Tipping faith points can cause a child’s faith to go tumbling. Here’s how you can model Christ’s love to children upended by crisis.
Children’s ministry, like children’s lives, is more than just fun and games. When life throws weighty issues at little ones, their balance of faith can tip dangerously away from God. These tipping faith points can leave children vulnerable and questioning.
And you’re in the perfect position to help them find equilibrium when they’re tipping. When children are tottering on the brink and doubting God’s love for them, your main message of the scope of God’s love gives them stability.
Children’s Ministry Magazine spoke with several experts to discover what puts kids’ faith at risk and how you can help restore balance.
The loss of a parent, through death or divorce, is the top stressor for children. Other biggies include abuse or neglect, illness or physical trauma, unemployment, frequent moves, death of any family member or pet, a new extended family, racism, and exposure to violence or threats.
But many seemingly lesser incidents can also trigger a faith crisis, says Kevin Lawson, director of doctoral programs in educational studies at California’s Talbot School of Theology. These incidents include not receiving a positive answer to prayers, being ridiculed for faith or Christian behaviors, and even discovering that Santa Claus isn’t real.
I suspect more children have a faith crisis from these lesser things than from the more traumatic ones, especially if their parents and church teachers don’t seem open to their questions and doubts, Lawson says. This can start at a young age 6 or 7.
At the heart of trauma is broken trust in some form, says Judy Medeiros, administrative director at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts. Showing children that the adults in their life are trustworthy can prevent lifelong unresolved emotions, fear, and mistrust.
Any tipping faith point can have deep, lasting impacts on a child’s development. Five affected areas include:
1. Perception of God
Children are trying to determine what God is like and whether he’s loving and protecting. Lawson says major events challenge children’s basic understanding of a God who cares for them and is watching out for their good. The danger, he says, is that children may conclude that God doesn’t love them enough to act or that God doesn’t exist. Pennsylvania children’s pastor Larry Shallenberger points out that many traumas involve children’s parents which affect kids’ view of God. That’s significant, he says, because we know that children develop their sense of what God is like from interactions with their parents.
2. Formation of Faith
Crises threaten the developing faith of younger children who haven’t been exposed to spiritual struggles yet. Alice Bell-Gaines, a children’s pastor in California, says Sunday school teachers often use their limited time with children to focus on God’s goodness. We’re so sensitive to their young minds and emotions that we don’t go in-depth into the wickedness of the devil and the ways he tries to steal, kill, and destroy, she says. This, combined with limited processing abilities, can put a roadblock in children’s spiritual paths because they think if God is good, then only good things will happen to them.
3. Perception of the World
Loss can make children view the world as unfair and unjust, says Medeiros, who is also the author of Through My Eyes: A Child’s Journal Through Illness. Exposure to violence, Medeiros says, undermines children’s ability to form trusting relationships with the world around them and the adults to whom they turn for safety.
4. Healthy Emotions and Relationships
Stressors create emotional static by triggering the release of brain chemicals that make relational connections more difficult, says Shallenberger. And what is spirituality anyway but friendship with God? he points out.
5. Developmental Challenges
Potential risks vary according to a child’s age. Lawson says kids are especially vulnerable during two major cognitive and social transitions: (1) when moving from intuitive to concrete thinking and entering school (roughly ages 6 to 8), and (2) when moving from concrete to more formal thinking and entering adolescence (roughly ages 10 to 13).
When children are part of any family crisis, they feel as out-of-control as adults do. This leads to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, Medeiros says. On the other hand, when children feel included and their abilities are recognized, she says, they learn to cope with what life throws them and develop resourcefulness and a sense of competency.
Recognizing Tipping Points
To help children in need, you must be tuned into their lives and changing situations. By incorporating the following six keys into your children’s ministry, you’ll more easily notice any threats.
1. Listen and talk.
Make time to listen to children, and invite conversation regarding their fears or wonderings about God, advises Lawson. Listening helps us discern if there may be something bothering a child or something troubling her as she thinks about her relationship with God.
2. Ask for prayer requests.
Bell-Gaines remembers visiting her church’s 3-year-old classroom and inviting children to pray. I was amazed at the raised hands and the prayer requests that followed, she says. I prayed a very simple prayer for each need, letting children know that God heard our voices and will take care of those needs.
3. Watch behaviors.
There’s generally little guesswork that something’s bothering children, says Medeiros. As they’re primarily sensory beings, behaviors will be the first evidence that something’s wrong. Watch for defiance or aggression, sadness or withdrawal, regression, diminished interest, and attendance changes.
4. Make time for kids.
Children’s ministries must have the time and personnel to allow children free access to caring adults who will take their questions and concerns seriously, Lawson says. We need to build in relational time off task to give ministry leaders access to the inner lives of children as they’re willing to share it.
5. Ask questions.
Building a relational ministry is crucial to staying in touch with children’s lives, says Shallenberger, who is also the author of Instant Puppet Skit’s: Big, Hairy Issues Kids Face (Group Publishing, Inc.). Create sharing times where kids can talk about their weeks, he says. Throughout a lesson, ask feeling questions to get children used to talking about their emotions before the hard times come.
6. Consult parents.
Conversation and brainstorming with caregivers helps provide insight into what may be causing the trauma, says Medeiros. Establishing a relationship with parents early on helps you more easily turn to them for advice when their children are struggling.
Setting Kids on Solid Ground
Responses to an event can often be more influential than the event itself. Because children are still developing, they’re profoundly impacted by the behaviors of the adults around them, says Medeiros. How we relate to children may well affect how they view the church and God for the rest of their lives.
When responding to a crisis, remember to:
1. Stay shock-proof.
When a child reveals a trauma or stressor, remain calm. Children look to adults for emotional cues on how to react, says Shallenberger. If you react with shock, pity, or horror, you’re letting children know something’s wrong and they’ll assume they’re out of whack.
2. Give love and acceptance.
Medeiros advises always keeping in mind, How am I reflecting the image of God to this child? Reassuring children you love them no matter what they’re going through models Gods unconditional love. Tell them they’re not to blame for what’s happening.
3. Seek help, if necessary.
Children’s ministers, volunteers, and staff are mandated reporters in cases of suspected or disclosed abuse. Shallenberger recommends consulting your pastor for advice in this situation. If you sense you’re in over your head, get help, he says. Don’t play the therapist.
What Kids Need Most
1. Help Kids Feel Loved and Reassured
The most immediate needs are loving and nurturing people to help children process the event and feel that there’s hope and a solution, says Bell-Gaines. They need to know they’re not alone. Because children fear God is punishing them for doing something wrong, says Lawson, it’s crucial for them to hear and experience the love of others to be reassured of God’s love for them.
2. Help Kids Feel Safe
During a crisis, Shallenberger says, children’s big questions include, Is someone looking out for me? and Who’s going to take care of me? A stable environment and consistent relationships with caring adults are crucial for children as events happen around them, Lawson says. For the long-term, says Bell-Gaines, children need to know they have a safe place to go and some form of structure where they’ll know what to do every day, such as school, home, church, and activities.
3. Help Kids Feel Understood
Once children know they’re safe, Shallenberger says, they need to know they’re being understood that a caring adult understands their emotions. Adults must be willing to talk about the trauma, not deny or keep it a secret, or placate a child with false information, only making matters worse, Medeiros says. Adults also must confirm children’s perceptions, meet them exactly where they are, and remember that children may lack the language and processing skills to share what’s bothering them, she says.
4. Help Kids Grieve
When children face loss, Lawson says, they need someone to grieve with them, they need to know that grieving is okay, and they need to know they’re not experiencing this alone. Don’t try to cheer them up too soon, but cry with them and love them, he says. Sharing a verse of hope can be appropriate, but don’t make children feel guilty for grieving.
5. Give Kids a Support System
Children who are surrounded by loving adults get through tough times better than children who don’t have healthy, extensive support systems, says Shallenberger, noting that Sunday school teachers can play important roles. All children — especially those facing difficulties at a young age need a sense of belonging to a caring group, says Bell-Gaines. Provide mentors who will stay with children for a long time, who will spend time with them and be honest with them.
Shoring Up Children’s Needs
Your staff can provide a bulwark against tipping faith points by helping children in the following ways:
Pray, and teach prayer.
Because we often lack the wisdom to know how to help children, Lawson says, prayer for them and ourselves is essential. Often, insight comes over time as we bring these needs to our Father, he says. Medeiros says teaching prayer should be a children’s ministry’s #1 priority because it’s so empowering. Even a two-word prayer such as Help, Jesus! can comfort a child, she says.
Provide extra attention.
During group activities, encourage struggling children to fully participate, and give extra attention and hugs as needed, Lawson says. Remind little ones that God is loving and faithful even when we cant see or understand it, he adds.
Have a relational classroom.
Children’s ministry workers can make a huge impact on helping children developing their relational repertoire, says Shallenberger. He recommends creating prayer groups and helping children connect with the emotions of people in the Bible. Identifying and expressing one’s emotions is an important skill for children to develop before a crisis erupts, he says.
Get kids talking.
Games and activities can reveal what children are thinking, feeling, perceiving, deciding, and experiencing, says Medeiros. The more we know about their internal world, the more effective we can be in our pastoral care. She recommends playing Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down (children agree or disagree with statements such as “People get sick because they’re bad”), Sentence Completions (children finish statements such as “I get scared when…”), and Draw a Feeling (children draw faces to match emotions).
Check-in with children during the week, and let them know you’re available to talk. Lawson suggests meeting on a regular basis until a crisis passes, sending notes reminding children of your love and prayers, and giving your cell phone number for when children feel their worst.
Share your story.
Sharing your own faith challenges, losses, or crises can greatly encourage a child who’s feeling doubt or guilt or loss of hope, says Lawson. He recommends telling a child, Sometimes I don’t know what to say when I pray because something hurts too much. So I just tell God that, and he says that’s okay; he understands. (See the Big, Hairy Issues sidebar for more ideas of what to say and not to say.)
Watch for relapses.
During each major developmental stage, children often emotionally and spiritually revisit a past trauma, Shallenberger says. They’ll need to rethink what they believe about God, their parents, and themselves as their capacity to understand the events changes, he says. Be prepared for this rehashing of old wounds, and minister to children at each particular stage.
Don’t give up on children who’ve experienced a tipping faith point, says Shallenberger. Little ones are incredibly resilient, and, with the right support system, will regain equilibrium.
When in doubt about how to handle a tough situation, follow Bell-Gaines advice: Let the fruit of the Spirit continually be the guide of how we treat the children. They’re so trusting of what we say, and we must be careful to use words of encouragement and hope at all times.
Big, Hairy Issues
Because your responses to children in crisis are so crucial, weave collected examples of both hurtful and uplifting statements.
What Not to Say
- God took your mom because he needed her in heaven. She’s happy there now. (This makes God the enemy, says Professor Kevin Lawson.)
- If you’re good, God will help you and you’ll see your mom again someday.
- Don’t cry. Be a big boy/girl.
- Don’t cry. Instead, trust God. Things will be okay.
- You should feel…
- Sometimes God lets these things happen to test our faith. (Children’s pastor Larry Shallenberger says, God’s wisdom is often hidden from us for years after a traumatic event if he chooses to reveal it at all.)
What to Say
- Mommy is with God.
- When you give your heart to Jesus, you’ll see Mom again. (Explain what that entails in an age-appropriate way.)
- It’s okay to miss Mom. God gave us a time to cry and remember people we love. (Children’s pastor Alice Bell-Gaines then suggests gently reminding children that God also gives us joy to remember the funny things [he/she did] and asking Do you remember any of those things?)
- I’m so sorry.
- I love you and care about you and so does God.
- This didn’t happen because you were bad.
- I don’t know why this is happening, but God still cares for you and comforts you.
- Whenever you’d like to talk about it, I’d love to listen.
- Can I call you this week to see how you’re doing? Maybe we can get some ice cream and talk.
- I’ll be praying for you this week. (Do so, remind the child you’re doing so, and follow up, says Lawson. Tell him how you specifically prayed for him.)
Stephanie Martin is a freelance writer and editor in Colorado.