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A Faithful Response to Violence and WarSome suggestions for parents and teachers
by Mary Sicilia, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland, Oregon, USA
Children and teens are understandably upset by the events of the recent week. Regardless of what we have tried to do to protect them, the tragedy is in the air they are breathing -- not only on TV (which can be switched off), but also in school, on the playground, and every place in between.
There is much help and advice out there by child psychologists, clergy and other experts on ways to help children cope with the fear, rage, and confusion which these events stir in children (and in us!). I've listed a few of the more helpful websites at the end.
In general, they mostly boil down to this:
+ Continuously reassure your child that as much as you can you will help them be safe.
+ Make the faith point: we are promised that NOTHING, in life or death, will separate us from God's love. We live and move inside of God's love and nothing can stop that reality. Even the worst things that people can do to one another do NOT stop God's love for the world. God loves even those who bring harm others; God may not like their actions, but God continues to love them --- and us.
And if your child needs to talk about death and dying, please do not stop them, but help them know that we are promised that whether we live or die, "we ARE the Lord's."
+ Let them know that you love them. It is ESPECIALLY important just now that they hear those words, and feel the hugs and kisses that flow from it.
+ Pray together. Whenever it is most natural -- bedtime, mealtime, or a special family time. Pray for those who are injured, those whose family members or friends have been injured or killed, for our President and Congress and all those making decisions, and for peace in the world. Keep prayers simple -- just talking to God.
And PLEASE, let your children know that it is OK to tell God about one's feelings. You may want to write prayers together as if writing a letter to God or create a prayer tree, letting each member of the family write out prayers and then tying them to a tree near your house to flutter in the wind.
+ Keep lines of communication open. All of us feel better when we can talk about it. Take the lead from your child as to how much he or she needs to talk about and know about the situation. Keep answers to questions simple, but direct. Do NOT censure their responses or rush in to correct them.
Affirm the value of the whole range of emotions --- but nudge them in the direction of hopefulness. Contrary to what we may fear, talking about real war and violence does not increase a child's fear. Having them keep scared or hopeless feelings to themselves is much more damaging than open expression.
By the way, the older the child, the MORE important it is to talk openly and honestly, to hear thoughts and feelings and to respond to questions.
+ Turn off the TV. Overexposure to the media and images can be traumatizing. If your older children are watching the news, watch with them so that you are there to answer questions and see and hear the same things they are seeing and hearing, and to witness their responses.
+ Calmly express your emotions, but remember that a composed demeanor will provide a greater sense of security for your child. Be honest, however, about what you are feeling.
+ Encourage them to express their feelings. Remember that children, like all of us, need to give expression to their feelings without fear of censure or dismissal. Use opportunities in play for children, especially younger children, to express their feelings: play with toys, dolls, clay, music, water, painting, putting together puzzles (order out of chaos!).
They may need to work out the images they have seen on TV or heard about (building a tower of blocks and smashing it down, for example). Don't stop them, but do talk about it because obviously it IS troubling them.
+ Do not overly theologize but don't leave God out of the picture, either. Events of this magnitude raise many fundamental questions for all of us. It is enough for young children to know that God loves us all and that nothing can separate us from God's love.
Older children, however, will NOT simply accept that as an answer they can "settle into." They will want to know, for example, why did God let this happen? The answer is that God did not cause this, plan it, or make it happen. It is contrary to God's will for how people should live with one another. But first and foremost, God gave us as human beings the power to make choices -- and we have the power to make choices for good or for evil.
The people who did these acts made a choice which has hurt many, many others and God's heart is sad, not only for all the deaths and devastation, but for the people who planned and carried out these acts. But we are told that God is with us even in this.
Teens can and should express the fundamental questions about the nature of God, human choice, and the meaning of life and death these events raise, and these can and should become places of conversation, not lecture, about how we ourselves grapple with these questions.
+ Do something hopeful and helpful together. This is a time to do something together to build toward the future. Plant tulip or daffodil bulbs together for the spring. Plant a tree to remember those who have died (especially if the children knew someone). Help them write letters to the people they care about to tell them how they feel.
At this point, there are not many ways we are being asked to directly respond to those who have been most affected by this tragedy, but as ways open, you may consider participating as a family. Or raise and contribute money together to relief efforts through the Episcopal Church (your parish will joyfully pass them on).
Even if you cannot help anyone directly affected, this would be a good time to do something to help someone else. Being able to DO something is a tremendous way to fight against a feeling of hopelessness and despair. (For current information about helping victims of the attacks visit Helping.org)
+ As you are able, keep familiar routines. There is something very stabilizing and reassuring about routine schedules. They can be anchors that help us realize that life goes on. So don't avoid doing the things you always do. But do allow for some quiet times. In times of crisis, children and adults need more quiet times than usual.
+ Please emphasize with your children that these acts of terrorism were caused by very specific individuals and NOT a whole people and certainly not an entire religion. Now more than ever, if they have Arab or Arab-American or Muslim friends, they need to affirm their friendship. You need to take the lead in this by letting your children know that it is not okay to show prejudice against a whole group of people because of the actions of a few.
+ Be sure to join your parish as often as you can as a family. Almost all experts say that children feel much safer when they know that there are many people who care about them. Since many of us live away from extended family, let your parish and its people become your "extended family."
Beyond that, participation in regular worship will help your child understand that he or she is part of something much larger than himself or herself. The music, the prayers, the liturgy itself provides reassurance, and, our faith declares, the spiritual sustenance from God to meet the challenges of the world, including whatever we face in and because of this crisis. This is a time when we truly do need one another and reassurance of God's presence.
+ A Word about Teenagers
While teens often see the world in fairly black and white terms, they are much more aware of its complexities than younger children. Their questions are apt to be factual and historical ones, and, if you have teens, you need to not only be on top of the news but to do a little background reading of your own so that your can either answer questions or help them find answers.
At Trinity, Portland, in the upcoming weeks we will be working to give our teens some solid background on Islam and also the circumstances in the Middle East which doubtless contributed to these desperate acts. We will be emphasizing that Islam, like Christianity, is NOT a monolith -- that fundamentalism exists in all three of the Abrahamic traditions and, in many ways, is antithetical to the spirit of all three.
If you are a parent, you need to educate yourself, too. Here are a few books written from the perspective of Christian-Islamic conversation which could provide grist for YOUR mill:
And here are a few helpful web sites for all parents!
Mary Sicilia is Canon Educator at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland, Oregon, USA, and has worked in education and Christian formation for over 25 years. Copyright © 2001 Mary Sicilia. All rights reserved.
Another extremely helpful Web site is 100 Questions & Answers About Arab-Americans, from the Detroit (Michigan) Free Press.
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Copyright © 2002 Barbara Laufersweiler
Last updated September 18, 2001