At some point, every church will confront crises affecting its members. Natural disasters, like floods and tornadoes, strike. Couples divorce. A member is caught up in a business scandal or commits sexual impropriety. A suicide shakes the congregation to its core. As difficult as these crises are for adults, they can be even more confusing and upsetting to our churches' children and youth.
Here are some tips for helping children and youth navigate their feelings and questions during tough times.
In times of natural disaster:
Comfort children and youth with routine, structure and activities. Being with their church family amidst the routines of worship, Sunday school and other church activities will help give children a sense of security in the midst of a disaster.
Listen to their questions and feelings. Remind the children of God's love and God's presence with them. If children ask why some people were killed, injured or lost their homes, assure them that the disaster was not punishment from God. Let them know that it is OK to feel sad – even angry. Use the Psalms to illustrate the range of emotions faithful people can have and to help children talk about what they are feeling. Remember, it's OK to admit we don't know why disasters happen.
Create new avenues for expression. Young children most directly affected or devastated by natural or family disasters might have special difficulty voicing their feelings. First Steps Spirituality Center recommends tools like holy listening stones as well as writing in journals and drawing pictures to help kids express their feelings.
Explain what comes next. When storms or fires destroy buildings, adults often begin thinking about rebuilding fairly quickly. Using simple language, explain the next steps. They will be reassured to know that adults are in control of the situation and are making plans.
Help them feel safe. Explain that it is unlikely that a storm will hit the same place again, but talk about how they and their families can be prepared if it does.
Let children and youth be part of the recovery. They can assemble care packages, organize food drives and collect items for UMCOR cleaning buckets. Perhaps, they can do a bake sale or other project to raise money. Do not suggest collecting clothing. If your church is serving meals or helping with clean up, include children and youth in age-appropriate ways. Encourage them to pray for those suffering and for those helping them.
In times of moral crisis or scandal:
Give youth credit for usually knowing more than you think they do. Youth are electronically connected almost 24/7. That's why news—especially anything salacious—may travel the fastest among young people. Ask the youth what they know. Do so in a group setting, so gossip or rumors can be dispelled. Don't ignore a scandal or tragedy. Church needs to be a place where they can talk about anything that concerns them – including when people make big mistakes.
Decide how much information to share. Some of the children or youth may not know of the incident or may ask for details about what happened. Decide ahead of time how you will answer their questions and which ones you will defer to their parents.
Recognize that anger and denial are normal. Young people need to work through these emotions. Help them feel accepted as they express their emotions. Accept their opinions and questions with tolerance and patience.
Recognize the role that adults play in a young person's life. Adults are supposed to set the rules, not break them. Youth may feel betrayed and wonder who they can trust. Talk about forgiveness while emphasizing that you know that forgiveness is neither easy nor immediate. Remind them that good people can make bad mistakes.
Take comfort in sacred space. Gathering in the sanctuary or youth lounge can be comforting. Young people are less likely to feel intimidated in familiar space. Remind them that God is always present, even in the darkest hours. Allow time for discussion and sharing feelings, but also for silence and prayer.
Children and youth are naturally curious. They are always watching. Always listening. And they feel deeply. As the church validates their feelings and helps them talk through their emotions, they experience both God's love and the love of the congregation.
In Time of Pain and Crisis (PDF Guide)
Nurture Children with Divorced Parents
GBOD Children's Ministry
Helping Children Cope with Divorce
Helping Hurting Teens