“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.
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