Dealing with hard stuff with children

This is a topic I got asked about a lot, even before coronavirus.

So many Bible stories touch on topics of illness and death, injustice, violence, and loss. How do we address these topics with children? And now, when illness and death, injustice, loss, disappointment, uncertainty, anxiety, and so much more have become more a part of our children’s daily lives than we wished, what do we do, as church leaders?

It feels false simply to cheerlead them through sessions about how happy we are because God loves us. In normal times, many children’s lives are not simple, straightforward, and happy, but now even the safest and most secure child is dealing with a world that may seem scary and chaotic. So we can’t just pretend everything is okay. But we don’t want to make things worse, or offer just doom and gloom. And of course it’s all harder in that much of this is happening over Zoom, instead of in person.

Here are a few tips from my own experiences. Please do add your own thoughts in the comments.

  1. Create space for conversation. Don’t fill the whole session with activities – allow room for discussion. Children will be bringing things to your session; experiences, questions, thoughts, and so on. Make room for that.
  2. Make the conversation open-ended and safe. Establish ground rules – “everyone’s ideas are okay.” This may mean you create a system for taking turns on Zoom (raising hands, reaction buttons) and you can make it routine that you mute yourself if you aren’t speaking. Use “I wonder …” questions. (“I wonder what your favourite part of the story was” / “I wonder what the most important part of the story was” / “I wonder what part of the story is for you” / “I wonder what Jesus’s friends felt when that happened” etc.)
  3. Use story. Often, people of all ages find it easier to talk about their own feelings if they have a story to talk about it through. Talking about how the characters feel, what the ending means, and so on, can help you talk about what’s going on in your own life, without revealing really personal stuff. A child who responds to the Baptism of Jesus story by saying “I liked when Jesus heard God’s voice, because maybe he’d been feeling really alone, but then he knew God was with him” may be saying something deeply personal, but because it’s done through the story, it’s easier to talk about. I’m making weekly story videos of the lectionary, which you can find here. If you’re dealing with a bereavement, I have a Pinterest board of children’s books about death, which can be found here.
  4. But also, allow children to process feelings in different ways. Some children will find it easier to express their emotions through drawing or making something. Some things I’ve done include, “make a Play-doh sculpture to show how the story made you feel,” “go find an object in your house that represents something that’s been sad or disappointing this year and we can pray about it,” and “draw what you’d like us to pray about.” Don’t force children to share their drawings/objects/etc if they don’t want to.
  5. Acknowledge emotions. We want to reassure children and make them feel safe, and this can sometimes lead us to dismiss what they’re feeling, if what they’re feeling is uncomfortable. If a child says “I feel like there’s no hope,” we want to instinctively say, “oh, I’m sure it isn’t that bad.” Unfortunately, that can lead the child to feel dismissed, and to trust us less. Acknowledging the feeling – “that sounds very hard. I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. Thank you for telling us. Has anyone else in the group ever felt that way? What did you do that helped?” can acknowledge the emotion as real, while also pointing the child to look for coping mechanisms.
  6. Keep it small – that’s where the power is. “Can you think of one thing that made you smile this week, and say thank you to God for it?” “Can you think of three things you’re grateful for?” “What’s one thing you can do this week to help somebody else?” All of us, but children especially, feel better when we’re able to feel useful and helpful and like what we do matters. Giving children opportunities to reflect on gratitude and small blessings, and then to think of what they can do to make a difference, can be very helpful. This can be a way to close your prayer time.

Do you have any other thoughts on how to acknowledge difficult times and support children’s emotional wellbeing? Please share them in the comments!

7 thoughts on “Dealing with hard stuff with children

  1. These are really wise suggestions. It may be worth adding something more about prayer in this context and how to avoid the ‘fix it’ type prayers that can leave children (and indeed adults) feeling lost if whatever their suffering is isn’t ‘fixed’? Do you have some patterns for prayer that remain open ended (maybe psalm-based?)

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    1. This is an excellent point.
      I’ve done “thanks, help, wow” prayers a lot with primary-aged children.
      “I wonder what you want to say thank you to God for. You can say it out loud or quietly in your heart.”
      “I wonder what you want God to help you with. God always hears us. God can help us cope with whatever happens.”
      “I wonder what has made you go wow this week. I wonder what you want to tell God about it.”

      I’ve also used this book – Psalms for Young Children: https://www.eden.co.uk/shop/psalms-for-young-children-1159479.html – passing it around a circle and having children open it randomly to a page and read what’s on it, then make something that illustrates that. Harder to do it communally on Zoom, so the leader would have to read each one themselves, but it’s a good book that includes the broad range of emotions found in the Psalms, and not just the happy bits. There are pages with things like, “God, I am so sad I feel like I’m drowning. I can’t see you anywhere. Help me!”

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      1. The Psalms for young children book is amazing. I’m so pleased you flagged it up. Its not just for young children I would say!

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  2. I’d suggest reading lots of current children’s books first. Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo etc don’t shy away from the difficult stuff – even for younger readers. Lots of primary children resonate with Michael Rosen’s ‘Sad Book’. It’s worth looking at perspectives on touching difficult subjects with a light touch, but in a way that can open a conversation. I’ve also made space for children to think and process. I remember a really powerful session I led with children at the local pre-school, after one of their friends and his granddad were killed in a house fire, and a school assembly that was a memorial to a beloved member of staff who died suddenly (and I worked with each class to contribute something). I also love ‘Beastly Bible Stories’ but they’re often a bit long to use in a public (assembly or class) setting. It’s much more difficult at the moment, as I’m having to film collective worship, so can’t react and respond – although, once again, I guess if I watched more children’s tv I’d pick up some clues on how others are doing that.

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