Skill #1: Attentiveness: Notice spiritual activity in children.
It occurs most often in the context of everyday life, but don’t overlook its presence here:
- Awe-inspiring activities
- Peace in hard times
- Out-of-control events
- Coincidences and unexplainable events
Skill #2: Active listening: Engage the child in conversation about it.
- Situation 1 Dreams – “As my son was going to sleep he said he was afraid to go to heaven because he didn’t know what it would look like. I told him to ask God to show him while he was asleep. When I followed up two days later he gave me a detailed description. I asked him if it took away his fears, now that he saw it, and he said yes.”
- Situation 2 Awe-inspiring activities: “For me, surfing helps. Just being in nature and contextualizing myself with the ocean as this immortal force, this elemental force. And then doing some sort of mindfulness meditation, I think yoga is a good starting point.”
- Situation 3 Peace in hard times: “I was 6, maybe 7, when my pet cat died. I wanted to know where my cat went, why she couldn’t come back, etc. I was completely satisfied with my parents’ answers of “She went to Heaven.” God is watching over her now.” That’s when I realized there was some other higher being out there. I felt peace. I remember it distinctly. It was peace knowing that there was someone watching and caring for us that we couldn’t see or touch, but they were out there.”
- Situation 4 Out-of-control events: One woman says, “When I was a child in Uganda I remember times when things were out of control and I didn’t expect anything positive to come out of it. My mother helped me recognize God when something good did come out of it.”
- Situation 5 Coincidences and unexplainable events: “My teenage daughter called me to tell me that she had pulled a 10-year-old up from the bottom of the pool where she lifeguards. The next morning she said, ‘I couldn’t sleep last night, Ma. I kept thinking about that girl and what might have happened if I hadn’t rescued her. Nobody noticed she was lying at the bottom of the pool. Not even her own sister who was with her. I just can’t believe what happened.’ And I responded, ‘You did something extraordinary. You should feel incredibly good about yourself.'”
Skill #3: Acceptance: Discern if the child wants information or empathy.
Pay attention to this distinction. Accept it either way and respond accordingly. The child in Situation 3 needs information about her cat. The child in Situation 5 wants understanding.
Tweetable: Good news. We use these same 3 skills with kids to develop either spiritual or emotional intelligence. Click to Tweet
“I want the gummi bears!!!” cried the child from the car seat, melting down on our way to get lunch because I said he can have the candy after we eat.
As children get older, their disappointments grow larger. In my work of facilitating support groups for children, I find that hurt and angry feelings get directed at God too, and it is often due to:
- Prayers not answered.
- Hurt by religious people.
- Overwhelmed by evil and suffering in the world.
Many children (age 11 and under) say that unanswered prayers disappoint them the most.
They see the needs within their extended family. They hear the adult conversations. They care so much. Some of them spend a lot of time praying for what is best for everyone involved. When the situation doesn’t change according to their wishes, they may conclude that God hardly listens and feel personal rejection by God.
This topic is obviously a vast and complex one. My only goal here is to try to find a few ways we can help children when they feel disappointed with God. We can help them when we:
- Offer empathy by listening without trying to change them or their feelings.
- Accept all the child’s feelings and thoughts about God.
- Express care and support.
- Be mindful of our own feelings about God and not try to project them onto the child.
Sort out the expectations or conditions the child places on God.
Moving from the emotions of their upset, we can also help children in sorting through and discovering their expectations of God. Every relationship involves expectations. It’s true at the child’s school, in the family unit, in the neighborhood, on a sports team. Someone has said that 80 % of our expectations are assumed– never really expressed.
1. Express exactly what you expect of God.
Start by asking, “What do you expect God to do when you for pray for something?” Allow the child to respond by writing it or by speaking it or by returning to it later after they think about it.
Now here’s the part we almost always overlook: Help the child find a way to express expectations directly to God (and how they feel about it). It can be in the form of a “Dear God” letter or a talk-out-loud where no one can hear, or some other approach they decide on.
2. Consider changing expectations to be more realistic.
- How realistic are the child’s expectations of God?
- How reliable are their sources of getting information about God?
- In what ways do they expect God to respond?
- What are God’s limitations? (For example, some would say that one of God’s self-imposed limits is refusal to force people to do anything against their will.)
- Observe others and search out some different expectations for God.
3. Decide what to do.
- Exit: Some children choose to terminate the relationship with God, but that is rare before adolescence. (And from many sources we glean that God never stops trying to connect with them.)
- Stay and withdraw: These children continue to believe in God but withdraw from trying to have any kind of relationship with God at this time. If the family is religious, they may pretend to go along with it.
- Stay and revise: By changing expectations of God, the child is more conscious of the possibility that God’s perspective is different, and that God’s gift of presence is only beginning to be discovered.
Dr. Bill McRae’s organizing principles for expectations were adapted here for use with children.
Tweetable: Here are a few ways to help children when they feel disappointed with God, like God doesn’t hear or care. Click to Tweet
Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, writing in 1910, teaches us that artists create as a spiritual impulse. Notice how art breaks down walls for a young boy, Jeremiah, and opens channels with some of our most hurting children.
Jeremiah’s presence is obvious in almost all social situations. He walks into a room and demands the attention of the people there, both young and old. Often he acts out this demand for attention in the form of all kinds of language choices and violent behavior. It is a creation of chaos.
At first, Caroline Cheek, a mentor at QC Family Tree is “astonished to see all of this chaos stirred up by such a small person, but he is force. His need to create a response in his environment captured me.”
Paper and crayons and a curious friend to draw with him.
Jeremiah is a six-year-old friend of Caroline’s. She and Jeremiah began making art together every week.
I pulled out some paper and crayons….Within minutes Jeremiah was focused, drawing a spider. He told me the story of the spider, about its arms and eyes, and about the bite it had under its eye. His ability to communicate through his imagination is fascinating.
On another day, he talked about needing peace and quiet. I ask, “Where do you go for peace and quiet?”
He drew a picture of a tree with birds all around, where his pet lizard is buried nearby. He explained that he needed to go there when he felt angry. Anger comes up a lot in Jeremiah’s drawings. He is so smart, and he witnesses so much.
With each encounter with Jeremiah, every expressive moment, I feel the walls of my heart open more and more, and motivate me to keep showing up with crayons and listening.
Art is often an outlet for children when they don’t have the words for what they want to communicate.
Through his drawings he tells me stories of death, conflict, comfort and hope. So he reminds me of
- the work that is to be done
- the injustice that is ever present in his world
- the hope that we can find healing through relationships.
How could art be a creative channel for the children in your life?
Tweetable: Here’s another way to open a communication channel with our most hurting children. Click to Tweet
Many people have chapters of their life that they may be hesitant to tell their children about. Ask yourself 5 questions as you weigh the pros and cons.
Is my child very likely to hear about my past from another source?
When I was in middle school, my friend learned of her father’s affairs and pending divorce by overhearing adults talking at a family gathering. If family members, friends or neighbors know about your past, there is a good chance your child will eventually hear about it too. Is it important that they hear it from you?
Is there an uncomfortable secrecy in your family?
Not sharing such experiences can lead to an uncomfortable secrecy in some families. Obviously, what you share, how many details you give, and when you disclose them will be age and situation appropriate. Will your children feel empowered within your family from knowing what the others know? Will the initial upset they feel upon hearing it be less than the damaging effects of hiding secrets?
Am I clear about my motives for doing this?
- Children respect parents who are honest with them, but you have the right to your privacy. If you don’t want to reopen old wounds, don’t feel obligated to do so. Will you be sharing from a place of free choice, self-imposed pressure, or outward compulsion?
- David Sheff, comments on a parent’s common motivation for sharing about a past drug addiction:
Parents’ hands are tied. If you lie, you put your entire relationship on the line, risk being caught in a lie and ruin any trust you’ve built over the many years of parenting.
But if you come clean, you run the risk of showing your kid that it’s fine to try anything because, hey, you’re still here to talk about it.
Either way, “It’s not going to determine whether your kid uses or not,” says Sheff. “The reason kids are going to use or not use has almost nothing to do with what their parents say.”
Sheff continues, “It has to do with the relationship you have with your kids, and how open are they going to be with you,” he notes, “and how involved in their lives you are to perceive the struggles they’re having below the surface.”
Have I made peace with myself [and my God] about my actions?
“There are shameful things that parents feel, and they have to come to terms with that first,” says Eileen Bond, supervising faculty at the University of Michigan Center for Child and Family and a clinical social worker.“Shame should not contaminate their response. And that requires reflection.”
When making peace with past experiences, many people turn to a counselor, clergy person, chaplain, support group, or spiritual director. What are your resources for reflecting and processing toward a place of greater peace before discussing it with your children?
Is my child judging and criticizing others?
An anonymous mother says: My 12-year-old daughter had been flipping through television channels when she stopped on a talk show about women who’d had abortions. “Those women must be awful,” my daughter said scornfully. “How could anyone kill a baby like that?”
At that moment, I knew that I wanted to tell my daughter about my own past. I offered a silent prayer, then burst into my story.
“Those women aren’t necessarily awful,” I began. “Sometimes they’re simply trapped. I had an abortion when I was a teenager. I was young and scared, and I thought abortion was my only option. Eventually I met and married your awesome dad, and we were blessed to have you.”
My daughter was crushed. “She cried like a baby about my past. I felt terrible, but I knew I was right to tell her and I believe she won’t go on being judgmental toward women who’ve had abortions.”
Older children are insightful enough to know you have things you aren’t proud of. How will your honesty make you more believable and approachable? What will be the reward for self-disclosure?
Tweetable: Five questions help parents weigh pros and cons of whether to share your old life with your children. Click to Tweet