“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 kids in your Sunday School class, community, or even your own home are going through a crisis? 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 kids and families in crisis. (Note: I originally made this post about a year ago, but with so many kids struggling to cope with the changes and challenges of the COVID-19 crisis I’ve added in some more specific ideas for helping children through this specific crisis.)
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.
It may not seem like a BIG deal to you that ballet recitals are cancelled or that you never got to say goodbye to your beloved 3rd grade teacher, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a BIG deal to them. This crisis is an epic opportunity to help kids learn how to respond to life-altering problems in a Biblical manner. I’ve put together a video and discussion guide to help you initiate conversations that can help kids express their feelings and develop a Biblical response to their questions and concerns about the COVID-19 crisis. Click the picture below to download this free resource.
2. Offer REAL Hope
Saying things like, “Don’t worry, your Daddy is going to be fine,” or “This will all be over soon,” 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 can’t guarantee life will soon be back to “normal”. 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 you’re missing out on so many things you had planned. That stinks! I don’t like it when that happens to me either. I’m thankful God’s rescue plan never gets cancelled. No matter what happens, I know He loves me and He is in control. That doesn’t mean our problems right now aren’t hard or frustrating, but it can give us hope that God sees and cares.”
“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 how to fix this, 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.”
You may find it helpful to watch this video that goes with the printable activity pictured above to help you think through how to respond to kids who feel hurt or hopeless. Notice how hope is found and offered to others even when problems and pain persist. (As an added perk, you’ll also get to watch me do something “impossible” with a small piece of paper. It’s a win/win!)
3. Play with them.
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 kids who are struggling. Become a part of their life and (if local guidelines allow) visit their home to braid hair, watch movies, read stories, or play with their favorite toys. You can also play meaningful games that intentionally point kids back to God’s sovereignty and goodness. (It just so happens that I have just such a game already prepped and ready to go! Click the picture below for instructions and printables for this “God Is In Control” game.)
Right now, “playing” with kids often looks a bit different because local guidelines may discourage you from gathering with your church kids or even your own grandkids. But even with social distancing guidelines, there are still lots of fun ways you can play with kids. Here’s some simple games you can play together on Facebook Live, ZOOM, or any other video app:
- You can take turns thinking of an animal, a food, or a candy and providing clues to help the other person guess what it is.
- Have them choose a color and then take turns saying things you’re thankful for that match that color.
- Quote parts of familiar memory verses, pausing occasionally to let them fill in the next word.
- Let them draw pictures of animals God made while you try to guess what they are. (Or you can do the drawing!)
- Have them set up their phone or computer so you can watch them assemble a puzzle or Lego set while you chat.
- Play a crazy colors scavenger hunt or some other Egg Carton game! Watch the video below to learn how to make this game.
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 at church or (if you can’t currently meet in person) call them up to briefly chat and pray for them. You can even text their parents to say something like:
“I know things are different and difficult right now. I sure do miss you guys! 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. (If your church is about to start on-site gatherings again, you’ll likely witness this firsthand in the coming weeks and months.) 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 have sometimes said, “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. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Kids LOVE getting mail! (But they’ll probably love it even more if it includes dinosaurs, so you should probably check out some of the dinosaur coloring pictures on our Resources page.)
Give/send $10 to their parents with a note explaining that it’s for an online 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
Knowing who God is and what He says gives kids (and families) strength and hope to endure the unendurable with joy. If you’d like some help teaching your kids to know and enjoy God even when life doesn’t make sense, you can download our free digital activity guide “Enjoying God My Creator!” Section 3 of this book emphasizes the theme “God knows best” with games, lessons, and activities that encourage kids to trust God knows best even when life is difficult. I wrote much of this book at a time when I was so weak and sick I often couldn’t sit up straight. The process of developing these ideas and instructions blessed me greatly and I pray they will bless you and the kids in your life as well. In the process of going through my own long-term health crisis, I’ve also tried to intentionally use the following ideas to point my little people to God.
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.)
- Christian Hero Stories: George Washington Carver, Johannes Kepler, Joni Erickson Tada, and many other Christians have overcome incredible hardships wile joyfully trusting God’s goodness and sovereignty. Sharing these stories with kids inspires and challenges their own faith. (Child Evangelism Fellowship recently created an audio drama from a lesson I wrote about the German astronomer Johannes Kepler. It’s pretty cool! You can listen to this story with your kids or share the link with kids you love to encourage them to trust God’s loving care even in difficult times.)
- Missionary Stories: I have been regularly telling my kids stories about missionaries like Hudson Taylor or Eric Liddell who trusted God in tough times. You can watch and share the video below to show kids how God’s love encouraged and empowered St. Patrick while he served as a missionary to the people who had once made him a slave.
9. Support Their Family
A broken home, lost job, death, prolonged illness, or financial crisis due to long-term social distancing 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
Some families are going to need some help recovering from the emotional, physical, or financial challenges of this COVID-19 crisis. When (if?) things go back to normal, we need to be prepared to offer help that is, well, helpful! 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 at your door around noon if that would be helpful.”
“I’m free on Monday or Friday night this week. Would it be helpful for me to video chat with your kids after supper to give them some extra attention?”
“Would it be helpful for me to bring my mower over on Saturday 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 know weekends are extra tough for your family right now. Are there specific snacks I could drop off at your door every once in a while to help make Saturdays and Sundays a bit more fun?”
“I know life has been weird and extra tough lately. I just want you to know that if you ever need to talk and just unload for a while, I’m willing to listen. Here’s my #. I’m most available to talk in the mornings.”
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 (COVID related or not), 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.