I long for the day when the senseless violence our children and youth see in the media (let alone for those who experience it in their schools or homes) will be a distant memory. Learning of a new story of death and loss in the news is becoming so seemingly commonplace that I worry we will become complacent in our vigilance to stop it. Fortunately we see and hear advocates for child safety who speak out against gun violence and war, and I hope that these and other measures will make a difference in keeping our children safe. Yet in the meantime, who is paying attention to the children? Who is aware of what the children see and hear in the media and how they are processing it? How can we answer their questions about what is happening in the news in ways that will not overwhelm them? How can the adults who are closest to them guide them in ways that will keep them calm and feeling safe?
Each one of us has the ability to offer this support. For those with children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, these children need you to be present with them during times when they have experienced or seen violent or frightening acts. They will remember and be calmed by the presence of those they are closest to more than any words that are shared.
When words need to be spoken, be sure not to talk a child out of or deny what he/she is feeling. Straight-forward, simple answers to their questions will allow them to process their feelings. And be careful of saying anything they might take literally, such as using the phrase, “They passed away,” instead of “They died.”
Using statements that begin with “I wonder…” and inviting the child to wonder about what they are thinking and feeling allow both of you to process the event without going into too much detail for the child. Statements such as “I wonder how God is helping the victim(s) right now,” and “I wonder how the police officer felt when…” may be helpful in working through the details with the child.
Engaging the child in a processing activity such as planting flowers, playing with people figures, or drawing a picture or some other artistic creation is also a good way to help them process their feelings. If your church uses Godly Play with the children, ask for some guidance in engaging with some Godly Play stories at home with your child. At church on Sunday, scrap the planned lesson and choose a story that will help the children to express their feelings related to the recent tragic event.
Helping children to know that God is with them and loves them always through your presence and your actions will ensure that they will more successfully navigate the tough times and events that they will inevitably experience throughout the rest of their lives.
The Massachusetts Conference website’s Faith Formation resource page offers some specific resources for talking with children about violence, death, and natural disasters which you may access here: https://www.macucc.org/talkingwithguidingchildrenthroughtoughissues
Debbie Gline Allen is the Christian Education & Youth Ministry Consultant for the Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ. She can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 508-603-6601.
Debbie Gline Allen is the Minister of Faith Formation, Youth and Families for the Southern New England Conference.