Talking with Children When Bad Things Happen

Guidance for parents from
the Rev. Lauren A. Villemuer-Drenth,
Director of Children’s Ministries

Terrorism, natural disasters, killings, bus wrecks, plane crashes and a never-ending list of negative events seem to fill the news and our world. We, as adults, have trouble processing and understanding the hows and whys, but for a child it can be overwhelming, producing reactions and fears that can follow the child into other situations. I lived in New York at the time September 11th happened and spoke to several groups of children and parent groups about sharing the events. I learned some important things from the children during that scary time.

First, children are watching the television and listening to the news if it is on in their house. They may seem to be playing and ignoring what is happening, but they are aware something bad is taking place. For children, it is always happening now–even events that are being reported a week later. An adult may understand it was one event, but to children, the event is happening multiple times. So adults would best turn off news coverage of devastating events when a child is in the room. They may not ask about it–especially, if an adult appears distressed because children believe it is their job to make the adults feel better. But they are internalizing it and processing it in a child’s way.

Second, children learn their reactions to the world from the adults in their lives. Children look to the people they trust to know how to react to events. Things their parents fear are naturally something the child knows should be avoided. Adults, as much as possible, need to keep their reactions within a range that allows the child to feel safe.

Third, children want to know that they will be safe and those they love will be safe. Something happening half a world away is just as real a threat to a child as an event happening next door. Even if a child does not verbalize that fear, adults should reinforce that their loved ones are safe.

Fourth, as children get older, they begin to ask questions of why bad things happened. It is important to share that the victims never deserved it. A mistake that adults sometimes make is to blame the happening on God. “God wanted it,” or “It was God’s plan.” These statements create a fear of God that is unjustified. Instead, adults can offer, “God is really sad this happened, too. God is crying with the families and God is loving the people through this.” Offering that a tragedy is in someone’s control is more frightening than the thought that bad things occur especially when people let hatred or uncaring rule their decision process.

Fifth, older children also might ask, “Why would God let this happen?” This is the tough one for us all. Children want the world to work with the moral imperative that bad is punished and good always wins. It is an issue of fairness and rightness. The world is not that way. Now is not the time to make a promise about the way the world works–a promise that cannot be kept. Adults can say that people who commit crimes have hearts and lives that are probably filled with fear and hatred. When the heart is filled with hatred and fear, there is no room for God. God only comes in when invited. God did not let this happen. The person committing the crime chose of his or her own free will to do it. God does not leave the people who got hurt. God is with them every step of the way surrounding them with love, comfort and strength. God’s promise is that we will not be alone. Natural disasters are a process of the world. The world is our home, just like our houses. But the world is not perfect. When disasters strike, the reassurance that we do not go through them alone is important. God is sending help. He is sending us and those who do everything they can to love the people going through them together.

Talk to your children, no matter their age. Ask them questions about what they know and understand. Ask them how they feel. Are they afraid? What are they afraid of? Encourage them to talk. Then listen. Pray together! Pray for the victims, pray for the families of those waiting for news, pray for those hurting, and pray for your family. Afterwards, a hug may be all children need to feel secure and loved.

If any tragedy or difficult situation comes up that you, as an adult, feel insecure discussing with a child or teenager, St. Paul’s  is here to help. Contact any member of our clergy, our Director of Youth Ministries Nick VanHorn, or me, Deacon Lauren, for guidance. Children are always welcome to talk to us, to ask us questions and to feel they have a church family, where they are loved, cared for, and safe.

Email Lauren or call her at (336) 723-4391, ext. 1220.