“I’m afraid Dad is going to die,” He sobbed as he poured out his worries about the crisis that had invaded his childhood. This kid was scared, confused, and hurting. This kid is also my own son. In more than a decade of children’s ministry, I’ve worked with many kids experiencing a crisis in their home or community, but this time the kids in crisis are my own.
How do you respond when you find out a kid in your Sunday School class or Good News Club® is going through a crisis at home? Do you feel useless because you really want to help, but don’t know how? Maybe you feel awkward because you want to say something encouraging, but you’re not good with words.
My own kids are struggling with the daily reality that something is seriously wrong with Dad’s body and it’s been rough on our whole family. (Check out this video on our YouTube channel if you’re wondering what’s wrong with me.) But with this challenge comes the blessing of leaning desperately on the body of Christ for love and comfort. This has given me a front row seat to watch and learn the best (and worst) ways to share the joy of Jesus with kids who are experiencing a crisis. On behalf of kids in crisis and those who love them, here are ten ways to love hurting kids and their families.
1. Don’t Pretend Everything Is Fine
Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for a kid (or adult) who’s hurting is to admit that it’s bad news, agree that it totally stinks, and just affirm that their feelings of fear, sadness, grief, or pain are totally natural. Don’t insist that they cheer up, expect them to feel a certain way, or tell them it’s not as bad as it seems. You can even go the extra mile and educate yourself about their particular problem to develop empathy in yourself and others.
2. Offer REAL Hope
Saying things like, “Don’t worry, your Daddy is going to be fine,” or “We just have to trust that God will fix this,” sounds nice, but it tempts us to put our trust in temporary solutions rather than an eternal Savior. You don’t KNOW that someone will be fine and God doesn’t always fix things in a way we can see. Offer real hope instead by admitting the problem is real, focusing on Jesus, and showing love to them in a tangible way. Frankly, it’s often best to just be quiet and listen, but when you do need to say something, use words that communicate truth, humility, and compassion. Here are a couple examples:
“I’m sorry this is so hard. I wish I could fix this for you. But I want you to know I love you and Jesus loves you too. I’m praying for you. I don’t know what to say or what to do about it, but I’m here for you if you want to talk or just don’t want to be alone.”
“I know you don’t like what’s happening to you. I don’t either and neither does Jesus. That’s part of why He died on the cross. He went through terrible pain on purpose so that we can be rescued from sin and be with God in His perfect home someday. It’s ok for you to feel upset about this problem. Even Jesus hates the problems sin causes.”
Remember, it’s often best not to say much. (Many “comforting” comments are actually quite insensitive or even downright cruel. Google it! It’s pretty easy to find lists like this one of common words of comfort hurting people wish you wouldn’t use.) Listening and loving hurting people in a tangible way is usually way more helpful and comforting for them. How do you do that? Good question! Keep reading.
3. Play with them.
This one is HUGE for kids. In her book, “When a Hug Won’t Fix the Hurt,” Karen Dockrey says, “As children play, they forget about their pain, express their ideas, and grow as people. Deliberately defend this crucial aspect of childhood.” Speaking from personal experience, we notice that being played with is like a breath of fresh air for our kids after a stressful day. They ADORE the people (and so do we!) who make time to play with them. It can be as simple as quick games of “I Spy” or “Rock, Paper, Scissors” when they arrive in your Sunday School class or a game of tag on the church lawn after the service. If they are toddler aged, perhaps you could volunteer in the church nursery and build block towers for them to knock down. If you REALLY want to be a hero, build a close relationship with the family. Become a part of their life and visit their home to braid hair, watch movies, WRESTLE WITH THE LITTLE BOY WHO DESPERATELY WANTS TO ROUGHHOUSE, read stories, or play with their favorite toys.
4. Pray for them.
My son is encouraged that his Sunday School teacher prays for me pretty much every week. Keep it short and simple, but let kids hear you talk with God about their situation. You can even text their parents to say something like:
“I’m sorry you’re going through such a difficult time. Will you please tell Connor I prayed for him today? I prayed for the whole family, but especially wanted Connor to know I was thinking about him. Love you guys!”
5. Cheer for them.
Recognize that it’s really hard for kids to act “normal” when their world has been turned upside-down. Kids in crisis often exhibit frustrating and quirky behavioral changes and get into more trouble at school, in church, or at home. You can be a cheerleader for kids in crisis by intentionally noticing and affirming the things they are doing well. You can even take it to the next level by telling their parents something positive you noticed about their kids.
6. Listen to Them
Actively listen to what they have to say, even if they only want to talk about Minecraft® or Unicorns. They may not want to talk about their problems, but you can provide opportunities by dropping hints during your Bible lesson or children’s sermon that you’re willing to listen. For instance, during my Good News Club lessons I sometimes say, “God loves you no matter what is happening in your life. One way He shows His love for you is by giving you people who can listen to your problems and pray for you. If you ever feel scared, angry, or sad about something in your life you can always tell me ‘I need to talk’ and I’ll be happy to listen and pray for you. I might not have genius ideas to help or power to stop your problems, but I can be your friend.”
7. Surprise Them.
My kids have loved the unexpected blessings they’ve received from so many people. I like it when this happens too because it’s a great opportunity for me to point out to my kids that God is showing us His love through His people. Here’s some easy ways to surprise kids.
Send a text to their parents with a picture of a cool bug you found and tell them you prayed for their family and thought they’d like to see this bug.
Send a card with stickers or a coloring page tucked inside. Kids love getting mail!
Give/send $10 to their parents with a note explaining that it’s for a Dollar Tree shopping spree. (My kids LOVED doing this!)
Send a text or email for their parents to share with them.
Ask their parents for a list of parent approved snacks so you can put together a bag of goodies for their family.
8. Teach Them God’s Promises
Memory Verses: YOU can memorize Bible verses to share with the child and help them memorize them too. (Hebrews 13:5b is great! “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Is a great verse to have tucked away in your heart.)
Music: You can teach songs that will remind them of God’s faithfulness and goodness. I’ve actually made a playlist of songs for kids during tough times on my YouTube channel that I play frequently for myself and my kids. Feel free to us it!
Bible Stories: Teach them about Bible heroes who trusted God in the middle of really hard times. (Job, Joseph, David, Ruth, Paul, and of course Jesus.)
Missionary Stories: I have been regularly telling my kids stories about missionaries like Hudson Taylor or Eric Liddell who trusted God in tough times. (My Princess is so impressed by Amy Carmichael that she wants to go to Heaven and meet her right now!)
9. Support Their Family
A broken home, lost job, death, or prolonged illness is rough on the whole family. Not sure how to help? Just ask! Ask what kind of help is most needed and be a catalyst to help meet the need that is shared. Ask how you can pray for them. Ask if they need to talk. Ask if they need a hug. Maybe they don’t need help, but you’ll never know unless you ask. BUT, if you’re going to ask, you need to actually plan to do something. Don’t ask how you can help and then forget about it. This can cause hurting kids and families to feel forgotten or lonely.
10. Be Specific When Offering Help
Well-meaning people often say, “If you ever need anything, please let me know.” I truly appreciate the good intentions of people who say this, but I want to suggest that this puts nearly all the responsibility back on the family in crisis. First they have to try to figure out what they need. Then they have to figure out what you mean by “anything” (because you probably aren’t actually willing or able to do “anything” they ask you to do.) Then they have to guess when you’ll be able to do it. You can take care of those details yourself by prayerfully considering ways they may need help and then offering several specific options along with times that you’re available to do them. Here are a few examples.
“I will be going to Wal-Mart on Thursday. I’d be happy to pick up anything you need and could drop it off around noon if that would be helpful.”
“I’m free on Monday or Friday night this week. Would it be helpful for me to come watch a movie with your kids after supper to give them some extra attention?”
“Would it be helpful for me to bring my mower over on Wednesday night to take care of your lawn for you? I’d be happy to do it regularly if that would help.”
“I’m available almost every Tuesday morning. Are there chores around the house I could take care of once a week so you could have time for other things? I don’t mind cleaning bathrooms—I consider it an adventure!”
“I’m not very available during the week, but I see you guys at church every Sunday. Are there specific snacks I could bring to send home with you guys sometimes to help make Sundays a bit more fun?”
“I would love for your family to be able to relax and enjoy the church picnic with everyone else. Would it be helpful if I sat with you to help with the kids? Maybe I could go through the serving line with you to help you fill plates for them.”
Obviously every family and crisis is unique. This is not an exhaustive list of ways you can love kids in crisis, but it’s a start. Do you know a family who is facing a crisis, but you’ve felt awkward about helping because you didn’t know what to do? Ask God to show you which of these ideas you could use to show His love to a child or family this week.