Helping Children Think About the Unthinkable

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It has been a terrible, sad, incomprehensible weekend in America. Not just one, but two mass shootings. Dozens of people, going about their regular lives, gunned down in terrifying ways. Are you like me? Do you struggle to make sense of these senseless events? If our adult minds cannot find ways to think about such violent but seemingly commonplace horrors in our country, how can a child find a way to live with and think about mass shootings?

Of course, the very fact that any child would have to live with this knowledge is almost too horrible to comprehend, but it is where we are. Even if you are determined to shield your child from hearing about mass shootings, it is likely they will hear it from other people. Your children will need you to answer their questions. I happened to be at my daughter’s home on the day of the school shootings at Sandy Hook in 2012. Together, she and I watched the news bulletins. The scene was devastating. Quickly, my daughter made the decision that her three young boys would never know about this. But by the time the boys came home that afternoon, her frantic 10-year-old’s first words were, “Mom! Did you hear what happened?” She had to answer questions, reassure her sons, and pray with them. The most important thing she had to do was let them know they could talk to her about anything.

Being a parent who is open to conversation with your child does not require you to know all the answers. There is not a perfect way to speak about the unspeakable, but know that if your child becomes aware of such an event, he must have the opportunity to bring his questions to you.

The  younger a child is, the more fully you can shield your little one from this knowledge, and that is a good thing. Many experts recommend parents not allow children under eight to be exposed to media reports on disastrous events. Other recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics can be found here.

As with all discussion topics, the best path to take with your children is the simplest one. If you initiate the conversation, ask them if they have heard about a sad thing that happened. Then ask what they heard. Take your cues from them. Answer any questions they have, but you do not need to expound beyond what they ask. If they initiate the discussion, repeat the details they have heard and correct them if necessary. Follow this up by giving them the chance to ask questions. Answer them if you can.

Younger children probably just need a basic storyline of what happened. Older elementary children will be concerned with people’s feelings. Teenagers have a strong sense of justice and will want to know how this can be made right. Expect your teens to experience frustration as they begin to grasp the wrongness of these acts.

Prepare yourself for these discussions by considering this: what are the most important things you want your children to take away? Do you want to encourage compassion? Help them pray for people who have been hurt or saddened by the event. Do you want to help them feel safe? Because young children connect everything to their own experience, talk to them about the people in their own lives who help protect them and work to keep them safe.

In my thinking, there are two vital things Christian parents must do. First, remind your children of what we know is true. Our truth comes from the Bible, so you can confidently tell your children that no matter what happens, God will be with them. Yes, bad things happen (Scripture promises this) but still God is with us. Always, the God who loves them will be with them. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

Finally, help your child develop a heart that values other people. Take these sad opportunities to remind your child that every person is made in the image of God and is infinitely precious to him. Help your family guard against the anger and hatred that mark America today. Parents and grandparents, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to mold the hearts and minds of our children. I believe that one day those children will lead our country to the peaceful way of life we so desperately need.

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