Editors Note: In the aftermath of this unimaginable tragedy in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, my mind turned quickly to another unthinkable tragedy related to children and the very first Christmas. In an effort to destroy Jesus, the child born King, the wicked King Herod ordered all baby boys in the region under two years of age to be killed. I’m trying to help my own four children grasp how the presence of God does not yet necessarily mean the absence of evil.
For this Saturday post, I (J.D. Walt) asked Kathy Milans, an outstanding children’s therapist, to offer our Seedbed readers some guidance on how to help children (not to mention ourselves) process this devastating situation. Below, in her own words, she offers 8 practical ways to respond.
In the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, the excitement of Christmas may not penetrate the hearts of all children as they return to school on Monday. This time of year is usually magical for children as they stare peacefully into the manger of Jesus and eagerly await the presents on Christmas morning.
1. Limit media & news.
Their innocence and security have again been interrupted by mass media that will post agonizing pictures of families trying to seek comfort in the middle of tragedy. In order for children to cope, we need to turn off TV’s, radios, and computers. Images will be shown over and over again which can produce vicarious trauma in children.
2. Observe and enter into their play.
As caregivers it will be necessary to watch, listen, and join our children as they play. Are they trying to understand a chaotic world by playing out the scenes that they have just seen and heard about? If so, we need to enter their play and take the role of the emergency personnel who bring safety and stability. Having a set of emergency vehicles as part of their toy collection allows children to be in control of tragedy and yet deal with the reality of its existence.
3. Pay heightened attention to seemingly unrelated fears.
Younger children are egocentric; they can’t think abstractly. In their concrete thinking, this shooting feels as if it is in their backyard and their school. This may translate into fear of robbers at bedtime, monsters under their bed, and tears as they board the bus for school on Monday.
4. Be mindful of your own stress and anxiety and how you process it.
Children are bonded to their caregivers and feel our stress. Praying “Come Lord Jesus, come” will remind us that the Kingdom of God is bigger than this world. As we deal with tragedy in this way, our children will see us as a calm and loving base from which they can find security in the midst of a country that is grieving.
5. Develop and communicate structured plans for safety at home and school.
Children need to understand that there is a combination of safety and a need for caution in their lives. Explaining home and school safety plans helps them to know that adults in their lives are planning for their safety the best as we are able.
6. Acknowledge the existence of evil while demonstrating the presence of God through your own gentle presence with them.
Remind your children that the world contains good and bad but we can trust Jesus to be with us in the midst of all difficulties. He is our shelter in the midst of any storm. Children will ask what they need to know. If your child has questions, answer them in a few short simple answers. Then hold them in your lap, hug them, and let them feel your love.
7. Pray with your children and model what it looks like to take our confusion to God in prayer.
Regardless of age, we all struggle to make sense of where God is in horrible events. Taking our confusion to the throne of Jesus connects us all as we pray for peace on earth this Christmas. Explaining to children that God made humans to be able to freely make choices, good and bad, is part of God’s plan. There will be a day when all evil is destroyed and that is our hope in Jesus.
8. Go out and do good as a response to this evil act. God overcomes evil with good.
Since children are concrete learners, your family may concentrate on how to make this world a better place today in the midst of pain. That is how Jesus is at work. A visit to a local nursing home, putting change in the kettle of the Salvation Army, cooking a meal for a family in need, illustrates this in a way that children can grasp.