I love to chat with my grandsons by phone or video call. We even enjoyed video Sunday School, or as they called it ‘Granny School’, during the pandemic. I find out about their lives, their world and their interests. They love to share facts with me and surprise me with information about deadly sharks, names for new dinosaurs and even viruses and bacteria! In my church, the Sunday School children share their concerns when I ask them for topics for prayer. These can range from friendships to world events, depending upon what they are being exposed to in school and at home.
There has been much to trouble children in the last few years. Indeed this has become a concern in educational settings, with programmes being rolled out to encourage resilience in children and there are wider concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.
As parents, grandparents, Sunday School teachers and youth workers I believe we have a part to play in helping our children and young people process information and resultant feelings about the troubling times in which we live. It is not just current world situations that may trouble children. They can be upset by things that happen in the family, maybe when people close to them become ill or die, or even when a topic at school gives them nightmares. The black death, the great fire of London and slavery seem to be hot topics for this.
Here are some general tips for anyone talking to children about difficult subjects which are, as they say, in no particular order. Everything here relates across the age groups for children and young people.
Talking to children about difficult subjects
- Avoid being overprotective – it doesn’t build resilience in children.
- Give information that is appropriate for the age and stage of development of the child. Remember that this will be different for children with additional needs.
- Avoid euphemisms. What does it mean to a child if you tell them that Grandad has gone to join the stars?
- Avoid gory details.
- Be honest.
- Use opportunities that come along. For example, if a child comes to Sunday School and talks about the death of their pet rabbit, this is an opportunity to talk about death in general.
- Be sensitive. It is better to say ‘the Bible teaches that….’ as children may have been taught different things at home.
- For very young children, explain death as an absence of life. When people die they don’t breathe, eat, sleep or talk anymore and tell them that they won’t see them again in this life.
- When talking about death use concrete examples, for example a dead plant.
- Allow questions.
- Allow feelings.
- Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know and will come back to them with some more information, if that is relevant.
- Limit children’s exposure to television and social media, especially at night.
- Find out specifically how the school is tackling troubling issues that may arise in the news.
- Always include aspects of hope. For example, if a child is troubled by the subject of slavery, make sure you tell them about the important work of some of the Christian abolitionists, perhaps William Wilberforce and Hannah More. Tell them about the work being done by Tearfund in disaster areas or of mission hospitals and charities. The series of books on 10 Girls and 10 Boys by Christian Focus give lots of good accessible material.
Giving a biblical perspective
When tackling these issues from a biblical perspective, be careful not to go beyond what Scripture says, even if you are trying to be comforting. The Bible doesn’t give us all the information we need, but does give plain teaching and wonderful pictures, for example, Heaven.
We can share the big doctrines in an age-appropriate way: God is almighty, God is all-present, God is all-knowing. He is not surprised by world events because he is in control. God is all-caring and he has his people who are helping. For example, God used Joseph to save a civilisation from a famine.
When children ask, be ready to answer questions about why God allows bad things to happen in the world. Go back to the early chapters in Genesis and show how the whole of creation suffered when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Sin came into the world and ruined not just creation but human beings too. By the time of Noah, there was so much wickedness in the world that God wanted to start again! Hating, fighting, killing and stealing are all as a result of human sin.
It’s important we share the truth about the God who hurts because of human sin and wickedness and the God who suffers with his people. You could use Psalm 77:19; Jeremiah 31:3; Psalm 23; Isaiah 43:1-2. Explain the cross, the only answer to sin and wickedness in our lives and in the world.
Share some of the biblical narratives of people in troubled times, maybe Joseph, Daniel or Paul.
A message of hope
We must always bring the message of hope and the promise of Heaven for God’s people.
For younger children, perhaps in a Sunday School setting, you could use crafts to bring messages of hope by making posters or cards of helpful verses for them to take home. You could use Hebrews 13:6; Psalm 46:1; Psalm 62:2; or Psalm 145:18. Use songs such as Our God is a great big God or Boss of the Cross.
For teenagers, use a question box to draw out some of the concerns and questions that they have. Bring Bible teachers into the church youth group to answer tough questions and use age-appropriate YouTube testimonies. Invite people in church who have faced difficult times to speak to the young people, to give their testimony and answer questions.
Remember, it was the distress of famine that brought the prodigal son to his senses and caused him to seek forgiveness. Troubled times are gospel opportunities.