw them out? What kinds of things can you do that will help your children during this time?
1. First, be sensitive to your child’s emotions. All children are different and will process these events in different ways. Some will openly cry or make angry threats. Others will act out or become more aggressive. Some will become very quiet and withdrawn. Teens may become glib or sarcastic. Ask God to show you what emotions your child is experiencing. Below you will find some indicators which may get you started with fear, anger, and sadness.
2. Validate feelings. It’s okay to experience emotions but it’s not okay to act those emotions out in hurtful ways. By validating a child’s feelings you are “grieving with those who grieve” as the scripture commands. Be careful about criticizing your children’s emotions. Thoroughly working through difficult experiences in a complete way will help your children fully deal with the events and their emotions and even grow through this experience.
3. Remember that trials provide opportunities to grow. Romans 5:3-5 says, “we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” The things you say and the way you teach your children in times of tragedy can help build character and develop hope. Furthermore, you can help your children grow spiritually during tough times and give them the spiritual tools to deal with life as they grow older. Take the time to talk about the events and talk about Godly responses.
4. Continue regular routines. Routines provide security, and many children need that security in order to process difficult things effectively. Although you’ll continue the schedule and maintain the agenda, that doesn’t mean that you ignore the issues. Take time to talk and discuss what’s happening. Your children need a sense that they have somewhere to go to process what’s happening in life.
5. Limit TV viewing. Some parents believe that they should encourage their children to watch the events because of their historical value. Although being informed can be helpful, the continual display of destruction and violence can do more damage than good. Many parents who wouldn’t let their children watch a violent movie, allow them to see the same kinds of things on the news over and over again. This can feed negative emotions and hinder a child’s ability to process what’s happened. Young children think concretely and when they see the same thing over and over again, they may believe that the event is continuing to happen over and over again. Even adults experience the same emotions when they see the event repeated. TV has a number of benefits but reliving tragedy can be counterproductive and hinder the growth process.
6. Be sensitive to developmental stages and a child’s unique personality. Preschoolers think concretely. Somewhere around 6-9 years old, children usually develop the ability to understand concepts like terrorism, death, or patriotism. At 10-12 years old, children begin to understand those abstract ideas in very personal ways. The 11 year old may now realize the permanency of death and the significant value of patriotism to them personally. Teens are choosing values to live by and hunt for them in life. They often want things clear cut and challenge those who might disagree with them. Some children withdraw while others speak out. Some may joke about things inappropriately. As you talk to your children take all these things into account. Share with them on their level, as much information as they need or want. Trying to protect children from this by not talking about it can produce more fear as they sense something is wrong. Also, be careful about overdosing a child with too much information. Your sensitivity here will provide tremendous opportunities to help your children understand and deal with these events properly.
7. Model right thinking with your children. Many parents are modeling revenge, worry, and panic. The way you respond to these events may teach more than your words do. Teach your children what it means to trust God in very practical terms. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with your kids and talk about how you, as a family, are experiencing and learning from these tragic events.
8. Look for proactive ways to be involved in the solution, not just talk about the problem. Adopt a soldier, take food to those in need, create a care package for those who are hurting are all examples of ways to help children help and care for others.
Take time to ask your children how they are doing. Come back several hours after a significant conversation and say things like, “I wondered if you had any other thoughts about what we talked about earlier.” As you work through these things with your children you are giving them a gift. You are helping them understand life and how God works and the important values they desperately need. You will contribute to your child’s future well being and their ability to process other tragedies in helpful ways.
Some ways to tell that your child may be experiencing fear are:
- They have trouble separating from parents.
- They don’t want to be alone.
- They don’t want parents to travel.
- They ask questions about safety and security.
- They ask questions about why it happened. Can it happen again?
- They joke or use sarcasm with fear as an underlying theme.
- They experience nightmares or are afraid at night.
Some scriptures to share with children might include Joshua 1:9, Philippians 4:6-8, Proverbs 3:5-6, Luke 14:27.
Some things to consider when helping children deal with fear:
- Be careful about lying to your children by saying, “It’s all okay.” Your children can see that things aren’t okay. In fact, this kind of statement can be counterproductive and cause children will feel like they can’t trust you, further increasing feelings of insecurity.
- Explain that the world isn’t out of control and help put these events into perspective. “Some very angry people did some very bad things but God is using government leaders to track them down and punish them.”
- God is with us always. We can trust Him. His angels protect us. God loves us and cares for us and He is in charge (Psalm 46).
- Answer your child’s questions. Explain the details briefly in clear terms and then focus on the good that we see in God and the people who are helping.
- The solution for fear is to learn to trust. Trust is the ability to release control to another. Children can learn to trust when they take small steps of risk and have positive experiences over a period of time. Gently encourage children to take small risks of separation and then provide the comfort they need. During that process children need a lot of parental love, patience, encouragement, and support.
Some ways to tell that your child may be experiencing anger are:
- They talk about or act out revenge.
- Their play becomes more aggressive and mean.
- They have more frequent or intense angry outbursts.
- They use violent words or actions especially pointed toward the terrorists.
- They demonstrate an unusually bad attitude.
- They are easily angered and have a short fuse.
Some scriptures to share with children might include Romans 13:1-4, Ephesians 4:26-32, James 1:19-20.
Some things to consider when helping children deal with anger:
- Being angry isn’t wrong. In fact, anger identifies a problem. Seeking revenge is wrong and turns the angry person into an ugly person.
- It’s more productive to move toward sorrow than anger in many cases. You may even use the current events as an example, “These people who did this are deceived, angry people and have done terrible hurtful things. We don’t want to use anger to get back at them. It’s very sad when people deliberately hurt others.”
- The job of government is to provide justice and punish those who do wrong (Romans 13:1-4). Individuals are called to love enemies and pray for them (Romans 12:17-21). Older children especially need to understand this difference between revenge and justice. Revenge is when individuals seek to get back at someone. Justice is when an authority punishes those who do wrong.
Some ways to tell that your child may be experiencing sadness are:
- They cry or are lethargic and appear sad.
- They appear depressed or withdrawn.
- They have an inability to experience joy or happiness.
- They have a loss of appetite or seem unmotivated to do anything.
Some scriptures to share with children might include 2 Corinthians 2:3-11, Psalm 46, 91:15, and Psalm 23.
Some things to consider when helping children deal with sadness.
- Look for ways to help others. Serving, comforting, and giving help children to become part of the solution instead of wallowing in the problem. Be creative by giving money, time, and energy to worthy causes. Sadness often causes a person to become self-focused resulting in self pity. Contributing to solutions helps children get outside themselves and can be very therapeutic.
- A child who responds to tragedy by becoming sad is likely to be a sensitive and compassionate child. These are good character qualities and should be encouraged, but when children become overly introspective they may lose their ability to help others.
- Pray for government leaders, our president, victims, and families.
- Allow children to grieve. It’s okay to be sad and mourn over current events and the pain behind the scenes.
- Be ready to talk and look for ways to draw your children out through questions, stories, and just observations of what you see in their behavior.
- Remind children that God also is sad when people sin and hurt others (Ephesians 4:29-32).
Dr. Scott Turansky. Helping Children Deal with Tragedy. Biblical Parenting. Used with permission.